TIP: S9E08 "A Discovery"
All season I’ve wanted to do some interviews for some of the spirits and cocktails in these TIPs, because for one, it’s a little easier on me, and secondly, I am doing most of my research as a novice, and there are people who know these topics intimately, with first hand experience, who are much more qualified than I am. After many missed opportunities, I am finally able to present one interview as a finale for Danger Island. This week, you’ll be drinking MAI TAIS, which you can skip the wall of text to the recipe below, but I sat down at Victory Sandwich Bar in Atlanta, and chatted with Josh Martin, bartender over at The S.O.S. Tiki Bar, in Decatur, GA. Josh is one of my favorite people to shoot shit with. He is well read and educated about his craft and beyond, and he’s also incredibly friendly and approachable and makes you feel right at home. If you ever get a chance to visit Atlanta, make The S.O.S. a stop on your list, and if he ever visits your city, make it a point to welcome him. I sat down and just wanted to talk about his experience at a tiki bar, interacting with tiki culture, and his travels across the country to see what other people are doing.
DM: Is The S.O.S. the first tiki bar you’ve worked?
JOSH: It was, yeah, indeed. I’d worked the various luaus Victory had done before, but when I heard they were gonna be closing Paper Plane, they said they were gonna change it and make it a tiki bar, I said “sign me up. I want to do that. I’m excited about tiki, I love tiki, and I want to be a part of that.” Because outside of The S.O.S. and Trader Vic’s, there are no other tiki bars. There are people who do tiki nights every so often, but that was a factor in deciding to open The S.O.S., because it was scratching an itch that no one else was. And so that was cool. Especially when done well, with the resurgence of “new tiki” or “neo-tiki” in Chicago and New Orleans at Three Dots & a Dash, and Latitude 29, that stuff was not happening in Atlanta and we wanted it to. And also, tiki matches the Vic Brands concept a little more neatly than what they were doing at Paper Plane. It’s a little more goofy, it’s a little more loose and fun.
DM: Speaking of being loose and fun, your new menu might be considered “non-traditional” for a tiki menu?
JOSH: Yeah, it is. Ya know, and the elements are there, ripe fruit flavors, citrus flavors. This menu right now, is real technique driven. We aren’t trying to take historic tiki and repurpose it, it’s more about taking those flavors and components and pushing them in a more modern and technique driven direction. We’ve got one drink right now called “Your Dekalb Tiki Cocktail”, kind of an homage to this iconic grocery in Decatur called Your Dekalb Farmers Market. The drink has these very vegetal fresh flavors, from carrot puree and watermelon, and it comes topped with this fucking whipped cream garnish that is a drink in itself basically. It’s got cream, citrus zests, passionfruit syrup, house made Don’s Mix, and 151. We’ve also got the Chaka Cha, which has a banana infusion, and a house made peanut-hazelnut orgeat. It’s also got cachaca, which isn’t traditional tiki, but fits those flavors.
DM: I’m catching you right before you go to Florida, right?
JOSH: Yeah, The S.O.S. is going to Fort Lauderdale, early wednesday morning, going down to Hukilau. It’s the second year I’ve gone. Hukilau is a tiki convention of sorts. That’s maybe the best way to describe it. It actually was founded in Atlanta in 2002. It was done at Trader Vic’s and it was kind of a small. So, it’s tiki culture, in terms of drink. But it’s also, what they call “Atomic Pop”, which is kind of mid-century/atomic era/Polynesian culture. Or maybe “Polynesian cultural appropriation”, hahaha, but yeah, viewed through the lens of 1950’s Americana. It is pretty cool. The people there are really dedicated to it in terms of style and design, tattooing, surf rock music. So, Hukilau was founded in Atlanta, and it grew, and then moved to Fort Lauderdale and they partnered with the Mai-Kai, which is this legendary tiki restaurant down there. It been open since 1956, so it’s one of the oldest continually operating tiki spots in the world, especially with Don the Beachcomber’s closing last summer. So that place is awesome. It’s beautiful. They’ve got this Polynesian dance show on the inside. Some events are happening there, but most of the events for Hukilau are happening off-site at some hotels. They get bartenders from around the world, surf rock groups playing shows, there’s vendors, they do rum classes, cocktail classes. It’s probably 1,500 people go to this thing. Basically ComicCon for tiki drinks.
