On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy looks at a recent addition to the tiki cocktail family: the Jungle Bird. He is joined by Richard Boccato, owner of NYC’s Dutch Kills bar, who helped make the cocktail what it is today. They discuss how to balance rum with Campari, expert tricks and techniques, and the days of the first modern cocktail bars. Tune in to learn more.
Richard Boccato’s Jungle Bird Recipe
- ¾ ounce rich Demerara simple syrup (2:1 ratio)
- ⅞ ounce fresh lime juice (scant 1 ounce)
- 1 ¼ ounces fresh pineapple juice
- ¾ ounce Campari
- 1 ounce blackstrap rum, such as Cruzan
- ½ ounce Demerara rum, such as El Dorado 12
- Pinch smoked sea salt
- Combine all ingredients in a shaker with one cube of ice (roughly 1.75 x 2 inches in size).
- Shake until cold and strain into a double Old Fashioned glass over one large cube of ice.
- Garnish with your choice of pineapple wedge, orange, cocktail cherry, and/or pineapple fronds.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy. We are here in the “Cocktail College” studio. We’re about to chat Jungle Birds, and we have Richard Boccato joining us today.
Richard Boccato: That’s me.
T: How’s it going?
R: Life is great, Tim.
T: That’s very nice to hear. I do hope you don’t mind me calling you Richie. Because I feel like the name Richie Boccato, if you’ll allow me the short step, is an amazing bar owner name. I can imagine saying, “Oh, have you been down to Richie Boccato’s place on 5th?” As someone not from America hearing that, that’s perfect.
R: As someone who is also theoretically not from America but raised right here in NYC, I appreciate that. It’s just what my mother always called me, Richie. That’s it.
T: We are talking Jungle Birds today. I think this can be said about a lot of the different cocktails that we cover on this show. But had this podcast launched 10 years ago, I definitely don’t think this is a drink that we’d be sitting here talking about. Because it just simply wasn’t being made at that many bars 10 years ago. Yet now, you can go to many bars here in NYC, but also in different cities, named after this drink,
R: Which is beautiful. Ten years ago, 2012, I was still owning, operating and working at a tiki bar here in NYC. I had recently done a very big revamp of the previous menu that we had been running with at this bar. It was quite the operation to pour through all of these cocktails, choose the ones that we thought best represented the bar and what we were trying to accomplish there at the time. Of course, tasting took months and when it was all said and done, the drink we’re talking about today was a prominent heavy hitter on the menu. I think it’s one that appealed to both civilians, as we can call them, and bartenders and aficionados. Cocktail cognoscenti, if you will. It appeals to everyone and it hits all the right notes at the right time. Pound for pound, probably one of the best within the canon of what is considered the tropical cocktail milieu.
T: That’s such a great point that you make there in terms of guests, but also industry folks. Because as we will explore, this is a drink that has a pretty simple formula. It has ingredients that you don’t need to go too far to find, or a lot of people might just have them at their homes, even if they’re not industry pros. Or even if they don’t know what they are. And yet, the results that it yields is this really incredibly complex, delicious drink.
R: It’s incredible what bartenders have done with this cocktail. It makes you think, like with any other recipe from days of yore, the progression from when this drink was first created to when it was initially written about and published in a bound periodical, to it being rediscovered roughly a decade ago. What has happened since then, and all the variations that modern bartenders have brought to this cocktail has actually been incredible to witness. It’s delicious all the time.
T: And it’s very apt that you say that, because I know you have come armed with some fine words. Let me tell you, I do enjoy it when our guests come prepared with a little something for us. It’s always fun. Just a very natural segue there into something I know that you wanted to quote, and I think it’s a really great point.
The History Behind the Jungle Bird
R: If I may, we can talk a little bit about the history of this drink, because it’s always important and it’s good to know it as best we can. So by most estimations, the initial incarnation of this Jungle Bird cocktail that we’re talking about today came to be at the hands of a bartender by the name of Jeffrey Ong See Teik. I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly. If I’m not, I mean no disrespect to his legacy or his family. This was served, as most people agree, at the Aviary Bar in the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The date that most people attribute to the early beginnings of this cocktail would be sometime in 1978. The late ’70s is probably accurate, although it is thought that this drink might have been served as early as 1973, when the bar first opened at the hotel. So that’s the humble beginnings. In 1989, John J. Poister published a book known as the “New American Bartender’s Guide.” The Jungle Bird cocktail was featured in the book. And in 2002, the inimitable, notorious Jeff Beachbum Berry printed his interpretation of the Jungle Bird cocktail in his influential tiki cocktail book, known as “Intoxica.” It’s a great name for a book, for a band, or for a bar. It’s an incredible name. It’s my opinion that Jeff’s discovery of this cocktail, or printing of this cocktail, is how the Jungle Bird gained traction and international recognition. So Jeff Berry really deserves all the credit for bringing this cocktail to the forefront. The original recipe for the Jungle Bird that we see in Poister’s is not the original, but the one that we see in Poister’s book doesn’t ask for a specific type of rum. In fact, he only specifies dark rum to be used. Jeff Berry specifies Jamaican rum in his spec, but he doesn’t specify which kind of Jamaican rum. This is great because it gives the bartender myriad choices whenever they opt to make this cocktail. This is where I come in, in terms of rediscovering this cocktail for the modern palate. Again, this is a lineage. This is a progression. My history as a bartender going back to 2005, working at Milk & Honey and Little Branch here in NYC, we did not feature too many drinks from the tiki pantheon. We can talk about what that means now, because obviously back then we didn’t have a knowledge of these cocktails, or at least a very deep knowledge. We had very few cocktail books behind the bar, really. We had the “Savoy Cocktail Book.” Ironically, “Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide” was actually one of our staples. If you look in that book, most of what you find is beyond the Mai Tai. There’s a lot of things that are stirred and served straight up. So from that school, tiki and tropical drinks were not prominent. My mentors are Sasha Petraske and Joseph Schwartz, and my esteemed colleagues who are all legendary bartenders in their own right.
T: Many friends from the show.
