Tiki to the Stars

This past weekend I was on a business trip to Los Angeles. Knowing there are multiple tiki options in the LA area, my team was kind enough to indulge me with a trip to LONO Hollywood for dinner and drinks.

If you read no further, at least know that LONO Hollywood has amazing tiki hospitality! They were able to get us a day-of reservation for 6 as well as were extremely attentive throughout the entire evening! I would VERY highly recommend LONO and look forward to returning in the future.

LONO is located right on Hollywood Blvd., about 4 blocks from the Chinese Theater. When you walk up to the address you first see a tacky “beach bar” and, if you don’t know any better, have a moment of “is this what I came here for?!”  It was a great bait and switch for my 5 teammates who did not have a lot of experience with tiki.

Next door to the beach bar was a small hallway with some vines, tikis and a skull head. At the end was a neon sign and a bamboo door.  This is what the entrance to a tiki bar should look like, there was not one sign that said “LONO” (though if you looked past the hallway, you could find the big palm tree logo on the wall).  It was perfect… it spoke to the mystery and adventure that would soon transpire upon opening the door.

We went in and had a very warm welcome. The space is larger than a lot of tiki bars with lots of tables for dining as well as lounge areas for enjoying drinks and friends. We were sat at a reserved booth towards the front corner and started our tiki adventure.

Meriah came over to welcome us and gave us a tour of the drink menu as well as provided a few recommendations.  I also tried to guide my tiki-virgins by asking about their likes and dislikes to help point them towards a drink that would match their flavor pallets.

I, of course, started with the house specialty, the Curse of Lono. According to the menu, only the beverage director, Chad, knows the recipe. I went ahead and ordered it in the LONO signature tiki mug and, to the delight of the table, it arrived with flames and fireballs. The drink itself was one of the best of the evening! It was spirit forward, which I prefer, with a hint of sweetness at the end (my guess is passion fruit). Also, while a little pricey, the tiki mug is a fantastic add to the collection! It has lots of hidden Hollywood gems throughout.

With 6 of us, we each tried a little something different and everyone really enjoyed their drinks.  On the table for the first round we had a Navy Grog, a Painkiller, a Queen Ka’ahumanu, another Curse and a Mai Tai. Everyone was really pleased with their orders… I had the chance to try the Mai Tai and, I will admit, it was a little sweet for my taste but an enjoyable riff (vanilla syrup and macadamia are additional ingredients).

Dom, the GM, came to see how things were progressing and I cannot say enough about Dom and his hospitality! He and his staff really went out of their way to make sure that everyone was having a wonderful time and was enjoying their tiki experience.

We moved on to food and, once again, LONO did not disappoint. Everything we had was fantastic (we way over ordered) but the group collectively would recommend the Kauai Fried Chicken, Shrimp Shack and the Pork Belly 2 Ways.

Moving on to round two we had a few repeat orders but I went for the King Kamehameha which featured rum, of course, Aperol lime, pineapple, Cara Cara orange, passion fruit and honey. It was a tad sweeter than the Curse but the Aperol provided a great balance. I would definitely recommend both my drinks.

As we finished our food, Dom and Chad were kind enough to offer us a sneak peak of drinks coming to the menu in about 3 weeks. Chad was very generous with his time, taking a few minutes to come over and give us a tour of each delicious new beverage. We had the chance to sample the Black Mamba, the Oh Captain My Captain, the Permanent Vacation and the Piña Colossus. It was wonderful to experience the contrast in each drink and everyone was able to gravitate towards a drink that we enjoyed. I’m thrilled that we were able to do some early tasting and would definitely recommend trying out the new drinks when they are added soon.

The location itself is split into two bars. The front, main bar, is for relaxed drinking and dining but then the bar in the back opens late night for more of a “night club” feel. LONO definitely has something for everyone.  The décor is more what I would call “light tiki” with the palm frond wall paper but I definitely enjoyed the elements of nautical décor like the ship’s helm, wooden oars and much more throughout.