DM: Is that where you’ve made some of the connections with the other bars you’ve collaborated with?
JOSH: Yeah! Actually, we met all those dudes, the Pagan Idol guys, Hidden Harbor, Lost Lake, Three Dots, we met all of them at the convention last year. Which definitely broadened our horizons. We got to see what everyone else was doing. Which has helped us step our game up, which is cool, and it just gave us an insight into what is out there. So, the Hukilau, is an ancient Hawaiian method of fishing where they take these giant nets, and drag them really far out into the ocean, then pull them in to a beach, so they just get whole schools of fish trapped in a cove or whatever, as the villagers pull these nets in. Then they have a luau, also called the hukilau. That name is basically both for the method and the event. So everyone gets together and they cook up all this fish, and just have a big party, basically. So this convention, they’re using the word to mean they’re casting the “nets of tiki”, across the world, to pull in everybody for the party. Which, I could talk probably for too long about the cultural appropriate side of things, and I definitely can feel icky about it. My wife being Hawaiian, she makes a point to note, every single time it happens. She’ll be like, “you white people stole my island AND our culture!”
DM: That all said, The S.O.S. is actually pretty light on the typical Polynesian tiki decorations.
JOSH: Yeah, our drinks are tiki, the vibe is tropical, and when you look at historical concepts, we’re probably closer to where tiki drinks came from than where it is now. Polynesian islands didn’t have tiki bars, right? They don’t produce alcohol. I guess there are now a few distilleries on Maui, and there’s one I think on Oahu I know of. But basically it’s Caribbean drinking culture, decorated with Polynesian aesthetic culture. Jeff Berry’s got a really cool book called "Potions of the Caribbean", which really explores that history. For instance, the piña colada was basically developed at a Hilton Hotel in San Juan. So it’s all West Indies style drinks. Rum is a by-product of colonization of the West Indies.
DM: The S.O.S. seems to have an alternative or liberal take on what it means to be tiki. You aren’t trying to be a homespun version of Trader Vic's.
JOSH: Yeah, for sure. I call it “New Tiki”.
DM: Is that like ‘nu metal’?
JOSH: Haha, yeah, N with two U’s, both with umlauts and then a third U, but that one is without an umlaut.
DM: Do you think that seems to be the trend with the places you’ve visited?
JOSH: Yeah. There are definitely several other people who are doing stuff kind of similar to what we’re doing. Hidden Harbor, up in Pittsburgh, is one I got to spend a good amount of time behind the bar when we visited. Those guys are great. They also have a real mid-century modern design aesthetic on the inside as well. There’s no rattan I could see, and there aren’t Chinese newspapers on the ceiling like Trader Vic’s or whatever. But they DO have an idol! They have a 7 ft, 3,500 pound idol sitting in their dining room. It’s beautifully carved by Tiki Diablo. It’s pretty great. But aesthetically and program-wise, they’re doing a lot of what we’re doing too. And their drinks are done kind of the same way ours are, where they do all the research and history and development of a drink like the Zombie or the Mai Tai, and then we kind of come up with our version of it, or take other concepts and move them in our own direction, places like Hidden Harbor are doing the same thing.
