In this special episode of “End Of Day Drinks,” VinePair’s editorial team is joined by Shannon Mustipher, a NYC-based bartender, author, cocktail consultant, and spirits educator specializing in tiki and rum. Mustipher details her experience in working in the world of spirits and becoming a student of rum, an often overlooked spirit among American consumers.
Mustipher also explains how the Caribbean became an influence in the style of her cocktails. Finally, Shannon discusses the future of rum cocktails amid the ongoing pandemic and gives listeners a sneak peak into her future ventures.
Or Check out the conversation here
Joanna Sciarrino: Hi, everyone! Welcome to End of Day Drinks. I’m Joanna Sciarrino, executive editor of VinePair. And as always, I’m here with members of the VinePair team. We’ve got Tim McKirdy, Elgin Nelson, and Cat Wolinski. Today, we’re joined by guest Shannon Mustipher, award-winning bartender, spirits educator, cocktail consultant, and author of “Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails.” Welcome, Shannon. Thank you for joining us.
Shannon Mustipher: It’s great to be here. As always, it is fun to spend some time with the VinePair crew. Thanks for having me.
J: Of course. Shannon, among all these other things, you’re also a rum expert, which is pretty awesome. We definitely want to talk about Women Who Tiki and your book and everything else. First, we’d love to hear more about your interest in rum and cane spirits and how you came to be so familiar with the category. Also, you touched on this briefly in a piece for VinePair but how you learned about the history of rum cocktails and their significance in modern-day drinks culture. I think that’s really interesting and something that people probably don’t know a lot about.
S: Yeah, I like to say I was drafted into service here as prior to becoming beverage director at Gladys Caribbean. That was in 2015, when I knew next to nothing about the category. For those of you who may be less familiar with the New York bar scene over the last decade or so, at that time, there was next to nothing going on where rum cocktails, tiki or otherwise, were concerned in the influential bar spaces. If you look at Back Bar, maybe there were three or four options. For myself, prior to taking that job, my main interest in spirits and cocktails was more based on American classics, pre-Prohibition era cocktails, gin and whiskey. Up until that point, I think I had three or four rums tops. Bacardi, Smith and Cross, Blackwells, Goslings, maybe. I think that was the extent of it so I didn’t know anything. Looking back, that was actually beneficial. I had no preconceived notion going in as to what the category is going to be like or what I would end up doing with the drinks as a result. I had about 30 days to taste somewhere between 200 and 250 rums to come up with Gladys Caribbean’s opening selection of 50. It’s hazy. That’s why I say 200, 250, because those are some hazy days, but they’re really enlightening and eye-opening. I was pleasantly surprised and shocked by what I discovered as I started to taste through rums from all over the world. Up until that point, the only thing I knew about rum cocktails was that there is a Mojito, a Daiquiri, and I’d never had a really good one up until that point. Then a handful of tiki drinks that I’ve heard of that are pretty ubiquitous, like the Mai Tai or the Zombie, and that was it. I took a deep dive first by reading Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s books because he just released “Potions of the Caribbean.” It was a really cool primer on the history of rum in the Caribbean and how that led up to the invention of tiki. I like to think of him as a tiki guy, but the book covers quite a bit more than that, and that was super cool. I also read books like “Cuban Cocktails.” Jane Danger was one of the authors of that book. Those are my crash-course guides to learning about rum cocktails when it came to learning more about the role that rum drinks played in the history of American cocktails. A few years into opening the bar when I had a little more time, I started to revisit books like “The Ideal Bartender” by Tom Bullock, the Jerry Thomas “Bartenders Guide,” looking at books like “Punch” and realizing that in colonial America, rum was the spirit of choice. First, because it was the easy thing to get here. This is before corn and wheat became a staple crop, and people weren’t really making a lot of whiskey. It just made more sense to either get rum from the Caribbean as part of trade or to bring up molasses and do distillation here. A fun fact, the favorite spirit or preferred spirit of George Washington was actually Barbadian rum. I learned that the earliest punches were made with rum. Some of the earliest examples of the Mint Julep were based on rum. There were examples of Old Fashioneds that were also based on rum. These started to fall out of favor in the 1850s, and maybe we can unpack that a little bit later, but rum is the basis of American drinking culture.
Elgin Nelson: Hi Shannon, I want to talk about the Caribbean. I’m currently in the Bahamas right now. What I’ve noticed is that rum plays a big part in the drinking culture down there. Do you draw any inspiration or share any background in terms of the Caribbean influence on rum? I know you spoke about reading books on why rum is such a big influence in the Caribbean. However, did you use any Caribbean style or influence when you started making cocktails?
