Kahiki, you are missed

"The rise and fall of the tropical dream at the Kahiki"
IMBIBE (Sept/Oct 2014)

In the Sept/Oct issue of Imbibe, my Behind the Bar column is about the Kahiki, the late, great tiki bar of Columbus, Ohio. The first and only time I visited was just a few weeks before it was demolished in 2001. At the time, I was a contributing editor at Preservation magazine, the official publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I was fascinated by the fact that the Kahiki was the only tiki bar on the federal National Register of Historic Places, a designation that unfortunately did nothing to help save it.

I ended up pitching a story to The Atlantic magazine, which was then called The Atlantic Monthly. I’d been pitching The Atlantic for about 12 years, and had a nice collection of rejection letters for my pains. (Yes, typed letters, which dates me.) But the tiki story got the green light, and was my first piece to appear in the magazine. You can read it here. (The formatting is very Web 1.0.) I believe my next “Drinks’ column will mark the 50th story I’ve had in the magazine. But you never forget your first.

The Imbibe story isn’t online — at least not yet. But if you’re curious about the place, above are a few photos I took when I stopped by just ahead of the wrecking ball. Click to cycle through.

Bartender for life

Going the Distance
IMBIBE (Sept/Oct 2014)

The stamina of career bartenders has always fascinated me, so when Paul Clarke at Imbibe suggested I do a story about it, I was happy to pick up the phone and call bartenders and ask a lot of questions. Bartenders have always seemed rather heroic to me — I don’t know how they do what they do night in and night out. And so many do it with such aplomb, and make it seem like it’s nothing. They never mention dealing with bathroom plumbing issues at 1am, or having to come in early to do inventory.

Chefs get to practice their artistry in the back, away from view, and can be as cranky and unpleasant as the job makes them. Bartenders do what they do just a few feet from their customers, and have to remain reasonably agreeable if they want to stay in the game. (Paul Gustings excepted.) And they do this while being undistracted by some dude waving a $20 bill at the end of the bar yelling “Hey, bro, how about some love over here?”

I talked to a lot of bartenders about their experiences and strategies for long-term survival. As is often the case, not all the bartenders nor their comments made it into the piece. I had a whole section on dealing with perception of bartending and self-respect that didn’t make it in. Some bartenders I spoke to said they've had to face down those doubts — parents who had hoped they’d go into law, and friends who figured that they’d grow out of bartending after a few years, and wouldn’t make a career out of it.

My brother long worked as a bartender in California, and his investment banker college friends would fly in to visit him every year. “This is great,” they told him. “We love coming to drink with you. But you know what? If you’re still doing this when you 30, you’re a bum.” (He’s still in the business 20 years later, although he’s been manager for most of those.)

But that perception is changing, like so much else in the craft cocktail world. Steve Yamada, a friend and New Orleans bartender who’s about to open Lattitude 29 with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his wife, Annene, talked about that with me.  “It’s a weird thing,” he said. “At my ten-year high school reunion I was freaking out because these people had become investment bankers, and who am I? But it turned out they were more interested in talking about what I was doing than about what they were doing.”

Rye returns


"How Rye Came Back: The Unexpected Source of a Craft Whiskey Boom"
THE ATLANTIC (Sept 2014)

The secret's is out, of course. Many of the "craft spirits" on the shelf are made by the same large industrial manufacturer. The greybeard cocktail writer Eric Felten explored this in a Daily Beast story in late July. I scratched a bit further in my September column in The Atlantic, and found out that this rye is actually outstanding — whiskey dude Jay Erisman told me this some of “the best rye in the history of rye.”  How did it get that way? Have a read.

Fernet & urbanism go together like Benedictine & brandy

How Zappos and Fernet Saved Downtown Vegas
PUNCH (August 5. 2014)

This piece for Punch was a spin-off. I was sent to Las Vegas a couple of years ago by Sunset magazine, to write this story about the reinvention of downtown Las Vegas. While I was there, all this stuff about Fernet and drinking kept cropping up, and for mysterious reasons Sunset’s editors didn’t find this germane to the topic I’d been sent to write about.

I thought that urbanism and drinking were linked, and that some of the folks that I’d met while there got this. So I wrote up this short piece for Punch, in part so I could sort it out in my own mind.

The picture above shows the Fermet dispenser I saw in CEO Tony Hseih’s private rumpus room, in one of three condo units he joined together in a downtown tower. It’s a repurposed Jägermiester dispenser crafted by his staff and given to him as a present. I do not know of any other CEOs of $2 billion companies that have ready access to chilled Fernet. If you do, please let me know. Maybe it’s a thing, and I’m just not in the loop.