For many drinkers, the thought of rum conjures sweet, slushy drinks, flowery aloha shirts and mugs that resemble Easter Island statues. Not at Obispo, a bar Thad Vogler is opening in San Francisco’s Mission district in August. It will be, he says, “totally the anti-tiki.”
“I have great respect for the tiki masters,” Vogler says over a ’Ti Punch at his airy San Francisco restaurant Bar Agricole. “Some of them, like Martin [Cate of Smuggler’s Cove], are among the most knowledgeable people about rum and cocktails in the world. But I want to engage what I think is more the real history of rum, which is bloody and sad.”
If “bloody and sad” doesn’t sound exactly like a great bar concept, hear Vogler out. “Tiki,” he says, “is this middle-aged white American male fantasy transported to Polynesia and the South Seas—the one place in the world that grows sugarcane but never historically made rum. So tiki is a weird kind of fantasy or reflection.” Tiki took off in the years after World War II, when soldiers returning from the Pacific ignited a national fascination with the tropics. This showed up in film, Broadway and ultimately in bars, where it was a kitschy mash-up of Pacific Island culture and rum drinks of the Caribbean. But it had little to do with rum’s real history, which is where Vogler’s interests lie.
“Rum is about the collision of cultures,” he says. “Its history involves a Spanish-speaking, slave-owning colonial power. It involves Africans and indigenous populations in the Caribbean. They’re all slammed together and growing sugar. Every rum-producing area is a total headfuck, you know. What’s the colonizing culture? What’s the indigenous population? Where was the slave population from?”
While Obispo will be conscious of the bloody Caribbean history of exploitation in rum’s origin—Vogler is working with San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora to consult on the decor—at heart, he just wants the bar to be a laid-back place that serves “what people are actually drinking in the countries that make rum.” To that end, he’s featuring only a handful of selections from small producers instead of brands owned by big multinational spirits conglomerates. Headlining the list: rhum agricole from Martinique (La Favorite and Neisson); classic fruity, estery overproof rums from Jamaica (Wray & Nephew and Hampden Estate); and a dry, white Cuban-style rum from Guyana (El Dorado)—plus some Havana Club behind the bar. And the focus of Obispo will be cocktails. Nothing ornate in the spirit of tiki, but rather spare, direct and classic versions one can easily imagine the real, full-time working residents of Caribbean islands downing at their favorite watering holes.
At the heart of his planned cocktail menu are two iconic drinks for less than $10. One is the ’Ti Punch, the Caribbean answer to the Old-Fashioned. Barely sweetened with cane syrup and accented by a sliver of lime (more for the pungent oils in the peel than the juice), ice cube optional, it’s what locals drink, pretty much exclusively, in the French Caribbean (Martinique, Guadalupe, Marie-Galante).
While Planter’s Punch is often a regional expression of what happens to grow in a particular place, Vogler adapts his version from the famed Bar La Florida in Havana (now commonly known as La Floridita), which is the fundamental source material for many of Obispo’s drinks. Vogler loves its combination of clarity and complexity, and says it makes for a perfect, inexpensive signature drink. It’s the most complex cocktail on the list, but punches tend to be elaborate.
Cuba has been a major influence on Vogler, as he spent six months in Havana in 2003; Obispo is the name of the street he lived on. One of his enterprises at Obispo will be to revive the Mojito—but not the saccharine form that fuels South Beach nightlife. “Mostly, Cubans drink beer,” he says. “They live on rations, and to have a bottle of Havana Club is a pretty special thing. But every Cuban knows how to make a Mojito.” Vogler makes the drink like he learned to in Cuba—with a dash of aromatic bitters, a light touch on muddling the mint and just a scant teaspoon of raw sugar, added dry. It’s not a sweet cocktail. Obispo will also offer the obscure #2 and #3 versions of the original Mojito Criollo in the 1937 Bar La Florida cocktail book, which, respectively, substitute gin and Cognac for rum.
If you’re wearing an aloha shirt, you’ll still be welcome at Obispo. But don’t expect your drinks to be sweet or ornate. Rum’s actual homeland isn’t so bloody anymore, but its cocktails are no fantasies.
This story was featured in W&S August 2017.
photo by Megan Bayley