S: Oh, yeah. It was absolutely essential that I did it because I really wanted the bar at Glady’s — and this is per the owner’s passion and point of view and why he wanted to do this concept in the first place — I wanted to reflect the way I would feel to taste and drink rum in rum drinks as if you were on the island. The menu at a restaurant, the centerpiece of it was wood fire jerk. That covered not only chicken and pork, but seafood. With a really simple set of side dishes. The vibe was just make to feel like a beach shack. I didn’t want to deviate from that where the bar is concerned. I started off with a really simple menu that was based on traditional things that you would find on an island. For instance, the rum punch, we always had one on the menu. It would rotate seasonally, but we needed to have that because that’s authentic to when you spend time in the Caribbean. Likewise, we had a Painkiller that was based on what you would get at the Soggy Dollar Bar. Our Daiquiri that was on the opening menu was based on a historical recipe from El Floridita in Havana that a lot of people had not seen in the U.S. for some time. Having that history there was really important, too. Over time, as the restaurant grew in the neighborhood, I eventually put edgier drinks on the menu. This is Crown Heights, mind you. I didn’t want it to be about my take on rum from the outset. I wanted to be on the authentic experience of rum, which is what we were selling. Then, I let my personality come out a little bit as I got more comfortable with it as well. Case in point: One of the things I learned about rum as I was tasting all the bottles was that there are some rums that you see on islands that you don’t see in the U.S. and vice versa. I try to have this healthy mix of bottles that are very ubiquitous in the Caribbean and maybe you never see in the U.S., and then go easy on bottles that are actually more designed for American consumers and never really show up in the islands. One specific example, Forest Park is a puncheon rum. That’s an overproof white rum from Trinidad. Bartenders don’t use that stuff, but I had guests that totally lit up when they saw it. I wanted to make sure that someone could revisit what it was like growing up there or visiting whatever island they’ve been to.
Tim McKirdy: Shannon, can you describe that feeling behind the bar? Because you mentioned before that you were coming into this from a professional place of making the modern American classics as we know them or the cocktail renaissance drinks. Those are really high-quality drinks. But in some respects, maybe the setting is a little darker or people take themselves quite seriously, whereas trying to transport people to the traditional settings where you’d enjoy these cocktails. Did it change the way that you experience service, drinks, and interacting with guests?
S: Well, up until that point, I’d worked primarily in fast-casual Brooklyn neighborhood-type spots. For instance, I worked at Saraghina, I worked at Do or Dive. I did stints in other places as well, but I did prefer a more neighborhood feel. For me, I felt that I was disguising elevated cocktails in this casual form because they were served very casually. I needed them to be as good as drinks that you find in the East Village. I was really adamant that we were all using fresh lime juice, which at that time was crazy because Mexican cartels were putting a squeeze in the market, and each lime cost a dollar. The owner was like, “are you crazy?” It was nuts. It was right before we were opening, and I wanted to use fresh lime. I did not want to use pre-packaged juice in these drinks. I refused, because I knew that rum didn’t have a great reputation at the time. In order for that program to be successful, in my eyes, I needed people to experience not only authentic rums, but also the best-quality version of these drinks so that they wouldn’t walk away thinking they had yet another sugary rum drink. We even went so far as to squeeze our juice to order at the bar for each Daiquiri that we made. I wanted to send that message to the guests that their drink is not coming out of a cheater bottle. They could see that this is actual fresh lime juice that we’re squeezing right here in front of you for this Daiquiri that you’re about to get.
Cat Wolinski: Speaking to the freshness of citrus being so important to any cocktails that use it, but especially tiki, do you think that tiki drinks or rum drinks that incorporate lime or other citrus is something that will become part of this larger ready-to-drink (RTD) canned cocktail space? Or do you think it always has to be right there in front of you, freshly made?
S: No, it doesn’t always have to be. Again, there are different geeked-out opinions about squeezing it right then and there or squeezing it before service. I was doing that as a way to send a message that people can see it was fresh. However, from a more scientific perspective, if you juice it a few hours before, it’s actually better because a little bit of oxidation gets into the juice and will balance it out better. Whereas if you’re doing à la minute, there’s a chance that the flavor can be slightly off. Yet there is a way that we built that drink that would offset that problem. Nevertheless, the juice should be pressed the same day and not used the next day. I don’t see that going anywhere, because it’s just so standard right now that any bar that doesn’t keep that level of quality, they’re just not going to be able to compete.
