Serious Eats: Drinks
Meet & Eat: Blair Reynolds, Trader Tiki
Since 2009, Blair Reynolds of Trader Tiki has been making small-batch syrups for home bartenders and professionals, with the goal of bringing tiki drinks to the masses without sacrificing quality or flavor. If you haven't had a Mai Tai or a Zombie lately, you may start craving one after getting to know Blair.
When did you first start bartending?
I was working as an event organizer, and bartending seemed like a great way to have fun and be a great host at the same time. I graduated from a bartending academy in San Francisco in 2000.
How did you get interested in tiki?
Well, when I was 1 year old, my parents were vacationing in Hawaii with me, and while on the beach, I was stung by a Portuguese man-o-war. I can actually remember passing out, and when I came to, I had a vision of three tikis rescuing me from what would have been an early end. I was the destined one, my fate decided by the islands to be the greatest... okay, not really. The man-o-war story is true, not so much the visions. It wasn't until I met some friends who were into the "Tiki scene" that I really started thinking this was something awesome. I think my first Fogcutter at Trader Vic's really sealed the deal. The tiki community was full of fun, with lots of people into different cultural aspects of the Polynesian pop culture. I started studying Beachbum's Grog Log and whatever old cocktail books I could get my hands on, and of course, "learning" as many drinks as I could. I was hooked, and started making my own ingredients—things like bottled Falernum or a good Orgeat just didn't exist at the time. Now, I'm trying to make tiki easier with my products so that I can inspire more people to try their hand at tropical mixology.
What do you think are the real essentials for a home bar?
Well, if you're going for a home bar with a tropical slant, the first thing I'm going to say is plenty of rum, fresh lime, and crushed ice. How you get them into the glass, by jigger, shaker or swizzle is your own game. I have a commercial-grade ice crusher in my home bar, but if you don't happen to stumble across one, a good lewis bag and mallet are essential, as well as a sturdy place to swing that hammer.
A hand-held juice squeezer, in lemon size, is also a key ingredient to really getting the most juice from your citrus. Then of course, there's the rum. Life is too short to be cheap, so if you're going to get something, look on the taller shelves. A good light Puerto Rican rum, dark Jamaican rum, and Martinique rhum will get you far. If you
can find Demerara rum as well, you'll really start to get a good rum selection on your hands. (I have 175 different bottles of rum at my home bar.) The best place to start is getting the ingredients for a cocktail you'd like to try, then slowly adding recipes, and the ingredients for those recipes. Once every paycheck is a decent system, as a way to celebrate the fruits of your labor.
What's your favorite serving vessel for tiki drinks?
It's hard to pick a favorite. But if I had to, I'd say my most recent favorite is my limited edition barrel mug from Smuggler's Cove. There's just something about drinking out of a barrel that feels right.
At what point did you decide to go into the business of tiki syrups and how did you get started?
In 2009, I had a day job working from home, and would bound off at night to bartend at a high end restaurant here in Portland, OR. Well, in May of that year, the day job went away, and it was down to just the bartending. The restaurant was a bit small though, with only a 6 seater bar, so the money was okay, but not exactly enough to pay the mortgage every month. So, the seed was planted that I needed to start doing something on my own. My friends were saying that they loved tiki drinks, but they were so hard to make. You had to find X ingredient at an online store, make Z, Q, and 12 by yourself with obscure ingredients...it was too much time and effort and money, and you didn't even know if you were going to like the damned drink! Well, that little spark started me thinking. I was making my own stuff, with good results...why not start making my ingredients on a larger scale and selling them? 2009 was spent re-formulating what I had been making for greater stability, and maintaining consistency from batch to batch.
How are the Trader Tiki syrups different from others available?
In the first place, they are the product of my experience making these wonderful drinks. The flavors aren't decided by committee, or whatever hip new artificial flavoring just hit the market—I make the syrups like I was making them behind the bar. The larger syrup companies tend to use a standard syrup base, and add coloring and flavoring to make their syrups into different flavors. Each of my syrups starts with a unique blend of sugars made to give each individual syrup the right amount of complexity. For example, I use some brown sugar in my Falernum to add a touch of molasses flavor, while in my Hibiscus Grenadine I use only white sugar to keep it crisp and bright.
Each syrup is also made with natural ingredients...and I don't mean "natural
flavors", I mean as close to the plant as I can reasonably get the stuff. Every flavor comes from the real flavoring agent, such as cinnamon bark, grapefruit juice, vanilla beans, etc. If I can't find the agent at a reasonable price, or if for some reason it doesn't work as a dry ingredient, I'll use essential oils pulled from the ingredient, typically steam-distilled or cold-pressed. These are really, really, really bar-made quality syrups, with consistency from batch to batch.
What was your first product for larger-scale production?
Trader Tiki's Orgeat was the first thing I really started formulating and re-working. I'd been making natural, almond-derived Orgeat for a few years, and found a dearth of 100% natural high quality Orgeat on store shelves. I mean, nothing was like the real deal that I was making in my kitchen. Now, I've gone from a 22 quart stock pot to making them in a 100 gallon kettle. Boy, are there a lot of almonds left over after the process, and the smell is fantastic.
Some of your products are your own recipes and others are from (or inspired by) tiki legend Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. Can you tell us a little about him?
I like to say that Beachbum Berry is the guy who writes the books that make me sound like I know something. Without his hard work researching, writing, and getting the books published, the state of the tropical cocktail would truly be a dire one indeed. While a number of the syrups I make are based on classic ingredients, it was Jeff who brought the truly obscure back into the light. I worked with Jeff in developing these syrups, to make sure that what I was doing was right.
Any plans for new products this year?
I have a few things up my sleeve for this year, as I start getting into more classic ingredients, such as traditional grenadine and syrup de citron. I'm also developing a line of mixers for the home mixologist, for those who want something mighty tasty, mighty quick. I'll be keeping true to using only the highest quality natural ingredients to make Piña Colada mix, Grog mix, and Zombie mix. The Zombie mix will be based on the Zombie Punch recipe from the early 30s, with notes of cinnamon and grapefruit, and a few mystery flavorings to make it really stand out.
Would you be willing to share one of your favorite drink recipes with us?
But of course! I developed the Fearsome Flip to celebrate my newest cocktail ingredient, Hazelnut Orgeat. This syrup is a filbert-based orgeat made from roasted hazelnuts grown here in Oregon.
About the author: Laren Spirer is yet another lawyer (and freelance writer) obsessed with food and drink. When she's not eating, drinking, cooking, or thinking about what to eat, drink, or cook, she can often be found cycling, running, or swimming, likely in preparation for a triathlon. She also blogs at Sweet Blog o' Mine and tweets at @sweetblogomine.