R: Yeah. Sam Ross, Michael McElroy, Lucinda Sterling, who gave you a brilliant interview about the Ramos Gin Fizz. The list goes on. I was standing in the shadows of giants every night in service.
T: Can I interject for a second? What was that period like? And this is a sidestep. Sasha’s bars, and many of the names that you mentioned there, have come up so often in this. I just want to know what it’s like, because I see it as an enthusiast who arrived after the fact. You see these names and they’re legendary names. But what was that like, night after night, being there side by side?
R: Well, in the early days I was the doorman. And this is a true story. I thought at the time that I wasn’t actually allowed to come inside. I thought I had to stand outside, but I didn’t understand I was actually allowed to come into the establishment. I also thought I would be paying for my drinks because these were classy joints and drinks at that time, although a lot less expensive than they are today, were still up there as far as a price point. On several occasions, I would come in from the cold after my shift and nobody knew me or knew my name. And I remember Eric Alperin charging me for drinks a few times. I think Mickey did once or twice. But I knew that when I was there, I was in the middle of something important. It felt like a real privilege every time I went to work. Eventually, I was given the opportunity to come in from the cold and start understanding what the service model was and getting acquainted with that style of service. That was an experience I’ll never forget. My first couple of training shifts behind the bar were daunting but at the same time, invigorating. It’s a time I’ll never forget, and I believe it’s a time that did change the way cocktails are made, shaken, stirred, served, and sold all over the world.
T: This is something I’ve always wondered, too. It can be said for so many different periods of history. How aware of it were you at the time that this thing was happening culturally? Were you in the eye of the storm, or it was so nascent that perhaps it was very difficult to see?
R: I was practically unaware. To preface this, Sasha used to tend bar at a place called Von on Bleecker Street. It was a beautiful, legendary bar. As did Joseph Schwartz and Louis Schwartz, and Vontaze Vladimir and many other bartenders and friends. Prior to being within the fold of Milk & Honey and Little Branch, I had a connection with these bartenders and we would spend a lot of time already at Von. Prior to that, there were connections from high school, as I’m a New York City native with credentials from kindergarten through college. Ultimately, it becomes a small town. There were younger siblings of Sasha’s that were friends of mine. So we all crossed paths even in those early days. TJ Siegel, legendary inventor of the Gold Rush cocktail — we’ll mention that today — he and Sasha were in similar circles, although maybe a few years older. So friends of friends, friends of siblings. I guess it didn’t strike me until the first couple of evenings, even having been a customer as a knucklehead customer in Milk & Honey, I would show up there in the very early aughts. Not knowing a damn thing. Not understanding anything yet. Remembering that I was treated with the utmost patience and respect. It gave me a true appreciation, even when I had no aspirations to be a part of the organization, if you will. It just made me feel very, very special once I did become a part of it.
T: That’s magical.
R: I’ll never forget, in 2000 I went to Milk & Honey and ordered a dirty Vodka Martini, which is a brilliant cocktail made correctly. But back then I didn’t know anything about it. And Sasha didn’t blink. He just made it for me, and it’s the best one I’ve ever had.
T: Incredible. At the beginning there, you were talking about standing in the shadow of giants. I would argue you could also say in the realm of this conversation, standing on the shoulders of giants with respect to the Jungle Bird and the journey. In 2000, you went into Milk & Honey. You weren’t in the industry at the time. But we’re fast forwarding almost 10 years by this point.
R: In 2009, Sasha and I opened Dutch Kills together in Long Island City. This was something that happened or came to be during a shift at Little Branch in 2007. He approached me casually at the bar during the middle of a shift and said, “Would you like to open a bar in Queens?” Just as he didn’t blink when he made that Martini, I did not blink either. At the end of my shift in the tip jar was a check for — I won’t disclose the exact figure — but there was a large check in the tip jar. Michael Madruson said, “Richie, I believe this is for you because you couldn’t divide that number among the staff.” It took me two years to build the bar using tip money to buy lumber. And at the end of my shift, I’d go to the job site in Queens, and it was myself and two septuagenarian Hungarian men who built the bar. It was a running joke. When are you going to open? Two weeks. When are you going to open? Two weeks. We finally opened, but it was two years later and we were in significant arrears for rent. But 13 years later, here we are. In those early days, we were operating on brass tacks and elbow grease. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles that we do today behind the modern bar. But we were carrying and continuing our tradition of drink making and ice production and all of the things that we’re known for today. Another opportunity arose to open another venue, and it came quickly, surprisingly, and I decided to entertain that opportunity.
T: Even after the two-year ordeal, I’m sure it was fun at certain points, but I’m sure it was also very difficult.
R: It was. As anyone who has sat here and spoken with you about the endeavor that is opening a cocktail bar, or any kind or any business, really, it’s daunting and there’s no preparation.
T: But you’d gone through that experience, it’s exciting. So you’ve gone through that. This opportunity comes up again and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m ready to go back in for that.”
R: Why not? The concept or the genre that was decided for this new bar, which was occupying an old space of the Old East Side Company Bar, which is one of Sasha’s bars on Essex Street, we decided that it would be a tiki bar of sorts. In NYC at that time, this style of cocktail bar was all but absent. Otto’s Shrunken Head was still around. In fact, I think Lani Kai might have already been open at that time. But really, there was not much within that realm of cocktails and drink making to choose from. So we thought it was a good opportunity. Let it be known that this was very much a NYC style of tiki that we intended to bring forth. There wasn’t so much of the tropical huts and the leis and the grassy decor. There was actual NYC subway graffiti from old friends of mine who painted the place. We didn’t really play, for lack of a better term, the Martin Danny luau music. It was the NYC hardcore punk rock and hip-hop. It was a different brand of tiki. Again, we didn’t have representation from the Pacifica Project back then to consult with. We just rolled out our brand. There are some parts of it that I may not necessarily be proud of in retrospect. But I think that we were, for the most part, understanding and patient and respectful. Because our brand of tiki was not your typical Don the Beachcomber version of Western escapism through tiki cocktails.
T: Did you have a name for it at the time?