I said it at the top and I’ll say it again, LONO definitely needs to be on your list if you are in LA/Hollywood! Dom and his team are amazing and everyone we interreacted with wanted to make sure we were taken care of and were having a great time. Mahalo Dom, Chad, Meriah and the rest of the team for a great experience. Because of your hospitality we may have a few new tikiphile converts on our hands!

The Pagan Went Down to Georgia

I don’t travel a lot for my “day job” however when I do I, obviously, like to try to find a nearby Tiki Bar to experience while I’m in town. This week’s work trip took me to Atlanta. I had the opportunity to briefly visit S.O.S. Tiki in Decatur a month earlier, but this latest visit was a full Tiki Extravaganza.

I’m not sure how long it has been going on, however, lately, there have been a number of “tiki takeovers”. This is when bartenders from one tiki bar travel to and mix at another tiki bar (and then, usually, they do the reverse swap – kind of like a home and home in sports). For this takeover, two bartenders from Pagan Idol in San Francisco came down to S.O.S. Tiki in the Atlanta area.

S.O.S. is located in small downtown Decatur and the entrance is down a side ally. Upon entering there is a small flight of stairs that leads you down into the main bar. The bar is small, slightly bigger than Suffering Bastard in Orlando. As it should be, it is dark and offers some “mystery”. The wall behind the bar features a nice assortment of rums as well as a fun collection of tiki mugs (including some of the Star Wars Geeki Tiki mugs… which I know are controversial but I love them so that earns points in my book).

On my previous visit Ieuan, the manager, was my fantastic bartender.  He was behind the bar to welcome me again however Nick, from Pagan Idol, would be my amazing host for the evening. Nick was fantastic from the start, walking me through the three special drinks they were featuring for the takeover. He explained that Plantation Rum was sponsoring the event and each drink featured a Maison Ferrand product (owner of Plantation Rums).

I decided to start with the Escape from Cognac (showcasing Ferrand Cognac). It was crisp and nice, a great element of orange and it was creamy but not (hard to explain).  It was different from the direction that I usually go with Tiki but very enjoyable. That’s a great thing about tiki and, specifically, these types of gatherings… you have the opportunity to try different things you might not normally choose.

While enjoying my beverage, and before things got to busy, I was able to chat with Ieuan and Nick some. Ieuan opened S.O.S. Tiki 4 years but then stepped away for a bit.  The call of tiki wouldn’t let up and he’s been back behind the bar and managing it for around 2 years.

Nick, as my bartender for the evening, received my favorite question… what’s the one rum you’d be stuck on an island with for the rest of your life. He went with a Agricole overproof because he figured he could sip it, make a Ti Punch, mix it, a little of everything.

I moved on to try the Toucan Dance, which featured Plantation 3 Star rum. This one is straight from the Pagan Idol menu. It was a little heavier, think Pearl Diver, but had an amazing balance of coconut (not overly powerful), orange and house-made Fassionola. The Pagan Idol team did a wonderful job with their exclusive, while supplies lasted, menu.

Michael from Plantation Rums brought some of the newest Plantation Single Cask offering.  I had the opportunity to sample a few as well as chat with Michael about my love for different rums and how much I enjoy the Plantation rum products. He was very generous with his time and sharing his insight about rum and the endless options it offers. His passion for rum and Plantation was clear… I think that’s one of my favorite things about tiki/rum is talking with people who are passionate about what they do and Michael was no exception.

From a tasting perspective, I was able to enjoy the Barbados XO and the Trinidad 1997. I have to say that the Trinidad is unlike any rum I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. It is smoky and nutty, you can taste the Peat Whiskey from the cask then there is a bit of tobacco and vanilla on the end that lingers. Hopefully I will be able to find a bottle of my own, though, I know that sometimes can pose a challenge… especially in Central Florida where pickings can be slim. (Michael, if you end of reading this, tell me where to look!)

(Can I take a quick minute to say that I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with a number of members of the Plantation Rum team over the past few months and all of them have been wonder individuals. They are always willing to discuss their craft as well as their products, and they are genuinely interested in hearing about other people’s love for rum.)