So, looking at it historically, tiki started in the late 30s/early 40s, and really was huge in the 50’s. The 60’s and 70’s had some cool things going on,still fresh ingredients and old school methods, maybe we’d say they had way too much fruit juice. But then the 80’s came along and took all the cool things going on with tiki and just through all of that out the window. It was just all about gross syrups and shitty bottled citrus juice. I think Gary Regan called the 80’s “the dark ages of cocktail culture”, and it’s true. The 80’s just destroyed all of cocktail culture, and tiki was an unfortunate casualty. So now, as I call it “Nü-with-seventeen-umlauts Tiki”, we’re really just taking back all of that. We’ve got these resurgent craft bartending people, and even culture people who have refocused their efforts on what I think is one of the more nuanced and yet fun tents inside of cocktail culture. And so you’ve got stuff across the industry, from Death & Co’s book, and their orgeat recipe, which was definitely the springboard for our stuff, and you’ve got Gary Regan who made these orange bitters so he could try to remake cocktails from the 1890’s, because orange bitters basically stopped existing after prohibition and so all that had to be brought back. So I just think of us as trying to be a part of that lineage.
DM: There’s a pretty fervent subculture of tiki enthusiasts, do you find they’re receptive to your style and take on things?
JOSH: Yeah, like the Fraternal Order of the Moai shows up all the time, and we’re friends with them. Those people who are really married to tiki culture and have kind of been the torch bearers of it, have, especially in the past year, have been coming into The S.O.S. a lot. We’ve befriended them and got to know them, and talk about the stuff they’re into. There’s this great website called Critiki, moderated by this dude who goes by Humuhumu, and we are always reviewed on there by people saying we don’t really have a lot of tiki decor, but what we end up doing, is maybe we don’t have bamboo or globes hanging from the ceiling, but we do know our stuff, and our drinks are on point. And we do engage all that culture and want to talk about it with tiki fans. Christie White, the founder of Hukilau, came and had her birthday with us recently. So we had the whole room packed out with O.G. Hukilau founders and presenters and stuff. They looked at our menu and they tried our original drinks, but then every couple minutes we’d be throwing them stuff, like “Hey, here’s a Pearl Diver! or here’s a Navy Grog! or here’s this other classic, old school stuff”, but it’s done they way we do them with the freshest ingredients, and quality rums.
DM: I suppose that is in contrast to the way a lot of people I work with have experienced tiki, which is at DragonCon at Trader Vic’s, 7 people deep trying to get a Blue Hawaiian. They’ve got those huge containers, which is probably just not the freshest way to get introduced to those drinks.
JOSH: Man, Trader Vic’s at DragonCon is always a great time. But yeah, that’s the only way they can really get through that volume crush they get hit with. They have a limited menu, which you can probably get the regular stuff too, but they batch out this limited menu in huge coolers and they’re pouring them into plastic cups to get em out to the convention-goers. And ya know, it is a Mai Tai, they’re legit drinks, but they just don’t have the time to do all the embellishments we do.
DM: Y’all do get pretty packed, but The S.O.S. is a very small space.
JOSH: Yeah, we’re a tiny room, and Trader Vic’s is just enormous. Their bar area is still pretty small, but the dining rooms are huge. I’d like to see inside of there, and kind of see how the service well operates for their dining room. Because the Mai-Kai does this, and it’s kind of an older hangover from early hotel bars and mid-century setups, but the Mai-Kai doesn’t have any bar. There’s no place where people are just sitting facing a bartender. They do have a bar, two of them. There is a bar with 3 wells for the dining room and then another satellite one with two wells for the other areas, but those service wells are deep inside the kitchen, with all their spirits around them back there. So there are no bartenders on the floor making drinks. I’ve never been inside Trader Vic’s kitchen, but I would imagine it’s effectively the same thing.
DM: I’ve never thought about having a service bartender back in the kitchen. I guess that’s got to be about efficiency in high volume, but then you have the other approach, which you sort of fall in to, which is about the showmanship and entertainment bartenders can provide.
JOSH: Yeah, cause we’re all goofballs too, so we’re trying to ham it up as much as we can. Playing with fire back there, and different methods of shaking drinks that are all fun. There was a time, when our other head bartender, Ean, bought a practice flair cocktail bottle you can practice flipping bottles, but we are all so uncoordinated. It was just a joke. We just couldn’t figure out how to do it, and we were tossing it back and forth to each other, and it was a mess. It’s still floating around the back of the bar somewhere. But yeah, we decided we weren’t gonna start tossing stuff, but we still try to do plenty of showmanship.