R: We named it Painkiller.
T: Yes. I was wondering, and I’m sure many people will be familiar with that listening, but I was curious because you hadn’t mentioned it before. I didn’t know whether that was not something you’d known at the time. But yes, so this is Painkiller.
R: We named a Painkiller. We actually never registered that as the DBA. We never did business under that name. But that was the default name for this bar. In fact, on the front door it only said Tiki Bar, it didn’t even say Painkiller. We were doing research for these drinks that, as I mentioned earlier, we were not deeply familiar with. We didn’t have the experience that people within our peer group had. People like Brian Miller, who in my estimation and in my opinion to this day, remains the foremost authority on tiki and tropical cocktails in NYC. He’s the oracle as far as that is concerned within our peer group. I always defer to him as having made and brought forth the most incredible tiki cocktails during that time, especially with Tiki Mondays, which was a blast to behold. What he accomplished are some of my best experiences with this style of drinking cocktails. So we had to do our homework because you had Brian, Jeff Berry, you had people who were leading the charge and holding the torch, for lack of a better term. We didn’t know very much. Quite honestly, we could make a good Mai Tai, perhaps. But the rest of these drinks were foreign to us. So I got to doing my research in mid- to late 2009, and by early 2010, I’d come up with a fairly decent list of drinks that I thought would be a good initial start for our cocktail program. You had some that were typical, I mentioned the Mai Tai. Things like a Pearl Diver, and, of course, a Painkiller, namesake of the bar. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. And then others that were somewhat more obscure. Then I stumbled on this Jungle Bird. That’s one of the first specs and recipes that I worked on quite meticulously behind the bar at Dutch Kills. I sent an email to a few of the people that I was working with at the time back in 2010, illustrating all of these drinks and all of the specs. I was very excited, I think we should take some of these drinks and we should consider them for our forthcoming menu. That was my initial discovery of the Jungle Bird cocktail. We can talk more about it and how I came about the spec.
T: I was wondering, of the books that you mentioned earlier, where did you come across that? Was there a moment when you saw that and you were like, “Oh, wow, I’ve not heard of this before. This looks interesting.”
R: It was “Intoxica,” Jeff Berry’s book. First of all, the pairing of lime, sugar, and pineapple is a given. That’s always going to work if you know what you’re doing behind the bar. We’d made plenty of pineapple Daiquiris in that realm and Dutch Kills, that was one of the staple cocktails that we always used to make and still do. And it’s quite interesting, because Jeff doesn’t specify what style of Jamaican rum; he says “Jamaican rum.” Jamaican rum is known for its predominant grassy funk; you call it hogo. That’s always been very attractive to bartenders, at least of this modern era, along with other spirits in that style. A lot of times, you can blind taste very rowdy rums and sugar cane distillates and even agave distillates and throw some cachaça in there, and most bartenders will be confused. But they’ll recognize that underlying funk. So I was attracted to that with this cocktail. The first bottle that I touched to make this drink with was actually Coruba.
T: Can you describe that for anyone who might not be familiar with that particular rum?
R: Right. It’s high-ester, 100 percent Jamaican rum made by J Ray & Nephew. Ironically, they are now owned by Grupo Campari. But we’ll get to Campari. It’s in the old planter’s style of rum. It’s probably one of the most historically go-to mixers in that style. You have your Planter’s Punch, you’re probably going to make it with Coruba or Myers’s, if you’re talking from days of yore. It’s a blend of over 30 rum, pot and column still, and aged for at least two years. Ironically, Coruba dark rum is distilled and imported from Jamaica, but it’s not commercially distributed there, which is strange.
T: That’s very weird.
R: The other thing that intrigued me about Coruba is that Trader Vic, back in his day, was rumored to have used up the entire supply of J Wray & Nephew 15 and 17 years. So the world supply of that rum was used by Vic in his Mai Tai. How did that happen? I don’t know. But he supposedly swapped that out when there was no more left and used Coruba dark as his substitute in his Mai Tai. So I imagine that Coruba, or any variety of what is now known as blackstrap rum, would have been an interesting addition to that Jungle Bird. That’s what I initially touched behind the bar when I started experimenting with this cocktail.
T: Amazing. Of course, the final component there being Campari, which I guess a lot of people are very familiar with. In a minute, we’re going to do a deep dive on each one of those ingredients. But I was wondering, you start experimenting with this and you obviously do a lot of research and experimentation, you put it on the menu. Was this on the menu from day one when you opened Painkiller? Is it one of those drinks that was an instant hit? Were people loving it? Or is this one of those creepers and word slowly spread, but then maybe the industry folks pick it up first?
R: It was a sleeping giant, and that’s actually the name of one of the punches that we served. One of the tiki punches that we served at the bar was a delicious sleeping giant. If you fancy those kinds of drinks, that’s a good one. But yes, this was a sleeping giant on the menu. The initial reaction to and fascination with this cocktail came mostly from bartenders. As I said earlier, it hits all the right notes. But Campari is a love-it-or-hate-it modifier. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a delicious spirit on its own. But you have several delicious cocktails from Trader Vic’s, such as the Camparinet or other stirred straight-up cocktails. The Boulevardier was very popular at that time. Now it’s ubiquitous, but at that time it was gaining popularity in these bars. It was very interesting for people to see the reaction to the herbaceous nature of Campari with all of the aforementioned ingredients in the Jungle Bird. We’ll get into this when we talk about the somewhat final version of this cocktail, but the robust depth that was achieved with this cocktail, with the addition of blackstrap rum, was the real game changer for everyone.
T: You’ve touched upon it there. But this is a question that I always ask and I’m really keen to hear: If you’re making or if you’re handed a Jungle Bird, what are you looking for from that drink specifically? What sets a very good version apart?