After some tastings I then asked Nick if he could put together a Pagan Idol Mai Tai for me… he was extremely generous with his craft and I hope he realized how appreciative I was. While he was upfront that S.O.S. didn’t have all the rums that Pagan uses for their Mai Tai Rum Blend, it was a very enjoyable combination. He used some Smith & Cross and Rum-Bar Dark as well as some of the Plantation Single Cask Peru 2010 that was available. He, of course, added Pagan’s homemade Orgeat as well. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward, hopefully, to having a true Pagan Idol Mai Tai in San Fran in the future.

Finally, throughout the evening I had a chance to chat with some S.O.S. regulars who were on hand. Bruce was a great guy and we chatted about our own Mai Tai blends. I also had the chance to talk with Jeff about rums as he is a rum rep for several brands including Clement, Rhum J.M, Chairman’s Reserve and Admiral Rodney. He enjoyed hearing the story of “Trader Jay’s” and he, along with his lovely new wife, agreed to be my next two subscribers.

It was another enjoying Tiki Evening! The takeover was an amazing surprise and everyone I encountered from the S.O.S crew to the visiting Pagan bartenders to the Plantation gang to the friendly regulars were wonderful to talk with. It was a great, inclusive atmosphere where everyone was welcome. I very much look forward to another visit to S.O.S. in the future as well as, hopefully, crossing paths with all the individuals I had the pleasure of interreacting with. Cheers & Mahalo!

Rum + Dinner = Perfection

A few weeks ago Mrs. Trader (Nautical Nina) and I had the opportunity to experience the Sapphire Falls Rum Dinner. The Universal Orlando Loews Resort puts on this event 2-3 times a year. Each time they feature a different rum brand and pair their multiple offerings with a five course dinner. This past evenT starred Plantation Rums. From start to finish it was a Rum-Riffic evening! SPOILER ALERT: We LOVED this event and will be back for the next one and would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who is a Rum Lover or a Foodie (or BOTH, like us)!

Upon arrival at Sapphire Fall, we were directed downstairs to Amatista Cookhouse.  There we checked in and were welcomed to the patio for beer, wine or, of course, rum.  They had a punch pre-made with Plantation Three Stars rum. I will say that while good, the punch could have benefited from being served over crushed ice like a Painkiller.  There were some passed appetizers while everyone waited to be welcomed in the dining room.

We had the pleasure of talking with Phil, Assistant Director of Food and Beverage, before the doors opened to welcome us to our tables. Phil is an amazing host and definitely is one that will go above and beyond to make you feel welcome.

Prior to entering the dining room we were assigned a table. Nautical Nina and I joined Rum Master Eddie, his wife, son and brother all at Table #1. As we entered and found our table, we settled in for dinner. The rum punch from outside was also available at each table but the best was yet to come.

We started with Sticky Santiago Spareribs which were agave braised with a pineapple mango chutney. The ribs were paired with a Carnaval featuring Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum. I already knew I was a big fan of Stiggins’ Fancy rum and this drink was wonderful.

It had a little charred pineapple in it, which was a nice touch. It was during this first course we were introduced both to Aaron, our mixologist for the evening from Sapphire Fall, and Rocky, Rum Ambassador for Plantation Rums. During the course of the evening Aaron would share how he built each rum drink and Rocky would give great information on each Plantation rum. (Rocky had amazing stories about the lengths that the Planation team goes to in order to ensure a premium, quality product. It was really wonderful to have the opportunity to hear those stories first hand.)

Next we moved to a Simple Seared Scallop paired with a Voodoo Lemonade made with Plantation Three Stars.  The lemonade was nice, light, made for pool side enjoyment. 

Then the soup course was a Bahamian Bouillabaisse (with snapper, shrimp, calamari and mussels) which was paired with a Plantation Original Dark Overproof “Red Tide”.  Since first coming out I have enjoyed the O.F.T.D. Overproof from Plantation and Red Tide was very nice… had an Old Fashioned feel to it, slightly sweeter.  It was a good contrast to the seafood soup.