C: Right. What about as bars are creating cocktails to-go or prepackaged drinks? Do you think there’s a chance for tiki to move into that?
S: I love that you ask because as chance would have it, I just made a tiki RTD this weekend. It was for a pop-up at Fuchsia in New Paltz. I worked on this in collaboration with Eamon Rockey. He supplied one of the ingredients in the cocktail. It is called Bird of Paradise and it is a white Jungle Bird. We used a combination of citrus and citric acid solutions for shelf stability. I think you’ll see some people, if they’re carrying the cocktail as we did, err more on the side of using malic acid and citric acid just so it keeps longer. If it’s a to-go that the bar is reasonably confident the guest is going to consume within the same day or two, I still see people doing fresh juice. Strong Water in Anaheim, they use fresh juice. Most other programs I know do that as well. Now, when you start moving into the can, that’s where you go to see people veering off into two directions. Are we going to just do juice only? Are we going to do juice and acid? Or are we just going to do acid? At Fuchsia, we used juice and acid. In a case of another project I’m working on that I cannot divulge here — I can tell you about it after we wrap because it has not been announced yet — I’m doing an RTD with an L.A.-based company and we’re just using acid in this cocktail.
J: Yeah, so I have a follow-up to that. When you were talking about becoming more confident with your cocktails the more time you spent at Gladys, and I’m guessing that your guests were receptive to those drinks. What do you think the future of tropical cocktails is and what do you envision your role will be in that?
S: One of the things I observed when Glady’s opened, there was next to nothing was going on, rum cocktail-wise. Then, you start to see more mainstream programs have things like a Jungle Bird or Mai Tai or at least the ingredients to make it. If someone asks for it, you start to see the Daiquiri emerge just like the bartender handshake. We call them Snackerquiris where you go into the bar, your friend’s working, and you get a half-Daiquiri or you do little shots of Daiquiris with your friends. That’s basically a thing no matter where you go, be it tiki tropical or otherwise. It’s just a way of saying, “I love you.” Now, you see places like Blacktail open and that was a Cuban-style bar, but they did a little bit of tiki here and there. Now, it’s come full circle, where I know there are some people that are questioning whether tiki is something that we want to keep doing, given the cultural connotations. You are starting to see bars and restaurants either choose a nautical theme or tropical theme? There is Navy Strength in Seattle. They have tiki drinks but are not a tiki bar. There’s the Coconut Club in Washington, D.C. Again, it’s a tropical bar with a Polynesian-ish seafood menu, but it’s not tiki. They’re not saying that they are. Even locally, a place like Diamond Reef is more of a nautical bar. I think the tropical drinks are going to start to encompass other spirits apart from rum as well, as you see people move away from overtly tiki things. That’s when you see more agaves, more Margaritas, even things such as pisco and brandy starting to make an appearance. The drink builds might resemble tiki drinks, but they can be a little simpler, maybe four ingredients instead of seven or eight, because tiki bars are very expensive to run. If you want to go broke as an operator, open a tiki bar. I think especially post-pandemic, operators have to be more cost-conscious and also labor-conscious because tiki programs are very labor-intensive. The Polynesian’s prep crew all by themselves, I’m sure their payroll allocation rivaled the whole bar staff. That’s how much production has to go into that. I think there will be some people that continue to love the genre, but I think we’re starting to see more tropical and nautical bars that come into play now.
T: Shannon and I wish we were having this conversation last week because I had a real-world scenario where I could be asking this question and wish I had. However, to that end, with tropical drinks, many require a lot of ingredients. I was wondering if you could give us any tips or certain things that you should always have on hand. Possibly, a small selection that would open up a range of possibilities and possibly not like Polynesian-levels of prep because they went pretty deep.
