Mixing tiki drinks may seem like a warm-weather endeavor, but shaking and stirring my way through Shannon Mustipher’s beautiful, inventive “Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails” has supplied a much-needed serotonin boost in this extremely indoor winter. “Tiki,” which came out in 2019, is one of very few cocktail books by an African-American bartender. In it, Mustipher weaves her knowledge through a lavishly photographed guide, presenting the recipes for her layered, balanced drinks and—for those with the confidence to improvise—outlining principles for concocting your own.
It’s immediately obvious that Mustipher knows her rum. She was the beverage director at Gladys Caribbean, a rum bar in Brooklyn, before it closed under pandemic-related pressure in June, and her book is committed to imparting at least a bit of tiki history to its readers. In the first recipe, for a predecessor to the Old-Fashioned called the Bombo, Mustipher suggests a Navy-style rum or an extra-aged or blackstrap rum—spirits that were used when the drink was invented, she writes. Before the world shut down, I would likely pull out the Bacardi Superior and call it a day. Now, without dinner plans, or travel plans, or any plans at all, I obsessively hunt for Mustipher’s suggested bottles: an aged white rum for a variation on the Daiquiri, a rhum agricole blanc for a drink called the Royal Peacock, a pot-still Jamaican rum for a spin on a Mai Tai.
Mustipher takes the presentation of her drinks just as seriously as the spirits she mixes into them. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she threw speakeasy-themed parties complete with “installation pieces,” including beer fridges stacked with forties and champagne chilled in bathtubs. Her penchant for flair seeps into “Tiki.” A garnish “is never an afterthought or arbitrary decoration,” Mustipher writes. “Garnishes fulfill an essential function, engaging all five senses to complete the drink.” To present the Flaneuse, a cocktail that calls for rhum agricole, sherry, and coconut syrup, she suggests an edible flower, a dehydrated pineapple wedge, and a banana leaf. For the S.O.S. Mai Tai, Mustipher explains how to D.I.Y. a flaming lime shell using a sugar cube soaked in 151-proof rum. “Sprinkling ground cinnamon over the flame will create impressive, if brief, sparks,” she writes, before a bolded paragraph of safety tips.
A year into a global pandemic, I’ll take any thrill I can get. So, on a recent thirty-seven-degree school night, I perched a sugar cube on a Mai Tai, lit it until it glowed blue, and shook a jar of cinnamon over the top. An orange flare shot about four inches above the glass, lighting up the kitchen in my tiny studio apartment for less than a second. By the time I gasped, the fire was gone and my counter was coated in cinnamon. The drink, though, was sublime.