One of the great things about vacationing is experiencing the local flavor of the town you’re in. Often times, some of the most memorable parts of a trip are the food; perhaps it’s because you use all five senses when eating a meal, which helps that moment stick out in your mind.
Eating isn’t the only instance where this happens. A cocktail can accomplish the same. Years ago, I made the trek down to Key West. The day started out like any other on the island: an unmatched lobster Benedict at Blue Heaven, accompanied by a mimosa.
The day-drinking gradually ramped up, and as afternoon approached, I’d already mapped out the happy hours to hit (they mostly consisted of appetizers and $2 beers). We bar-hopped around Duval Street through lunch, served up in the form of a DJ’s Clam Shack lobster roll. Then, we found a tiki bar. I’d heard of this cool little spot that was mainly a locals hangout, and while I can’t remember the tiki bar’s name, I can certainly tell you my bartender's — Mike.
I asked the older gentleman about specials. The bar allegedly had a good happy hour, but I didn’t know what it was (I still don’t). Mike wouldn’t tell me, either; he simply asked what I like.
“What’s on special?” I asked again.
Still no help. We went back and forth for a short time, and the exchange ended like this:
“Look, I don’t want you drinking a shit drink just because you want to save 2 bucks,” the bartender said.
It felt like he poked me in the chest.
“Ok, Mike, I’ll let you pick.”
He did his thing behind the bar as I socialized with the cat sitting in the stool next to me. Before I knew it, Mike put a layered drink in a small plastic cup in front of me and said, “Don’t move the straw from the bottom.”
Geez. I’d never had a drink that came with instructions. But, fine, I’ll play your game. I started a tab and walked around the corner for a view the sunset, then in no time, I was on empty. The cocktail was amazing. I ordered another without hesitation.
“This time put it in a grown-up cup, sir.”
If it weren’t for Mike, I wouldn’t have this fond memory of him or the awesome layered cocktail that paired beautifully with a Key West sunset. That’s how I learned a beverage, like food, can be just as transporting.
Last month, I recreated a magical drink, the Dirty Banana, that took me back to the Bahamas. Since I couldn’t replicate Mike’s cocktail even if I tried, I came up with my own. Layering a cocktail isn’t as hard as it seems, but you need to pour the most sugar-dense liquids in first, slowly. Also, unlike Mike’s recipe, you’ll give the drink a stir before sipping.
When you come across a cocktail menu on the next trip you embark on, don’t be afraid to let the bartenders take the reins. Their recommendation, like Mike’s, could be something you remember for years to come.
Key West Sunset
Hibiscus Simple Syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
10-12 dried hibiscus florets
In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Turn heat off and add hibiscus florets, allowing them to steep until syrup is cool. Store in the refrigerator for up to a few weeks.
1 ounce hibiscus simple syrup
3 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce blue Curaçao
1 ounce coconut rum (I used Malibu)
1 ounce mango rum (I used Cruzan)
4 dashes of homemade bitters (orange bitters will work, too)
In a daiquiri glass, add simple syrup and fill with ice. Add bitters before slowly pouring in pineapple juice to layer. In a cocktail shaker, add Curaçao, coconut rum and mango rum, then stir. Slowly pour mixture into the glass to float on top. Garnish with an orange wheel.