S: Yeah, I’d say there are three syrups, three juices, and three types of spirits that if you always had them, you could come up with a really simple punch. As for syrups, you want to have cinnamon clove syrup. It’s a simple syrup that’s infused with cinnamon and cloves. It’s so easy. You just put the spices in there and let it simmer. Honey syrup is also really easy to make. It’s just half and half honey and water, or maybe two to one. You can also add spices to that. Vanilla syrup is nice. It’s a little more subtle, and if you’re doing drinks with gin or vodka, that is a really nice complement to the flavor profiles of those types of spirits. It’s important to note that with vanilla syrup, you want to use a vanilla bean, you want to use a split pod as opposed to an extract. An extract will do it in a pinch, but it doesn’t give you everything. It’s not the same. Some of the things I mentioned you can buy already. Those are really easy things to make at home. If you want to add one more thing that comes across as a tad exotic, you can buy passion fruit syrup. There’s a couple of places online to get that. You can also buy orgeat if you don’t want to make it yourself. I would say those five syrups. Of course, there are at least 10 that I could rattle off, but those three could easily make it home. Then, the other ones you can order online from numerous sources. That’s where I would start within the syrup department. Now in terms of juice, obviously fresh lime and lemon, that goes without saying. You have that at any bar. Pineapple juice, again, really easy to get. I like Dole. I think it’s decent quality if you’re not making it yourself. Passion fruit juice as well. Also, there is a juice that I don’t always see people use too often. I encountered this mostly in the French Caribbean. Guava juice is delicious and it works really well, either rum or with agave and tequila.
J: Oh, that sounds good.
S: It is everything. I visited Martinique a few years ago and every restaurant has this drink called Planteur, which is basically planter’s punch. It’s just guava and rum, and it’s so good.
J: There you go, Tim.
S: Anything else that I would add to that, of course, rum. Have some tequila, pisco, or brandy. I use whiskey in my tropical drinks, too. It’s a lesser-known niche there, but it’s all about the modifiers. I love using rye whiskey in my tropical drinks.
J: Shannon, you talked very quickly about tiki and its possibly problematic past. You wrote a book called “Tiki.” How do you think your book redefines what people know as tiki?
S: Yes, my book did or does — and this is my intention — was to open up the idea of what a tiki drink was. Up until that point, the majority of tiki books had historical recipes, and yet it would have a scattering of originals or newer drinks, but by and large, if you open up any tiki book before mine, about 80 to 90 percent of those are all classics. I flipped it around. So I had only 20 classics, followed by 70 originals. The whole idea is explaining that a tiki is an approach to making drinks, and you don’t have to use this narrow set of ingredients that you see recurring throughout the tiki canon. You can take any ingredient and make it into a tropical cocktail, though for me, the philosophy behind tiki is just balancing complex flavors. I thought to myself that this genre was invented in the ’30s when there are only so many things that you could get in the United States to make drinks with. That time has changed. I would say to myself, “Well, what would Don do?” I feel like I should make a T-shirt that says that. If Don Beach had mezcal, I’m sure he would have been using it. If he had lemongrass, galangal, or Buddha’s hand, I’m sure he would have used it. He just didn’t have it, so that was the idea. It’s about layering flavors, use whatever you like, and make it interesting.
J: Sounds great.
S: Looking back, and I don’t know what I was on because there were over 300 ingredients in that book, and I’m kind of afraid to write the next one. My editors are asking, “Where is the next proposal?” I’m not doing that again. I learned my lesson.
C: Maybe the next one has three-ingredient tiki drinks.
S: You’re hitting it on the head. We’re heading in that direction. I was like, “We can make everyone’s life easier.”
T: With your incredible experience with rum and the time you spent now with the category, rum remains one of those spirits that many people might describe as the next big thing, especially more aged rums. I’m not sure whether that does it a disservice, but I still think rum hasn’t quite reached the levels of a whiskey or a tequila. Where do you think rum is currently in its journey in the United States and possibly returning to that glory where, as you were saying, it was the most popular liquor in this country?
S: Well, among rum circles, this idea that rum is going to be the next big thing has been a rumor that’s been circulating for 15 years. We joke that we’re waiting for the Messiah to come back. We’re sitting there praying, and it hasn’t happened as of yet. I can just say that I think there are some good signs, though, that it could be closer than we think for a couple of reasons. One is that it has been embraced by the bar community. Bartenders love rum. They figured out that you can do a lot of things with it in cocktails that you can’t do with other categories, mostly by virtue of how diverse the category is. It comes from over 90 countries. There’s no one universal standard or definition apart from it having to be based on sugar. Thus, the diversity of the category means that it’s almost akin to wine. Of course, I’m a little biased because I worked in wine prior to working in rum, but I think there’s a good case to be made for that. From a bartender’s perspective, it’s a really intriguing category because there’s such a range of things that you can pick out of it. Then, when it comes time to make drinks, unlike other categories, again, rum is amenable to mixing various bottles together. In fact, that’s inherent to the development category. You would take rum from a couple of different islands or different ages to create a blend that you desire. Bartenders really resonate with being able to have that flexibility with a spirit, as opposed to you wouldn’t do that with multiple gins because that just runs counter to the idea of what a gin is meant to do. You also wouldn’t do that with whiskeys either. I think bartenders are doing a lot to introduce the consumer to rum, and they’re doing it in a setting where, as a consumer, if I don’t know much about the category and I go to Astor Wine & Spirits and I see 200 bottles, I’m going to be at a loss. But if I go to my local bar and my bartender pours me a couple, then I start to get it, and then I understand what it’s about. The education piece is really big. Meanwhile, I’ve seen the selection and variety of rums in the U.S. explode over the last five years. When I was working on setting up Glady’s, it was almost a struggle to find those 50 bottles that I felt really good about pouring. Now, or when the restaurant was last open, I didn’t have enough space for the bottles that fit my criterion. The criterion, in this case, was a certain level of quality and production, authenticity to tradition, things along those lines. There’s just so much more product to choose from now. I think the fact that bars have been leading the charge has emboldened producers in the category to start offering more releases and better products. It’s about to hit a mezcal tipping point, like where mezcal was at maybe a decade ago. Think about when Vida came out and it was the only game in town, similar to how Plantation for a time was this one house that was representing the category as a whole. So we’re getting there.
