Today, I’m starting an occasional series I’m calling Thirsty Thursday where I check in with Tacoma brewers, cocktail slingers, sommeliers and other Tacomans who work with booze. Today’s Q&A is with Jason Alexander, the king of Tacoma tiki drinks and co-owner of Tacoma Cabana with business and life partner Robyn Murphy.
Alexander collected a cocktail following in Tacoma when he was bartending at Villa Cafe and Imbibery, the restaurant he and Murphy opened in 2010 before opening Tacoma Cabana in October 2012. At Villa, Alexander developed his own style of blending fresh squeezed fruit juices with housemade syrups, which led to his interest in tiki cocktails. Not those sweet from-a-mix ’80s blender drinks like pina colada or daiquiri, but tiki drinks modeled after ‘50s era cocktails using ingredients like orgeat, an almond syrup, and falernum, a ginger-lime cordial. Alexander invested in a top-shelf selection of rum, too. He’s the kind of barkeep who will give you a quick rum primer – just ask.
TNT Diner: At what point did you start experimenting with craft cocktailing?
Alexander: I just never liked those girly drinks and that’s why I always stuck with beers, I could not drink more than one than I had to because they were so sweet. Once I found out I could do it on my own, I hoped or thought I could do it better and make it tasty and balanced, not a beverage masked and hidden behind mounds of fruit juice.
TNT Diner: Talk about the balance in cocktails, what was it about the sweet drinks that bothered your palate?
Alexander: You order a cocktail in a 16-ounce glass with barely a shot of booze and the rest is filler. I want to taste everything that’s in the drink whether it be a syrup and lime juice and bitters and the booze. I think they all should have an equal part and play together and you should taste all of them at one time and throughout every sip of your drink.
TNT Diner: Does Tacoma get you and your craft tiki drinks yet?
Alexander: Some yes, some no. The location of our business, I get a lot of people who come in and expect your standard sports bar. Everybody’s drinks are the same or tweaked slightly. Some people, due to our location, some people expect that from us and they don’t understand when they get in there what the hell is going on.
Some people are open to the education process. I think I fight an uphill battle with the cocktails I serve and the liquor of choice I serve – rum. Most people are deathly afraid of rum. It’s (typical rum drinks) just sweet and sweet and sweet. Most of these old tiki tropical drinks were heavy on the citrus and low on the sweetener and oftentime a blend of three different rums that were methodically put together and a lot of times that stuff gets overlooked in today’s drinks.
TNT Diner: Why has the American cocktail palate skewed so sweet in recent years?
Alexander: I don’t think it’s recent years, it’s ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s when fruit companies started mass producing stuff and it was easier and faster to chemically flavor stuff and getting it out the door instead of making it fresh. That and people get lazier and lazier and they don’t want to make their own juices to make a drink. The same with dinner, it’s easier to microwave a dinner. The same with cocktails. Some people are hanging on to the trend of cheap, fast and easy.”
TNT Diner: In late summer, you competed in an international mai tai competition in Hawaii. Tell readers about that?
Alexander: There’s a mandatory ingredient and style you have to do. Sammy Hagar’s Beach Bar Rum has been the sponsor, his rum had to be used in the mai tai. I wanted to make my drink all about the Sammy Hagar rum.
I’ve been making this drink at the Cabana, an original drink of mine and I call it the Drunken Helmsman. I use a heavily proofed rum. It’s really flavorful that definitely enhances the profile for the beverage, so I took that recipe for that and changed it to more of a mai tai. Sammy’s Beach Bar rum, maple syrup, amaro, an Italian liqueur. I made a custom falernum for the competition that was orange, ginger and macadamia nut to kind of cover the orange curacao and orgeat flavor profile.
TNT Diner: What did your drink taste like?
Alexander: Rich, but not in a heavy, rich way. It was a cross of all three styles of mai tais – your Don (the Beachcomber), Trader Vic’s and the island style with the float.
TNT Diner: How did you even know where to start when you began researching tiki cocktails before opening Tacoma Cabana with Robyn last year?
