Hey, I've got an idea! Let's all fight about tiki drinks! Just kidding. Please don't yell at me about how the mai tais I adore at crappy suburban Chinese restaurants aren't authentic unless they contain four kinds of apricot liqueur and the bittersweet tears of a Tahitian virgin who just realized that her sailor is never coming back, but maybe that's for the best anyway because he has appalling hygiene, even by sailor standards.
Every now and then I'll charm my way into a properly mixologized rendition of the trashy tiki drinks I grew up guzzling at the dear, departed Double Dragon in Leominster, Massachusetts. These new-school drinks are leagues better than the lazy rum-rum-and-whatever-juice-is-handy mai tais, scorpion bowls, and suffering bastards of my youth. In fact, if some horrible monster made me pick just one favorite cocktail, I might go with the zombie at Green Street Grill, an otherwise delightful place that has the gall to serve you a tiki drink without offering you a scratch-off lotto ticket or a stick of beef teriyaki. Context is very important, and I just can't get comfortable taking my fake Polynesian medicine without red vinyl booths and an order-by-number menu.
This is only a problem when I live in New York. Manhattan's food scene is every bit as good as the tiresome, haughty transplants always tell you it is, with one notable exception: There are "real" Chinese restaurants where the rum punch and teriyaki joints are supposed to be. In fact, even though the new Serious Eats headquarters are in Chinatown, I never see any mai tai and eggroll references in the gloating afternoon updates about the daily lunch adventures. It's all "Just had the most amazing blowfish roe dumplings" and "OMG, I can't even look at another bowl of squid marrow soup!" Well bully for you, but where is the rum-fried rice?
So the last time I lived down there, I took matters into my own cocktail shaker and spent the better part of a month trying to figure out how to replicate the bad drinks that gave me so many good memories. I came up with some good stuff—lean heavy on the light rum and pineapple juice, be gentle with the dark rum and flavored coffee syrups, and everything else tends to sort itself out—but nothing quite like what I was after. I wanted to be reminded of sneaking out of Emily's parents' house at midnight on Christmas Eve to wait for Santa at Han Dynasty, an exquisitely inauthentic Chinese place squeezed in between the Home Depot and the other Home Depot on the side of the highway in Framingham. Instead I was reminded that making multi-ingredient drinks is a pain in the ass best left to the professionals.
Now that I'm back in Massachusetts, I'm no longer reduced to making my own low-end tiki drinks, but Emily's developed a bit of a dark and stormy problem lately. The problem is that she only remembers to order them when they're on the specialty drink menu, which means they cost $10 instead of the $6 they'd be if she just asked for a dark rum and ginger beer. I respect craft bartending and will pay a premium for a well made drink, but I'm not into double-figure highballs, so we need to take this little habit home.
Ginger beer's harder to come by retail than it should be, but I knew that if I wasted an afternoon hunting for it, I could score some Barritts or Regatta. Then it was on to the hard part: I didn't really have any idea what rum to use. I didn't want to resort to Myers's or Gosling's because I knew there had to be better or cheaper—or better and cheaper—stuff out there, but I didn't know what it was called or where it was sold. So a few weeks ago I asked the Talkers for tips on good Bottom Shelf-eligible dark rums. I was just looking for a respectable Myers's knockoff, but instead you dear souls hipped me to one of my new favorite spirits: Cruzan Black Strap.
First off, it must be established that this stuff is weird. If you take your dark and stormies very seriously and very specifically, this might not be the right rum for the job, but I assure you that all reasonable people will find some job for Cruzan Black Strap to do. It's the most interesting $14 bottle of booze I've had in a long time.
It smells like about seven different things at once, which isn't always a great sign in this price category, because three of the seven things tend to be burnt lemon, cheap caramel, and vanilla extract. Not so with the Black Strap. It's as molasses-y as all get out, as the name demands, but that's cut with coffee/Kahlua, cinnamon, floral, and clove notes that are at once impressive and confusing. I really like this rum so I'm not going to say it's muddled, but I will say that it will take some tinkering before I figure out its best application.
Its only weakness is a sort of grittiness, which further complicates things. Here on the Bottom Shelf, we're not accustomed to things that have complex flavors, so how are we supposed to deal with something that has a distinct texture, too? So far it's worked pretty well with the ginger beer and kicked Coke's ass: Even though the flavors would seem complementary, it was more a case of the stronger version overwhelming the weaker to the point where Coke didn't really add anything beyond bubbles. And rum-and-pineapple's undefeated streak continues.
You all led the way to this discovery in the first place. So now that I've bought the bottle and fallen in love, want to help a brother out with the user's manual?