The main course was an amazing Caribbean Rubbed Ribeye which was matched with, in my opinion, the highlight of the evening… The Smoke Show with Plantation Original Dark. Aaron served it “trapped” in smoke and then released the drinks and smoke to fill each table. The aroma of the smoke paired perfectly with the drink and steak. This was so enjoyable that Phil, and our wonderful waiter Henry, were kind enough to grab us another round.

We “ended” with a Autumn Spiced Cheesecake and Plantation Barbados 2002 Gran Terroir rum for sipping.  The cheesecake was fantastic with hints of cinnamon, clove, allspice and more.  The Barbados 2002 is a great sipping rum… it is how a Barbados Rum should be… a little “lighter” than a full Jamaican rum but able to stand on its own and represent Barbados with a slightly sweet finish.

The good news was that the evening was not even over yet… we ended back on the patio with hand-rolled cigars, coffee and one of Plantation’s newest offerings, their Xaymaca Extra Dry.  I have had the opportunity to become very familiar with this wonderful offering from Plantation… so much so that it actually is part of my “Mai Tai Rum Blend”.

I would be remise if I didn’t call out the fact that I had the opportunity to meet “Typhoon Tommy” (designer/builder of the beautiful Suffering Bastard tiki bar) and his fiancé, Kari (creator of Magical Tiki Meet Up). It was wonderful to chat with them about all things rum and tiki, and I hope that our paths will continue to cross in the future.

It is hard to put into words just how fantastic the Rum Dinner was. Phil’s team hosted an amazing evening and Aaron did a wonderful job building and pairing the drinks. (Shout out to Henry too… he was attentive and personable and has a true eye for guest service!) It was wonderful to hear the stories from Rocky and have the opportunity to chat with him thought out the evening (how do I get his job?!?!). Fernando, the incredible manager of Strong Water, also made an appearance and, like always, it was a pleasure catching up with him.

(Special THANK YOU to Rum Master Eddie who is always a wonderful host and makes sure we don’t miss the invites these events!)

While the next hasn’t been scheduled, Nautical Nina and I will definitely be joining!  Keep your eyes on my Instagram (@trader_jays) and I’ll be sure to post as soon as the next one is announced… I’d love the chance to taste some rum and eat some amazing food with everyone.

Summer of Rum: Islamorada Distilling

Every year for 39 years my family has taken a pilgrimage down to the Florida Keys for the opening of Lobster Season. While I have missed years here and there, my parents have continued the tradition without a break. This year myself, the Junior Traders and my lifelong friend Sailor Rick joined the trip.

While fishing/lobstering was the overall focus, I’m always on the hunt for a Tiki Bar or new Rum. As I was about 12 miles from the end of my drive south, Islamorada Beer Company caught my eye. I noticed something that I maybe didn’t notice on my last trip two year previous… the side of the building also says “Distillery”. I immediately reached out to the Islamorada Distilling Team and scheduled a visit with Master Distiller/Brewer Stephanie Harper.

Upon arrival, Sailor Rick and I were given a warm welcome by the Manager Larissa. She invited us to the tasting bar and went through our rum lineup.

The set up is very unique… on one side of the building is the Beer Co, with full bar and high tops and merchandise then “next door” is the Distillery where you can do tastings and purchase their liquors. Some information that Larissa provided us is that under Florida law you can’t combine a Brewery and Distillery, so they have to remain separate.

Larissa explained that the Distillery has been in business since 2017 and they currently have four rum profiles for sale to the public (as well as two gins and a vodka). We strapped in to try the Silver, Spiced, Select Barrel Aged and Dark Barrel Aged. While the Dark Barrel Aged uses black strap molasses, the others all use Pearl Select Molasses, which includes a blend of sugars from throughout the Caribbean.

We started with the Silver rum, which is aged over oak chips. It was very smooth and light. It is a great mixing rum that still holds a lot of its oaky flavor. Stephanie later explained that originally they were aiming for a 100% clear rum however the filtering was removing too much of the unique flavors. They settled on a more silver color as to not lose the heart of the rum.