Alexander: I’ve learned all three ways: Reading, watching and doing. Since we closed the Villa, I spent 16 months buried in a book or some internet webpage about rum or the history of Trader Vic or Don the Beachcomber or the history of tiki drinks. I’ve gone back to the bar and played around with the ingredients and I’ve tried to recreate or turn it into my own.
TNT Diner: What do you think of the term craft cocktails? Is it overused? Ubiquitous? Does it even mean anything anymore?
Alexander: Actually, I think mixologist is overused a little bit. Somebody was driving through the Taco Bell drive-thru and they told me that it said Taco Bell has a mixologist. When Taco Bell is using the term, I don’t know, it’s lost all meaning.
I don’t consider myself a mixologist. I tell people I’m a bartender, maybe a social chemist is a better word. I bring two people together over drinks. But craft cocktail? I don’t know, there needs to be a word out there to let people know you’re going to get a good drink here, whereas you’re going to go to another place and get a shot of booze in a 16-ounce glass with flavored stuff from the carton.
TNT Diner: What about restaurants, how are they doing at the craft cocktail thing?
Alexander: I don’t think you should have to spend $60 on a steak and look at a drink menu with something on it called the “gummy bear.”
TNT Diner: Sort of like how everyone uses the word martini for drinks that aren’t actually martinis?
Alexander: I think martini is a very, very misused word. Martinis. There’s no such thing as a martini drink. A martini has become any drink that goes in a martini glass. Martini is used to describe anything that’s served up with juice. It doesn’t matter what it is, Tropictini, Sugartini. It’s gotten to the point where I try to use the term cocktail glass whenever I can.
TNT Diner: So what do you do when you see a drink called the “gummy bear” on a restaurant menu?
Alexander: I’m not coming back to your establishment.
TNT Diner: What would you describe as your signature move with your cocktails?
Alexander: Moves? No. I like to think I’m developing a style. I’m pretty new to this ballgame. I had no idea what i was doing at the Villa. That was my lab, slash training ground. I had a lot of failures there and I’m OK with that.
It’s definitely helped to make me better at what I’m good at now. Focusing in on a single style of drinks has helped big time. Instead of going all over the board in a small amount of time, I’ve been doing tiki drinks for a year now and slinging drinks for three. I think I’m coming into my own style through the rums and exotics and tropical drinks. I like to think if you sit at my bar, you can tell you’re drinking a Jason Daiquiri.
TNT Diner: For someone wanting to improve their cocktails at home, what advice would you give?
Alexander: Learn to make quick and simple, cheap drinks. Learn to make a margarita without a bottle of Mrs. T’s mix. It’s not hard, you just need a lime, a bottle of curacao and tequila and obviously there needs to be a little sweetener in a margarita. I’ve been using agave nectar a lot and I’ve been using mai tai sweeteners: pure cane sugar sweetener and almond syrup in the margaritas.
TNT Diner: Can you recommend good rums that won’t break the bank?
Alexander: Rum is one of the most undervalued spirits that’s out there. You can get a bottle of rum for $30 where its whiskey counterpart would be $200. There are quite a few rums that are between 12 and 21 years old that are under the $100 mark that would blow some whiskeys out of the water. Here are my favorites right now.
El Dorado 21 year. That’s the splurge one. That one is pretty phenomenal. It’s from Guyana. And it’s a Demerara rum made from Demerara sugar.
Kirk And Sweeney, 12 year rum out of the Dominican Republic. That one is around I want to say about $40 and both of those are sippers. You don’t need any ice, you can put it in a glass and have at it. It would be a Spanish style. It’s more on the lighter, dryer side – you taste nice notes of vanilla, cherry and tobacco. It’s an absolutely delicious sipper; people want to sip some nice rum, I grab that because it won’t break their bank. I charge $10-$11 for a two-ounce pour.
Plantation Barbados Grand Reserve 5 year, that’s I want to say $19.99. It’s just, you know, it’s cheap, but it tastes super expensive. You can mix it, sip it, it’s super versatile. That’s a Barbados, English style, a little more full bodied than its Spanish style counterpart.
A Jason Daiquiri
2 ounces rum
½ ounce simple syrup
¾ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
Serve over ice and garnish with a lime twist.
NEXT THURSDAY: I’ll check in with Tacoman Brian Johnson, creator of the video series, Better Cocktails at Home.