R: The very boring answer is balance. But again, this is almost a cocktail that is difficult to achieve balance with because of the components that seem to be somewhat at odds with one another. You’ve got inherent sweetness in your pineapple juice with your sugar. Whether you use a simple syrup, a rich simple syrup two-to-one, a Demerara syrup, you’ve got this inherent sweetness. When you come at it with a very vegetal, grassy, funky, earthy, bitter rum and Campari, which is a bitter liqueur in and of itself, it almost seems like a contrast. When we go back to the early days at Milk & Honey and Little Branch, what I was able to learn from my training remains with me to this day. There are three defining factors to a successful cocktail. That would be balance, which we just discussed, and that’s in the hands of whoever’s behind the bar. So if your bartender errs in the direction of a quarter-ounce when they’re jiggering your cocktail, prior to introducing ice, the cocktail is off balance right away. That’s a very hard note to strike. The two other defining factors in a successful cocktail are water content and temperature, which relates directly to ice. When it came time to perfect or do my best to perfect this Jungle Bird cocktail, those were the challenges. How can I make these things make sense?
T: You said there that this is going to be a boring answer, and that’s balance. I see what you’re saying there, but at the same time, for anyone who’s ever tried to come up with a cocktail or make a cocktail knowing ingredients, but not knowing the spec for it, when you find balance, it is a eureka moment. It’s euphoric because it’s very difficult. You talk about the Campari and this very vegetal-character-heavy rum. I started thinking about a Martini. I’m always thinking about Martinis, but I started thinking about a Martini because it reminds me of vermouth with all of its aromatics and gin with all of its botanicals. These impossibly complex ingredients on their own somehow find this marriage together, and it’s just perfect. It’s magical, and it’s balanced. That’s wonderful.
R: You should look at this drink on paper and think, “I really like this already.” But to make it work, to make those components with all of these different elements and tasting notes from all of these flavors, it wasn’t easy. Although it was seemingly a marriage that was meant to be.
T: That’s something that always makes me think that cocktails are quite magical. The fact that these formulas can be repeated and work time after time again and that these ingredients work together. I don’t know. That’s what blows me away every time. It’s wonderful.
R: It’s one of the many joys of this profession.
The Ingredients Used in the Jungle Bird
T: Let’s do our dive on ingredients here. Starting, of course, with rum. Which is what I know you would always be happy to start with yourself personally, but specifically the rum for this drink. You’ve hinted at Blackstrap, you’ve hinted that there’s a conversation happening there or something to consider. Can you give us the context for that and also the rum that you gravitate towards yourself?
R: Rum is my favorite all-purpose spirit all the time. It’s what I want to drink. I find it to be so versatile. Not only for the fact that it’s produced in more countries all over the planet than anything else, but also because it’s so dynamic in every different way. The rums that we’re talking about today are just one small percentage of the world that is rum production. Yet, as we’ll get into, the backbone of this spirit is present in almost every variety of rum that is produced in Spanish- and English-speaking islands or territories. As we all know, rum begins as sugar cane. But we’re going to focus on this particular style of black rum or blackstrap rum, and you personally have written about this article that everyone should read.
T: I am surprised and embarrassed to hear that you have done that.
R: I have many times.
T: I did not realize.
R: You’re about to hear things that are very, very familiar. What is and was interesting to me when I reach for that bottle to make this Jungle Bird is that distillers of Spanish- and English-style rum flavor molasses as opposed to the French style, which is a derivative of cane juice. What is molasses? It’s the crystallized form of this sticky dark syrup that’s left behind after that cane juice is rice boiled. It’s basically a byproduct there. The final cycle, the third cycle, of this process yields what’s called blackstrap molasses. It’s sometimes referred to as final molasses. Yet it’s the lowest sugar content of any cane product. We all know molasses traditionally is something that’s used in confectionery applications like baking and things of that nature. It tends to be moderately sweet, a little bit more vicious, luscious, rich. But in comparison, blackstrap is very sludgy. It has way less sugar content, it’s darker, bitter, earthy, salty, a different consistency. So blackstrap, historically, was a term that was used for rum that used a grade of molasses with very low sugar content. It should be noted that although few producers use blackstrap as the 100 percent for “mash bill,” for the base of their rums, rums labeled as blackstrap are typically not very different from other styles of rum and how they’re produced. We can quote Richard Seal from Foursquare, who says there’s no such thing as blackstrap rum at all. You shouldn’t speak of it because all rum is made with some portion of this final molasses or this final blackstrap.
T: This lowest grade byproduct.
R: Exactly. So if you’re making rum from molasses, you’re going to use some percentage of this at some point. Yet, now we have this unofficial category. Its distinct flavor profile is somewhat created on purpose to mimic these earthy, salty, savory tones of the blackstrap molasses, either by adding the molasses itself or other sweeteners or flavorings. But these tasting notes that you typically get — toffee, celery, fennel, unsweetened chocolate — they’re really just primarily unaged rums that are made or doctored to be this inky dark, deep, rich, funky concoction. I digress a little bit, but I will say that this is yet another interesting aspect in the category of rum. It lends itself beautifully to this cocktail. What kind of rum do I like to drink? I think that’s what you asked me initially. I very much favor Demerara-style rum, which is why I actually use it in this cocktail together with the blackstrap.
T: Blackstrap would be your preference for this cocktail?
R: I kind of split the base. I digress a little bit from the original recipe that we were making at the Painkiller, otherwise known as PKNY. But we can talk about that if you want or not. But I now add Demerara rum.
T: OK, and you split that. Because obviously blackstrap is very complex. Is that to almost add more nuance or to maybe tame it a little?
R: I don’t like to use the term softening or rounding, but it does knock the corners off and knocks the edges off a little bit and gives it a little bit more depth. It’s just so rich and luscious and lovely, and the aromatics are very different. They’re more like ripe fruit, and I really enjoy that in this cocktail.
T: The next ingredient in this cocktail that we’ll talk about is Campari. I think most people are very familiar with Campari as an ingredient. The question that I wanted to ask you is, is it because of Campari’s flavor profile also being very bold and in your face and challenging the first time that you drink it, that it needs something similar from the rum side? Otherwise, this may cease to become a rum cocktail or the rum just gets lost.