We next moved on to the Barrel Aged Rum. This rum is under a continued journey and will soon be re-branded as their Select Rum. It is first distilled in a copper pot still and then run through the column for the spirit run. It is then barrel aged in new white oak barrels at a medium toast and, at the moment, aged for 8 months (soon will be a minimum of a year). The flavor profile had nice hints of vanilla and, of course, a tinge of oak. It reminded me of a lighter bourbon.

Their Spiced was next… I will say that for quite some time I haven’t really been a fan of spiced rum. I know that some on the market have a lot of additives and some are of a high quality but I tend just to avoid them all together. If I want cinnamon or cloves or vanilla in a drink then I like to just added it separately using a homemade syrup. But I went into this with an open mind and I was pleasantly surprised. Islamorada’s Spiced Rum was very “spice forward” and well balanced. It starts with vanilla and ends into a great cinnamon but without the burning of something like Fireball. I would actually almost compare it to St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. It is a spiced rum that I wouldn’t mind having around.

Finally, we stepped things up a notch with the Dark Rum. This rum is, in my opinion, their best offering. (It won a gold medal from the International Rum Expert Panel in 2018.) Like the Select Barrel Aged, it is currently being aged at 8 months but soon will be at a year. They are using New Oak barrels with a Char 3. The Dark has gone through a revolution. Currently you can purchase batch 9 and Master Distiller Stephanie loves its “richness”. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to also try batch 6, which used Hungarian Spiced Oak Chips, as well as batch 10, which was BOTTLED THAT DAY.

I have to say that I loved the batch 10! The butterscotch and caramel shine and it makes it a good sipping rum. It is fun that they are bottling all their rums as Single Cask so you get a slightly different experience each time you dive in. While blending is essential for the big distilleries, single cask allows smaller, independent shops to offer some wonderful flexibility and different experiences.

After our tastings, Stephanie invited the Sailor and I back into the distillery! She was an amazing hostess and really has learned her craft (and loves to share it, which is wonderful). Stephanie was a dive instructor who really took the job of Brewer on almost a dare (“you think you can do better, then come in here and show me”). She then migrated to Distilling when, without much warning, Islamorada Beer Company was granted their Distilling license.

Currently they are doing all their distilling and barrel aging and bottling and labeling right on the premises but soon will have an additional location further north in Ft. Pierce, FL. While I like the thought of having everything happen in Islamorada, I get the need to grow and I know that having more storage space will allow for longer aging and more profiles. The plan is still to distill everything in the Keys but then use the extra space in Ft. Pierce for storage and aging. Stephanie told us that they have a Queen’s Share (saw the barrel) and Reserve in the works as well as a Rye and a Bourbon.

We were fortunate enough to be there while a spirit run was working through the column still and even were able to sample some still strength rum which, while STRONG, was extremely delicious. Not sure if an overproof rum in in their future however, I’d purchase it if it comes to pass.

We spent over 2 hours with Stephanie and Larissa and we could have stayed even longer! Their hospitality and information was invigorating and infectious but we knew they also had jobs to do. Before leaving I knew I needed some of the Dark to bring back to Trader Jay’s (and some Hibiscus Gin for Mrs. Trader) however, batch 10, my favorite, was not quite ready. Stephanie invited us next door for beverage from the Beer Company and offered to wax a few bottles of Dark Batch 10 for us. (As a side note, I tried the No Wake Zone Key Lime Coconut Ale and it was delicious and refreshing.)

For one final treat, Stephanie invited us back to watch our Batch 10 bottles be waxed and presented us with bottles 1-4. It was an extremely kind gesture and now I’m kind of hesitant to open bottle 1.

I cannot speak highly enough of Islamorada Distilling! While still very young, they are well on their way. They have an amazing staff down there at Mile Marker 82 who all offer a wonderful, casual Florida Keys hospitality. If you are in the area then I would definitely recommend stopping in to say hi and for a taste, I do not think you’d be disappointed.

Mahalo Stephanie and Larissa! We will be back!