Swizzle while you work: A rum diary

Or, how much effort is too much when creating something for yourself?

I had a rum problem. Turns out there’s a non-trivial difference between a light Puerto Rican rum, the dark molasses-y sweetness of a Jamaican rum or the high-octane throat punch of a navy strength rum. 

I had gotten myself into making tiki drinks, where each variety of rum is like their own special member of the band. They aren’t exactly fussy drinks, some designer cocktail by a person who went through the trouble of finding a certificate program to become a mixologist; they’re more of a complicated process of precision and pageantry. Depending on the mix, you either end up with something like Janelle Monae live at Radio City...or the second best Limp Bizkit cover band in Tampa.

This was March, a decade ago. It was the first time I found myself with a wealth of extra time and searching for a new job. I’d left my job at the newspaper, or, more accurately, they were offering buyouts and I took one. I hadn’t planned to be part of the Great Upheaval of American journalism, but I was approaching 30 and still considered the “youth” columnist. There was also the prospect of getting a severance package during the uncharted bliss that is spring changing into summer. So, new hobbies.

OK, yes, this was around the time tiki drinks started making a comeback. I’m shameless enough to admit that I love anything that calls for pairing eccentric drinks with equally eccentric outfits. [Less a fan, however, of blatant appropriation and the mashing up of numerous indigenous cultures/peoples/islands under one paper umbrella. But that’s a rant for another time.] 

The home bar at the time was the basics: staples like tequila, whiskey, vodka and more, along with some mixing tools. But to get into the tiki game you need juices, syrups and rums, plural. So I was buying up all the rum I could find. Consider one of the simplest and well known tiki drinks: The Mai Tai (courtesy of Imbibe Magazine)

  • 1 oz. amber Martinique rum

  • 1 oz. aged Jamaican rum

  • 1 oz. fresh lime juice

  • ½ oz. orange curaçao

  • ¼ oz. orgeat

  • ¼ oz. simple syrup

That’s a whole damn shopping cart in one drink! ( Not even including the mint garnish!)  But I jumped all the way in. It helped that I was raised by all kinds of cooks who taught me not to be afraid of any recipe, because no matter what happens you can always try again. So I became a tiki drink person. Making crushed ice with a mallet, investing in a library of rums, perfecting my swizzle technique and stocking up on enough citrus to stay free of scurvy for at least six months. 

You get to go over the top in the service of making yourself happy, attempting to transport yourself in mind, or at least in mouth, to some place better than where you are.

It was glorious. Think about that first glance at a tiki drink, tall and sunny with just a hint of perspiration, a playful flower or pineapple sitting just-so on the rim. You can already hear a shirtless saxophone solo in the distance, can’t you? The thing about tiki drinks is it’s an excuse to just be extra, right? You get to go over the top in the service of making yourself happy, attempting to transport yourself in mind, or at least in mouth, to some place better than where you are. They’re purposefully colorful and silly. Some days that’s all you need. 

They are also ridiculously labor intensive. Beyond stockpiling booze and fruit, there’s the hunt just to get all these supplies. One of my absolute favorite drinks to make was the Fog Cutter. It’s the kind of cocktail that comes with a drink limit because the list of ingredients reads nearly as long as the credits of a Marvel movie: rum, cognac, gin, lemon juice, curacao, orgeat and Tom Hiddleston. The only thing that stops you from having more than one is you’re likely too drunk after your first to pick the ingredients out of a police lineup. 

Do you know what you have to do to make a proper hurricane? Not the shit you find on Bourbon Street that looks like it was blended from Kool Aid Man’s remains. You need passion fruit. Just think about that for a second, does your brain even process what aisle of the store that’s in? It sounds vaguely illegal. I hunted it down, striking out at the everyday grocery stores, settling for Whole Foods, brought the ugly fuckers home, sliced them, scooped up their sweet and gooey insides, strained the remains and bottled them. This was an afternoon’s worth of effort for a drink that would mostly likely be chugged (lovingly, of course) inside an hour. 

You actually made a thing; absorb its loving glow and hope it doesn’t turn on you and/or local villagers.

Exasperation. That, “why do we even have gym class,” kind. And so came winter to my days as a devout follower of the tiki drink. I’d fallen out of balance, that much seems clear now. If you get annoyed at the idea of putting together your favorite drink, it’s likely a sign that you should move on. It may also be a gentle reminder to love and appreciate your favorite bartenders, because not only do they flex those cocktail muscles, they also just put up with us and our shit. 

Any single thing you can make, a tiki drink, a grilled cheese, a cloned sheep, part of the appreciation comes from the part you played. You actually made a thing; absorb its loving glow and hope it doesn’t turn on you and/or local villagers. But fixing a drink, or a meal never really fits into that same category of maker-ship like repairing the engine block of ‘69 Chevy Camaro or building an Ikea bookshelf. Food is funny that way, almost ethereal in what we ask of it. You want it to soothe, to be a respite. It’s your thing when things are quiet, but especially when they are loud.

This is the part of the story where I should say something more revelatory and universal. But there’s not much more to say than this: don’t talk yourself into a home bartending kit from Crate and Barrel. Do yourselves a favor and just buy a cheap cocktail shaker, a two ounce measuring cup and reusable chopsticks -- a great and cheap alternative for a cocktail stirring spoon.

But there’s also this: making the things we want, or particularly need, shouldn’t come at the expense of enjoying it. If you love being a home bartender and never tire of it, fantastic! If you just want a gin and tonic at 5:30 pm on the dot most days, that’s great too. All I know is that sometimes the simplest cocktails taste best not just because they’re easy on ingredients, they also don’t tax the mind. It’s a glass of Shiraz, a gagging sour beer. My modest proposal: tangerine White Claw as self care. 

The calendar says we’re nearing Negroni season, and I love the prospect of making a good Negroni. Part of that comes from knowing it’s just three things: gin, vermouth and Campari. That’s it. And when I settle in to make one, I know I’ll cherish it just a little more because the distance between making it and enjoying it is relatively short.

I mean, if you really want to make a good drink all you need is some rum for an amazing Kingston Negroni...and maybe I’ve learned nothing at all. 

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Scripto: For any other writer people out there, if you’re in the market to change up the script writing software you use, can I suggest Scripto? It’s super easy to use, tracks revisions/edits and lets teams write together in real time. It’s used at places like Deus & Mero, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal. (We also used it back on Problem Areas) They recently launched a new version and are offering free access to writers who may find themselves working remotely at the moment. 

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