R: It’s so strange. I don’t know why it’s there. When we talk about different specs and specific quantities and percentages, if you let it cut through and you make your drink just dry enough, it’s unlike any other cocktail. It really is, and we can go back to Trader Vic for a moment. He said that most cocktails, whatever the name, are just slight variations of a few good standard recipes. The inventor just substitutes one flavoring for another, changes the proportions, or adds a dash of this or a drop or two of that, and gives the concoction another name, which is what we’re doing every night in every cocktail bar the world over. We’re learning so many interesting things about Campari now from David Wondrich and Noah Baum’s recent revelations about how it’s got more of an Anglophile influence than an Italian influence than we might have realized. That’s brilliant to discover. If it comes through just enough, if it gets through the rum and the juice and the sugar and gives you that slight needle of Campari on the back end of the cocktail, it’s a delicious, unrivaled drink.
T: This is a complete aside as well, but on the flip side of that, I always find it interesting when the Negroni is described as a gin cocktail. Because, for me, it’s a Campari cocktail. I don’t get the gin, especially if we’re using some of these lighter ourselves these days. But anyways, that’s an aside.
R: We’re going to talk about that because you ring my bell in a way. We’ll talk about that when we do our five questions.
T: Perfect. So the next ingredient, pineapple. We’ve had a conversation about this recently for the Piña Colada episode. I’m keen to hear your take. What was happening back in the day? What’s happening now? Is it fresh? Are you using a blend? Where do you go with that? It’s a tough one.
R: It’s actually something I think about a lot. This cocktail’s celebrated for its pairing of rum and a bitter Italian liqueur. If you want to call it amaro, but that’s splitting hairs. But that’s what we’re talking about now, up until this point, and that’s what most people mention. They say that this is a rum cocktail with Campari. But in my opinion, it’s maybe not the most important, but I would say that the true catalyst that binds all of these ingredients in this cocktail could very well be the addition of pineapple juice. What you’re getting is this creamy, frothy, foamy cocktail. That comes from a good, hard shake, of course. But pineapple juice is like other ingredients that have enzymes and protein. It creates this froth or foam because of the enzymes and the protein.
T: It has a strong but high protein content.
R: Very much, not so much carbohydrates. I’ve heard people say it’s only because it’s starchy, but that’s not really true. It doesn’t have much carbohydrates in it.
T: It’s the protein we’re looking for in this respect.
R: Protein and enzymes. When you’re juicing pineapples at a higher speed, depending on what kind of juicer you’re using, the higher the RPMs on the juicer, the more air gets into the juice, the foamier your juice is going to be. We’re getting a little deeper into this maybe than you want to, but the centrifugal juicers are red lined at higher RPMs, let’s, say 10,000. They’re always going to create more foam. But an auger juicer is a little more gentle. It’s at 100 or 150 r.p.m. at a slower speed. So it depends on the juicer. But this will minimize the amount of foam. Of course, if you do other things to your pineapple juice like fine straining or clarifying, this reduces the presence of foam even further. So in this cocktail, that foam, head, creaminess, that silky aspect is really what brings the Jungle Bird together. It would almost taste flat without it.
T: Just so that I’m understanding this correctly, are you saying that you want to eliminate that influence as much as possible when you’re preparing your pineapple juice, that it maintains within the juice? Is that what you’re saying?
R: I’m saying that when you’re prepping for service and you make your juice, you want to skim some of the foam. You don’t want to make that the primary element that winds up in your bottle. In fact, you don’t want to see very much of it. But when you shake this cocktail, and you want to shake it hard, you want to reintroduce that aspect to the drink. You wouldn’t try to shake it, but it’s not dissimilar to what is achieved from an egg white cocktail or what people were doing a few years ago with the aquafaba as an alternative. I haven’t experimented much with that myself, but it brings those elements. When I go to see, or when you see, or when anyone sees a solid shaken pineapple cocktail coming over the bar. It’s unmistakable.
T: Next, lime.
R: It’s a tough one. Here in NYC, and especially since we’re coming back into service after the last two years, you get your produce delivered and your limes will be tiny and expensive. How are you supposed to yield the requisite amount of juice for service from a tiny lime? It’s very confusing, but sometimes this will happen. I know you talked about this, and it’s unavoidable. We’re going to talk about Sasha Petraske in nearly every episode of your ongoing story. We would prep our own juice and cut our own garnishes and have our rituals prior to service. But one thing that he was pretty strict about, or I wouldn’t say strict but I’d say adamant about, was that you should taste the quality of your limes and your lime juice prior to the start of service. So that you know if you need to scale back in any way. If you’re having to do a scant 1 ounce pour on your Daiquiri because your limes are too acidic, you wouldn’t be able to actually take out equipment and measure your pH levels at Milk & Honey back in the day. But you would taste it. If you were making Caipirinha, which uses the actual fruit, are you releasing too much of the oils when you’re muddling? Well, you should taste the fruit. To answer your question, you have to be intimate and familiar with all your produce and all your juice that’s going into your cocktail. Especially this one, because you’ve got two different citrus or fruit dynamics coming into play.
T: Interesting that you say that because I actually recently had a Daiquiri made for me. I asked the bartender what their spec was, and he said, “I don’t have one.” He said, “Whatever it tastes like on the day,” which I find very interesting as well. On the one hand, Daiquiri specs are something that people identify themselves by. And on the other, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with this show, which is going beyond the recipe and talking about these things.
R: I do appreciate and respect people who don’t make plans. It’s got to be an amazing way to live your life in many ways, but I cannot identify with that philosophy because I’m bound in many ways to the mores and techniques of my training. There are different schools of getting back to the Daiquiri and aspects of how this drink should be prepared. This was another foray we made into frozen cocktails, but going back to Constantino in Cuba and his Daiquiri, how were we going to apply our Daiquiri spec to a frozen Daiquiri? Of course, the Petraske spec doesn’t work as a frozen Daiquiri; you would have to adjust it. This is another conversation, but it’s very important not to stay set in stone and to be open to exploring other options when it comes to understanding new variations of cocktails. That was essentially the entire process of coming from where we came from to opening a tiki bar in NYC.