DM: Any other bar hopping events after Hukilau?
JOSH: Nothing nailed down at the moment. We are talking with the people at Lost Lake, but nothing has happened yet. We also want to go visit the new place, Tiki Cat up in Kansas City. Up to date, we’ve traveled to Pagan Idol and they’ve visited us, we’ve gone to Hidden Harbor and they’ve been here. There is this big tiki convention in San Diego called Tiki Oasis I’d like us to go to at some point. There’s also one in Upstate New York, called Ohana Fest, I wanna do. They take over a whole hotel, and every person who stays there decorates their own room as a tiki bar theme, so you can pub crawl through each room. Someone told me one was “Tiki Bar of the Future”, and they did alien costumes and they covered everything in their hotel room in aluminum foil. Which just sounds super cool. I want The S.O.S. to go up there. But there’s a lot more stuff out there we want to check out and be a part of.
THE MAI TAI
We’ve talked about the Mai Tai before, if you want to brush up on your history, but we’re basically using the same recipe, except I’m gonna recommend a slightly more complicated homemade orgeat recipe for those of you with time and interest.
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add the following:
- .25 oz simple syrup
- .75 oz fresh lime juice
- .5 oz orgeat
- .5 oz Cointreau (or other orange liqueur, like triple sec)
- 1 oz dark rum (I use Blackwell)
- 1 oz amber rum (I use Smith & Cross)
Vigorously shake until your hands are getting frosty, and then strain into a tiki mug filled with crushed ice. For some extra flare, garnish by placing a lime “boat” on the drink and pour some high proof rum inside (like 151, Smith & Cross, or Wray & Nephew). Ignite with match/lighter. Then for extra flare, sprinkle some ground cinnamon over the top of the flame. Impress friends and family. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Also maybe a first aid kit. I don’t know you people. You might have really back luck.
While you certainly can use the cheap and easy orgeat I listed from S7E04, if you have time, this recipe is SO MUCH BETTER. If you make this version, I would recommend omitting the simple syrup from above, and just up the amount of orgeat to .75 oz.
BEST ORGEAT EVER
(btw, it’s pronounced OR-ZJAH, think Zsa Zsa Gabor. The T is silent, or so I’ve been told)
What you need:
- 1 cup blanched sliced almonds
- 1 cup almond milk
- 1 cup warm water
- 16 oz sugar
- 2.5 tsp Amaretto
- 2.5 tsp Cognac
- .25 tsp Rose Water (very optional)
- In a dry saucepan, on low-medium heat, lightly toast the sliced almonds until golden brown.
- Remove from heat and place into a blender.
- Add a little warm water and begin blending, slowly adding all of the water, and then all almond milk until completely smooth. There will be some fine particles of almond, but that’s ok.
- Strain this mixture through the finest mesh strainer you have, if you have cheesecloth, lining it with that is best. I didn’t have cheesecloth, so I tried passing my mixture through coffee filters, both paper and french press, but but both were too fine, and the mixture wouldn’t drip through. If you can’t out every little spec of almond, it’s ok, you won’t notice at all in a Mai Tai.
- Once this is strained, pour it back into a sauce pan, and combine with sugar. Place on medium heat, never allowing it to boil, stirring occasionally, until sugar is fully dissolved.
- Remove from heat, and add amaretto, cognac, and rose water.
- Store in the refrigerator, it should be good for at least a month. Because I couldn’t strain mine as finely as I wanted, a layer of almond oils/fats separate out and form a film on the top of the orgeat. I honestly think that has helped the shelf life a little bit, by protecting the liquid below from oxygen. I dunno. I suppose I need to drink more so that I don’t have to worry about such things.
None that I can think of... I guess you can keep drinking that sangria if you've got any left over in your gourd.
Kabobs. Soup and/or stew.