My first actual bartending job was opening a rum bar, Donna, in Brooklyn in 2012. It was only my second real job in New York, and it taught me a lot about what a bar could mean to people. The food and beverage, the music, the visual aesthetic—all of these factors contributed to an overwhelming sense of place, one that was so distant from the physical space on Broadway in Williamsburg. On our best days, walking through the doors there was like taking a vacation, if only for the evening.
The drinks on that first menu were all vaguely tiki-adjacent: tons of them featured rum, often paired with other spirits, and while I had no experience with the category whatsoever, I could tell how much the spirit and the associated styles contributed to the transportive quality of that bar. Showing up to work there every day, I started to learn what a drink could mean to somebody—the opportunity to forget, for a moment, whatever had been on their mind that day, week, month, whatever—and I saw that making those drinks for people took them further away from their life than anything I’d ever made for anyone before.
It was in that first year that I really got excited about rum, about the kinds of drinks that some peers used to snidely refer to as “vacation drinks,” and about the vast breadth of the category. To me it made perfect sense that a family that included such variation in styles, flavor profiles, methods of production, and even raw materials would possess the unique ability to ferry the drinker across such vast distance. Maybe it was just the unfamiliarity of it, the high barrier to entry, the puzzled looks on guests’ faces when you tried to explain to them that every single one of those hundred bottles behind you was a different kind of rum; the more I knew about the category, the more I felt like the gatekeeper to a vast repository of forgotten knowledge. And not necessarily the kind that required talking your captive audience’s ear off—though there was danger of that, early on—but the kind that might reveal itself in a look of surprise on the face of your guest, tasting something for the very first time.
Looking back, those moments formed the real core of my passion for tending bar, for creating new drinks, and for the craft of hospitality. The act of initiation, on the part of the guest, into some shadowy and heretofore unknown arena—getting to participate in that on a daily basis—is what keeps me excited about my job. Sometimes the vector is an obscure classic tiki drink, or it’s the first taste of a novel and exciting spirit, and sometimes its just helping to welcome a guest into a dark bar where they might not otherwise feel at home. In any case, I think rum taught me something about all of it.