T: Wonderful. I do think that the bartender was probably slightly tongue in cheek. He was probably more hinting upon what you were talking about there, back in the day. Maybe that’s what he was alluding to, but also just being kind of.
R: How was the Daiquiri?
T: It was a good Daiquiri. It was actually how I like my Daiquiri, which is not piercingly sour. There’s a good amount of sweetness in there, but for my palate, it was balanced. For people that go so low on simple, I worry about the body of that cocktail. But anyway, we digress.
R: No, it’s good. It’s a good conversation to have.
T: So the final ingredient before we dive into the modern spec that you’d use today, the sweetening agent. Are you going simple? Are you going Demerara? Are you going rich? What’s the thinking?
R: I suppose Google saves these things; in fact, I’ve provided you with a copy today. When I wrote that email saying to the people I was working with, “Hey, this is the spec that I have in mind for this cocktail,” I think that the one that I wrote is identical to the one that has endured. But we’ll talk about the changes I’ve made personally to my interpretation of this cocktail. Initially, it was simple syrup. And that works, it’s delicious. But I found that over the years, from 2010 to 2012, as we kept serving this cocktail at Painkiller, the addition of two-to-one rich Demerara syrup gave this cocktail a different life for me and actually made it more robust. I don’t want to say austere, I’ll say robust. It helped really dig into the blackstrap, which can be pungent in excess. I think that the initial spec that I first brought forth with 1 and a half ounces is too much, which is why I now split that with 1-ounce blackstrap, half-ounce Demerara rum. Are we allowed to name specific brands?
T: Yeah, of course.
R: Historically, Lemon Hart was the pinnacle of Demerara rum in the tiki bars of the days of yore. If you were able to get your hands on the higher expression of that, that was wonderful. The 80, I believe, was the other that we were using at the time. But now with some El Dorado 12 in this cocktail, it’s divine.
How to Make the Jungle Bird
T: Amazing. So let’s do it. Let’s dive into the spec. And can you also tell me your technique? Talk us through you making the drink as if you were making it here in front of us, and which ingredients you’re adding when and why. Let’s go through.
R: We can talk about what we did then and what we do now. The standard practice when training bartenders and working with a bartender for the first time, is you think about which ingredients of your jiggering first. You think about how many different sugars you’re using, what ingredients can you overlap, what ingredients shouldn’t overlap. Your order of operations is paramount when you’re deep in service, in the weeds behind the bar.
T: Or in the sh*t if you’re in the U.K. That’s what we say in London.
R: I’m glad you swore first before me.
T: Now on the podcast when you go to download it, it’s going to say that little “E” next to it. So feel free to let it rip, Richie.
R: Now my mom will know that you’re the one that cursed. So in the sh*t, indeed, as we have been many nights. We’re talking about one drink here so we can set the order of operations aside. But theoretically, if I’m pouring the more expensive ingredients first and I make a mistake, you’re going to be annoyed with me if you’re my boss.
T: Might say you might be pissed off.
R: You might be pissed off, you would be livid. You’d become indignant, you would perhaps be ornery. So we’ll start with the sugar and the juice, the citrus. Because although you’re paying someone perhaps to prep that for you, the cost is negligible before you get to the bottled spirits. We used to do half-ounce simple syrup and half-ounce lime juice, that was the original spec that I put together in that long-lost email. Now we’re doing three-quarter-ounce Demerara, and we’re doing a scant 1 ounce. So it becomes seven-eighths in your jigger, of lime juice.
T: And is that rich Demerara two-to-one?
R: Correct. To be transparent, if all you find is Turbinado in your grocery store or your purveyor of sundry goods brings you your delivery for the day to your restaurant or your bar and you’re not getting Demerara, you can substitute. But if it’s rich two-to-one, it’s going to do the trick. Even cane syrup will work nice. But this is where we’re at. Now we’re at the three-quarter Demerara scant, 1 ounce lime. With the pineapple juice, we’ll go there next. We talked about that foamy, creamy, frothy aspect. Initially, we were doing 1 and a half ounces. I believe a lot of people still are. That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic. I’m not here to disparage what is happening. I think what is happening all over the world is great. I’ll drink this cocktail anywhere, however you want to prepare it. But for my money, I took it down to an ounce and a quarter for a couple of different reasons. Again, we talked about how you want that Campari to poke through. You don’t want this drink to be cloying. With the two-to-one rich Demerara, that becomes a risk. So you take the pineapple down a little bit, which is what we’ve done since then. If you shake it properly, you’re still going to get that delicious creaminess. That aspect is still there. So you take down the pineapple a little bit. Again, this drink is very tall. And if you’re putting a big rock in there, as we do, you’re going to almost need a 14-ounce double Old Fashioned. It’s a high wash line, anyway. That’s an entirely different conversation. Next, we’re sticking with the three-quarter ounces of Campari. That was in the initial recipe that I reworked from Jeff Berry’s specs and that’s what we’re sticking with here. Whereas the blackstrap rum from the recipe at Painkiller was 1 and a half ounces, now we’re splitting 1 ounce blackstrap and half-ounce Demerara.
T: Any preference on brand, if you care to share? You don’t have to.
R: Like I said, the blackstrap is the same. We’re still using Cruzan, 10 years later. So we’re still using that, and El Dorado 12 for the Demerara. Again, there’s a myriad of other amazing options. Incredible things are happening with rum, where it’s being produced in the Caribbean, aged in Europe. We could drop names for brands all day. But getting back to balance, if you use the rum of your preference, it will still be a lovely cocktail. This is just what we’ve chosen to use. And our methods of shaking with one single piece of ice as opposed to smaller pieces.
T: This is a conversation we’ll have another day when it comes to ice. We’ve spoken about it with our friend, Mr. Alperin, beforehand, too. The ice business is something you know a ton about. But for people’s common reference, are you shaking this drink with one cold draft ice cube? Or are you using cold draft cubes yourselves, even at Dutch Kills?
R: We have never.
T: Is that an insensitive question for me to ask?
