Shannon Mustipher does not want to try your cool new cocktail. After nearly a decade behind the bar, she would prefer to play it safe with an IPA or a farmhouse saison, which is what she orders when we meet to discuss her new book. Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails, is a lush, vibrant volume featuring dozens of cocktail recipes that pull from Mustipher’s deep knowledge of rum, which she honed while running the bar program at the Brooklyn restaurant Glady’s. It is also the first cocktail book by a black bartender to be published in over a century. We sat down to chat about gay bars, Colt 45, and the secret to throwing a successful house party.
Your book is number one on Amazon and sold out its first print run in six weeks. How’s it all feeling?
I really didn't think that outside of bar community there’d be a lot of interest in a tiki cocktail book, but it hit at the right time. When I opened Glady’s five years ago, there was only one other overtly tropical-themed bar in New York. But now every major market in the US has at least one tiki bar.
Any guesses as to why tiki is having a moment?
I think that our current political situation is prompting people to not want to be here.
You went to RISD and studied art as an undergrad. Who were your artistic influences?
I was crazy about French figurative artists. I loved Degas. For better or for worse, Gaugin, which is pretty funny. I kind of forgot about it, but then I was looking at some of my art from high school and I was like, “Oh right, I was into Gaugin.” All roads lead back to island babes.
I’m old and crusty, and I don’t want to taste your experiments, sorry.”
On your website you mention that you started bartending by throwing parties, but instead of keggers you would build, like, Warhol-inspired displays of 40’s.
I love a sight gag. You’d open up the fridge, and it would be stacked with 40’s, top to bottom, like Campbell’s soup cans. Or you’d go to the restroom and the bathtub would be filled with ice and bottles of Andre. These parties were crazy. It got to the point where people I didn't even recognize would be like, “So when's the next party?” And I was like, “Who are you? You were in my house?”
Where did you put everything that was normally in your fridge?
That’s a good point. I don't remember. I think we just ate everything?
What's your preferred brand of 40?
When those giant Miller High Lifes came out, I thought that was brilliant. But if I'm really trying to go back? Colt 45. What even is that? It’s not a beer. Malt liquor? I don’t know what that is. And I’m a professional.
What are your tips for throwing a great house party?
Be prepared, and by prepared I mean have your ice figured out. Get a dozen bags. It’s more trouble to run out of ice than it is to have more than you need. I like to start a party with the cleanest possible kitchen. If the kitchen is already a mess and then you're trying to clean up a sticky party on top of that, it's just really sad and demoralizing. Keep in mind that not everybody likes the same thing, so have beer and wine, five basic spirits, two or three mixers. Limes. But mainly make sure you’re clear on the ice.
Are you a beer drinker?
I love IPAs. Saisons are fun, sours. I love cider; I drink a lot of Shacksbury.
Are there any cocktails in your book that have beer as an ingredient?
No, but there's one with cider. It's a play on a Jungle Bird called the Wingman. There’s Campari, a couple rums, and then I use a pineapple cider as a stand in for the pineapple juice. I like Austin East’s pineapple cider, which I think uses pineapple rinds for the aroma. Maybe some juice goes into the fermentation as well.
You are something of a rum expert. If you have somebody who's a beer drinker—maybe an IPA fan—who wants to get into rum, where would you steer her?
IPA drinkers tend to overlap with whiskey drinkers, and there are a lot of rums that will satisfy the whiskey drinker. Those tend to be English-style rums from Guyana or Barbados. They have a little more Scotch influence in terms of how they're put together, and many are finished in whiskey barrels. I personally will sometimes have an IPA and then on the side some Jamaican rum.
What do you look for in a bar when you're going out?
Atmosphere. A chill vibe. Friendly staff. A few decent beers on tap, a couple decent wines. This might be the scandal moment, but I don't drink cocktails when I'm out. I’m old and crusty, and I don’t want to taste your experiments, sorry. If it's the right type of place, I might order a daiquiri if I want something really refreshing.
What about at a dive bar? What's your order?
Miller High Life pony. If I’m at a dive bar, that probably means that I've been to a few other bars prior which means that I need to slow down.
What’s your take on the demise of the gay bar?
I don't go to gay bars anymore. When I was young I did, but now I feel like we're everywhere anyway, so I don't feel I have to go somewhere specific. The fact that we don't—or at least I personally don’t—need gay bars I think is a good sign. If I were younger or I just moved here, I might have a different outlook, but I came out when I was 15, so that’s, like, 25 years ago. I'm good.
Do you identify as gay?
I identify as a dignified human being.
Do you know what your second book will be about?
It’ll be a little more narrative-driven. Spirits played a central role in the development of American drink culture, so the book will talk about cocktails linked to those spirits and how they inform the way people live and drink and hang out. More history, more geeking out about liquids.
It seems like you’re one part bartender, one part historian.
I've always been a big history buff. My favorite after-school activity in second grade was to come home and read through the encyclopedia. In high school I would cut class…and go to the library. So when I took up bartending about eight years ago, I started reading about early bartending—like Jerry Thomas, who wrote the first documented guide to mixing drinks around 1865. And then the second book for me that made a big impact was The Ideal Bartender by Thomas Bullock in 1917.
Your book is actually the first book by a black bartender since The Ideal Bartender, right?
In terms of being put out by a major publisher and given global distribution, yes. There have been other people of color who have written books on the topic of cocktails and spirits in the interim, but not another book by a bartender writing about how to create cocktails from the ground up.
Look, up until the 40’s, if you were a person of color who wrote a book, you needed a preface by a white person.”
What do we know about Tom Bullock?
We know that he worked at the Pendennis club in Louisville and the St. Louis Country Club. It was a high-end club, and a lot of politicians went there. In fact George Herbert Walker [George H.W. Bush’s grandfather] was one of his clients, and he wrote the preface to the book. Because, look, up until the 40’s, if you were a person of color who wrote a book, you needed a preface by a white person.
The fact that he was writing a book at all was probably extraordinary to begin with. I imagine not a lot of people of color got book deals in 1917.
No. I mean, I didn’t do a census, but no. Bullock was held in high esteem though. There are newspaper articles written about his mint julep. I think the equivalent today would be like a Sasha Petraske or Jim Meehan. He was at the top of his game.
Except that with Petraske or Meehan, people were clamoring to open bars with them. I imagine Tom Bullock probably didn’t have the same opportunities.
In Louisville, Kentucky? Not so much. But there were other African-Americans who were proprietors of bars because hospitality businesses were one of the few avenues that were open to people of color. You had people who were taking their experience working as domestic servants and then transferring that over to a business that white people didn't want to do. In fact, one of the earliest saloons in New York that gained notoriety belonged to Alexander Cato. It's in an area that now would be considered Morningside Heights, but in the 1820’s it was near the racetracks. It was a popular weekend activity for the emerging middle class to go and gamble and drink a cocktail on their way to or from the racetrack.
Why were cocktails specifically linked to racetracks?
You're gambling, so you need to be a little flashier. It's not like, “Oh yeah, I’m a high roller, I’ll have a lukewarm beer.”
When can we expect your next book?
My editor said, “We can have it ready for 2020!” I'm like, give the people a little time to miss me.