E: That was great. You broke down what the future of rum has in store. Obviously, there’s a rumor going around for 15 years that it may or may not come back. Either way, I do want to ask about your future plans for the upcoming year. Where do you see yourself? Obviously, people are getting vaccinated, and we might see the emergence of bar culture come back, or we may not. I want to get your opinion on that and where do you see yourself fit into that as well?
S: Yeah, that culture will come back because people want to socialize. We can’t eliminate that out of human nature. I think we’re going to start to see different types of bars. I think rooftops, and outdoor spaces, they’re going to have a handy advantage. I think anybody moving forward with new projects is definitely going to be prioritizing outdoor spaces, so that as we ease out of the pandemic, they can comfortably offer guests not only a safe experience but one that actually feels good. It’s already been a big trend, but I think this is just going to become more of a priority. I think to-go and RTDs are still going to be big because there will be people who won’t go out as much as they did in the past. They’ve come to enjoy drinking at home or not exposing themselves to as many people as they may have done before, so I think RTD is going to continue to grow. I’m curious to see how that will be integrated into bar programs. I say that because I recently met a business called Canned Cocktail Company, and they make RTDs custom for bars. They were the ones that did the RTD that I served this weekend upstate. They have an upcoming restaurant and retail location in the West Village where they are going to be pouring cocktails for various clients. We might see more of those. As far as me personally, well I may not look it, but I’m getting older, guys. I’ve worked in hospitality for 15 years, and when I started at Glady’s six years ago, in my conversation with the owner, I said, “This is going to be the last restaurant job. I’m planning to consult after this.” So I started consulting maybe three years ago. And when the pandemic hit and the work that I was doing was largely attached to bars went away, thankfully it already had enough momentum to shift into consulting full-time, which I’ve been doing for the past year. I expect to continue to do so as well. What that looks like, practically speaking, is I create recipes in educational content for brands, and some of that is aimed at consumers. Some of it is aimed at their internal team, and that could be a mix of everything from making recipes and giving seminars, putting branded content on my social media channels, leading seminars virtually or in person, and recording training videos. Education is my passion, and I forgot how much I missed doing seminars. I had a lot of fun this weekend. That’s what I plan to be doing for the foreseeable future. I’ve also entertained the idea of creating a product and working on this RTD, which I can again elaborate on a little bit later. This is my first foray into that because the company that I’m working with has let me in on the marketing conversations and strategies, and they’re incorporating my ideas into that. I was approached to create a rum brand a few years ago, and it wasn’t a good time for me. But now, I would certainly welcome that opportunity because it would be a lot of fun for me to take what I’ve learned over the years and be able to find something special and bring it to market. Those are a couple of things, but there’s more. I might end up in front of a camera, too. I’ve been approached by a few outlets to develop shows. I basically plan to become the Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray of cocktails. That’s the dream.
T: I’m here for it.
J: Yeah, that would be wonderful. That all sounds so exciting. This is also a great moment to end our chat. Thank you so much for taking the time today, Shannon. It was so great to talk to you.
S: This was super fun.
J: I think we’re all looking forward to our next tropical cocktail, maybe this weekend. We hope to share one with you soon.
S: Well, you guys know where to find me. We can always do a Zoom happy hour, it’s not a problem.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits. “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. And it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair tastings director, yes, he wears a lot of hats, Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor Katie Brown. And a special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program. The music for “End of Day Drinks” was produced, written, and recorded by Darby Cicci. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.