R: No, sir, absolutely not. Again, going back to methods and specs, we choose to do things our particular way because it works best for us. I don’t say me, I say us. I’m not there alone, and I never have been. It works for us at the bars where I preside. If I worked at your bar and you chose to shake with a different style of ice, then I would have to respect your methods and make the best possible cocktail that we could make together there. So we are not going to discuss that now, but we will later probably at another date. What I will say is with ice, and I’ve said this many times, size matters. Tremendously, both for shaking and for drinks that are built in the glass and even drinks like this Jungle Bird that are shaken and served down on a big rock. But above all, water content and temperature are the other two defining factors. If you shake this with several smaller, soggy cubes, you’re introducing more water content immediately in the shaker that you might not want. That will upset the balance of the cocktail once you strain it into the glass. It’s shaken and served down, getting back to the Gold Rush and its distant cousins, the Penicillin and the Margarita on the rocks. All of these shaken and served down cocktails follow this formula.
T: Whereby we need to be extremely careful to not over-dilute any cocktail, but specifically when we’re serving it on a rock.
R: And it goes on that rock. Because theoretically, if you’re pulling that rock from your freezer during service, it’s going to go into your glass bone cold. You can temper it a little bit, but it’s going to go bone cold as opposed to within a room temperature ice bin that’s just beneath or next to your well. Everything there is at 32 degrees and the surface melts ready and solid and liquid are parting ways. If it’s coming from the freezer, it’s going to prolong the life of your drink and will help mitigate that phase change. Whereas your rock will, hopefully based on the ambient temperature in your bar, melt slower and release less water content into your final cocktail.
T: To back up two steps there, when it comes to shaking, you said you guys are hand-cutting ice with one cube. What size cube would that be, roughly, that you’re using to shake this drink?
R: Initially in Milk & Honey and Little Branch days, part of our side work was three hours long. So just imagine all of our friends at all of our other beloved NYC cocktail institutions were laughing at us because they’d go and they’d open, take the bucket out, and that was their ice. The rest of us were going three hours prior to our shift, taking the ice out of the freezer, taking blunt implements and tapping out different shapes and sizes for service. And then refilling the pans and putting them back in the freezer for the next bartender to retrieve them the next day, and the cycle continues. That was the standard. Things changed a little bit over the years. They’ve become a little more mechanized and industrialized. We have our own ice company, and things are different now. We used to say that our ice was like snowflakes, that no one was the same, but they were all uniform and serviceable. Now they’re all mostly the same. They’re just a little different from the ones that come out of the machine. They’re about 1.75 by 2 inches, so they’re just tall and thin. They’re a little bit slimmer and taller, but still one uniform shaken cube. What does that accomplish? Well, if it comes out of the freezer very cold, you’re not adding water content. Inherently, your idea is not to shake it to break it. The idea is to shake it to make it. Yes, you want to knock the corners off and you want to add some water content. But you don’t want to destroy the cube and create a slushie in your shaker. The size of the cube itself allows you to also achieve great aeration. In a drink like the Jungle Bird, that’s of utmost importance.
T: You mentioned it there before. In an ideal world, this is a drink we’re going to serve up with a large rock of preferably hand-cut ice, right? What would be your preferred glass for this? And for straining, Hawthorne, double, what’s your opinion?
R: The Hawthorne strainer, close the gate, strain your cocktail. You can opt to strain your cocktail and then add your ice, typically we do a two-by-three rock. That’s our standard rock for shaken down drinks and for Old Fashioned and whatnot. You can strain over that. You can add it after. But the important thing is, if your glass is cold and your ice is cold, your cocktail is going to have a little bit of extra help to stay cold. Anything that you can do to fight that battle. We don’t opt to fine strain. We like the pulp to be present. We like the cream in the foam to be present. Again, it’s our choice. We like the mouthfeel of that, so we incorporate that into the cocktail. But as Harry Craddock said, and this is more for shaken straight-up cocktails, but when you see those ice crystals, the drink is still smiling at you. You don’t want chunks of ice floating in there. That’s why you close the gate. Ideally, you can double up on your coils in your Hawthorne strainer. That’s a good trick that I’m sure has been said.
T: That’s not been shared on this before. So you’re taking another coil and you’re making it a finer Hawthorne?
R: Yeah, we started doing that at Little Branch and Milk & Honey back in the day. Back then, you had to kind of buy another strainer.
T: That’s right.
R: So you’re shooting yourself in the foot a little bit, because now you’re left with this thing and you don’t know what to do with it because it looks like a horseshoe crab. What does it do? Necessity being the mother of invention, I had such brilliant, talented and crafty coworkers. Michael Madrusan used to take the Hawthorne strainer without the coil and without the extra spring, and wedge it in his station so that shakers and jiggers and whatnot would not fall over the edge and into the sink. So it became like a backstop. Nowadays, you can get the springs on their own.
T: It’s fascinating to hear about these early-day MacGyver hacks happening back then. We didn’t have the many supply companies and equipment companies that exist now. Forgive me, did you mention which glass or not?
R: I didn’t specify the brand.
T: Or the type of glass.
R: Between a 13-and-three-quarter ounce, or 13.75-ounce double Old Fashioned or double rocks glass with a nice, solid base. It’s commercially available.
T: And the garnish?
R: What I learned is that when you operate a tiki bar, most of your money is spent on the back-of-the-house labor and garnishes. That’s most of your payroll and most of your overhead, I should say. So the more luxurious, lavish, and exaggerated, at that time, was better preferred. It really attracted people to the cocktail. Every drink became a “gimme.” When you made one, somebody else said, “Give me one of those.” With the Jungle Bird, I’ve seen some really beautiful, amazing things that people can do with different parts of the fruit and the pineapple in particular that would have normally been discarded. We would traditionally do some kind of a pineapple wedge, maybe an orange, a cherry, some of the pineapple leaves or fronds. Put them behind all of the aforementioned, and add your straw.
T: That’s amazing. What an incredible exploration. It would be remiss of me, though, not to give you one final floor for any final thoughts on the Jungle Bird and this conversation we’ve been having.
R: Final thoughts on the Jungle Bird: I’m really happy to still see it in the rotation. I’m excited about what bartenders are doing with this cocktail, and I’m humbled to have had the opportunity to, in some way, have worked in a place that helped to reintroduce this drink. Because I think that it was worth reintroducing, and what’s become of it is really amazing to see. There’s one more thing I forgot to mention with our ingredients for our Jungle Bird.
T: This is why we give you that final chance.
R: You have to imagine that palates change with time. Looking back at all of these books, even ones from 20 to 30 years ago and going back 40, 50, 100 years, palates have changed, even geographically. I add a tiny pinch of smoked sea salt to my shaker after combining all the ingredients, and I find that it does something with the rum that really brings out the earthy, funky, rowdy grassiness. It brings out that muddy element that really appeals to my palate, so just a tiny sprinkle.
Getting to Know Richard Boccato
T: I’m glad we stuck around for that one, because I think that’s a real pro tip, no doubt. Should we head into the final section of the show?
R: Let’s do this.
T: Quick-hit questions.
R: I’m ready. Do I have to respond quickly?
T: They’re not actually that quick. I think about this every time, I say they’re not that quick. Timer, 30 seconds. Yeah, let’s kick it off then. Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar? That can be professional or home. Up to you.
R: I do not have a home bar. My home bar is Dutch Kills.
T: So it’s one in the same.
R: I just don’t take it home with me. At home I think about motorcycles. I will give all props due to Maddie Clark, who is our GM at Dutch Kills, and has been with us for over a decade since day one. Maddie has conjured and curated an amazing agave distillate back bar selection, which would have been unheard of 10 years ago. If we’re talking about things that happened 10 years ago, we weren’t doing that at Dutch Kills 10 years ago and certainly not at Milk & Honey and Little Branch back in the day. It has been a beautiful development. We’ve worked hard to put that together, and I’m excited that we have it there.
T: Fantastic. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal? And why is it a spare coil for your Hawthorne strainer? No, I’m just kidding.
R: That’s a bonus. It could be that; I wouldn’t have even thought of bringing that up again. That is probably the most economical and undervalued option, I would say. I was also going to think of something a bit more pedestrian, but maybe it’s been more present nowadays. I haven’t seen another bartender’s traveling kit in quite a while or watched what they’re doing behind the bar in most places. But I would say, not an ice pick, but a chisel.
T: Yeah, that’s very on brand for you.
R: It’s in my wheelhouse, for sure. If used properly, if wielded correctly, it can deliver amazing results. There’s a bigger conversation, but I would say that it’s been underrated. And it might only apply to a service model like ours or others who use the big ice. But if that’s what you’re using, you should have some sort of chisel and we can talk about how to modify them. But don’t do this at home, kids. Disclaimer.
T: Do you want to tell us about that briefly? Shall we save that for next time?
R: Save it. I will say that whenever using sharp implements behind the bar, and anyone who’s ever used a peeler knows the answer to this, exercise with caution.
T: Be present in the task. Let’s not be having a chat with someone you know.
R: To go back to my illustrious former coworkers, Michael McElroy used to remind me all the time: Work fast, but jigger slow. I apply that to ice manipulation. I say to work slowly and be careful, because it’s never a fun injury when you’re using these sharp tools.
T: I think we’ll get into those modifications at a later date. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
R: I grew up here in NYC. When you become a part of this beautiful world, this vast network of bars and restaurants, you get to travel the world and experience service the likes of which you never thought you would imagine, from wherever you come from. You’re at the height of your career, at the apex of service, whether you’re working for someone that you’ve always respected and appreciated or if you’re on your own in your own venue. I’ll never forget one of my closest friends with whom I still share a friendship that’s very close to this day reminded me, “Don’t forget where you came from. Right, wrong, or indifferent, always keep that with you.” This has nothing to do with service. I could give you some kind of magical knowledge from Sasha Petraske or any one of my mentors. It has nothing to do with that. I don’t discount my education. But I was told to never forget where you came from, because this life that we’re in, there’s more to it and we all know that. So it’s always important to remember your foundation before you ever set foot in a fancy cocktail bar.
T: Wonderfully wise words. Penultimate question: if you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
R: Defunct or currently operational?
R: I would have to say Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
T: Tell us about that briefly.
R: It’s the most beautiful and important bar I’ve ever set foot in in my entire life. Everybody should visit. It’s got a history in NYC. I think it’s probably well known now, but when I was coming up, it was always a place that felt like a touchstone. We had to make an effort to get there, much like Milk & Honey.
T: The destination.
R: For sure. The sounds and the sights and the feeling that you get when you walk in the door of that place, I’ve not had an experience in any bar in the world. Although, I would say Frankie’s in Sydney, Australia, had a strange, nostalgic sensation when I walked into that bar as well. But Sunny’s in Brooklyn, for the history of my life as long as I have been standing in front of bars as a customer, guest, civilian. I once had the true pleasure of serving behind that bar, which was a career highlight.
R: That would be the place.
T: Fantastic. Final question today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
R: A Negroni. The answer should be Presbyterian, because that’s the first cocktail I ordered at Little Branch and the first one I made as a bartender. I ordered and had to pay for it, and then made it because I could. But really, that would be for nostalgic reasons. But the Negroni would be the one, because it’s the one.
T: Fantastic. Can I also just say that I believe you’re the only person to date that sat in that seat of whom a drink of theirs was the answer to that question. That’s Eric Alperin in the American trilogy.
R: That was a co-author drink with Michael McElroy.
T: That’s correct.
R: So that’s a true compliment. Eric was so patient with me in the early days. One night when he was standing in front of me and I was at the service bar. He gently reminded me with such patience and sincerity, “Richie, there is no ginger in a Pink Lady.” The best mentor and a very dear friend, so I’m humbled and honored that he would say that.
T: Fantastic. Richie, it’s been such a pleasure talking septuagenarian Hungarians, giants and shoulders, shadows thereof, and, of course, Jungle Birds.
R: I look forward to sharing a few of them together someday.
T: I look forward to it too. Thank you very much.
R: My pleasure.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast group. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.