Shannon Mustipher, the resident rum expert at Glady’s Caribbean in Brooklyn, has just published “Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails,” the first cocktail recipe book written by a working African American bartender and released by a major publisher in more than 100 years.
Mustipher’s book is what she calls a “theater for the senses” where, as in her home bar, calypso, zouk and mambo tunes meet verdant plants and colorful décor, and cocktails come alongside plates of curry goat, jerk chicken, and ackee with saltfish. The book gives a nod to the tiki canon and a new frontier of island-inspired drinks, from the earthy Martiniquais Ti’ Punch with white agricole blanc, to the bright Parasol made with banana syrup. Mustipher hopes her book will transport readers. She can rest easy — anywhere her drinks are is a place you want to go.
In 90 recipes, Mustipher puts her stamp on tiki. There’s something for everyone. She goes big in Port of Call, a boozy overproof combo featuring arrack, allspice dram and tangerine juice. Her Wingman features brown butter-washed rum, Campari and lime leaf-infused falernum poured into a can of good pineapple cider, a delightful turn. Even shochu and vodka make elegant appearances. “I wanted to make tiki recipes more forward-looking, to signal to the reader this was a fresh take, but still within context,” Mustipher says.
A project like this doesn’t just emerge from the ether. For the past five years, Mustipher has developed the rum-focused bar program at Glady’s, becoming a go-to authority on cane spirits in the process. Before that, Mustipher was a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied painting and art history — an education put to use art directing this, her first book.
A Charleston, S.C., native raised in Atlanta, Mustipher grew up visiting her Gullah Geechee relatives in the Lowcountry, hearing their creole and enjoying massive crab boils and cookouts. Food was always social in her family, so it wasn’t a leap for her to be swept along with the rising wave of New York cocktail bars in the mid-2000s. By 2014, she’d made a name for herself as a barwoman. Glady’s came calling. Rum would be the backbone of its new bar program: Could she build it out?
Mustipher knew that even inquisitive drinkers didn’t know much about rum. They worried the spirit was too sweet, and on the tiki side, Mustipher was concerned her drinks would be perceived as syrupy fillers. But culturally, rum was a good fit for Glady’s, a Crown Heights restaurant serving Afro Caribbean fare. And back then, many of their regulars were residents in the neighborhood descended from Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados. “People could see things that they recognized and understood. I started in the traditional south with Appleton, Wray & Nephew, Mount Gay. I didn’t have to explain a lot.”
Rum is a spirit category that still eludes widespread affection in the U.S. “It’s made in more than 90 countries, which makes it the most diverse spirit,” she says. Rum is distilled from fermented sugarcane juice, syrup or molasses and its global variation can make it tricky to pin down. From India and the Philippines to Martinique, Haiti and Peru, cane spirits reign. A rum from Barbados can evoke caramel thanks to higher sucrose levels than one from Jamaica distilled from sugarcane molasses that might present with a hint of fermented funkiness. It’s taken time, but rum is experiencing the appreciation that previously eluded now-prized spirits like gin and mezcal. “When people find out about mezcal in terms of its quality, they start to wonder if that’s going on in other categories as well,” she says.
Mustipher wants her drinks to send you off, even if just for a moment. She determined that the best way to showcase rum in its pleasantries and complexities was to let the spirit speak for itself. Every pour had to be “sippable neat.” No masking — if she couldn’t savor the rum with nary an ice cube present, it was not at the bar.
She developed rum flights so customers could learn that the spirit was multifaceted, a thing apart from the cheeky gimmicks to market industrial versions of the stuff on TV. Early drinks at Glady’s were dry and light, often served with pressed-to-order juices. The approach worked. Over time, she saw less skepticism, more engagement. When Mustipher began she struggled to find 50 high-quality rums she could serve unadulterated. Today, she could easily bring in 50 more, if she had the space.
In her years of research, Mustipher noticed that following the rum and cane spirit trail meant less reading about how rum tastes and more reading about how sugarcane was produced. That’s how she came to understand the role that centuries of forced labor played in the cultivation of sugar; how she came to realize that rum as we know it wouldn’t exist in the Americas without the enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants.
Sugar — in this country, and especially in the colonized Caribbean — meant unspeakable wealth for business owners, no surprise when the work was free. Mustipher compares the impact of the sugar industry to the effect of striking oil. “It was the basis of our modern economy,” she says. And that of the global economy, too — built on a cutthroat system of forced mating, devastated families and such brutal work processes that the life expectancy of a newly arrived enslaved worker on sugarcane plantations was seven years. “People made sacrifices or were sacrificed, I come right out and say that when I’m serving someone,” she says. “If anything, this history inspires me to treat rum with respect and reverence.”
Mustipher integrates the complex history of cane spirits in her work, even during service. She wants her drinks to inspire new memories, but she can’t ignore the past. In her early research she came across Tom Bullock, a St. Louis barman whose self-published 1917 work “The Ideal Bartender” helped ground her in the historic role African Americans held in beverage service. Bullock’s is the first known cocktail book to be published by a black person (facsimiles are now in print); it doesn’t escape her observation that if she were his peer, as a woman she wouldn’t have been permitted to mix drinks for a living. Mustipher isn’t the only African American bartender to be inspired by this history. Johnny Caldwell and Taneka Reaves, who blog under the name the Cocktail Bandits, cover Charleston cocktail culture in their indie publication “Holy Spirits.” In Oxford, Miss., Saint Leo bartender Joseph Stinchcomb earned his restaurant a James Beard Award semi-finalist nod for outstanding bar program. Throughout the country, a robust community of black beverage professionals are pushing for more inclusion and fairer representation.
Mustipher hopes readers actually make her drinks and that the the book is “seen — like really seen,” she says. “Many people don’t see others who look like them behind the bar,” she says. “But we’re here.”
“Shannon is a true inspiration,” says Nicole Taylor, author of “The UpSouth Cookbook.” Taylor introduced Mustipher to Noah Fecks, who photographed both books. “She chartered her own course, she blazed trails for young, black, queer women and created a book that speaks to her roots as a fine artist.”
An understated fact of tiki cocktails is that they’re incredibly easy to get wrong. In “Tiki,” Mustipher delivers a reliable guide to transporting and inventive drinks, like a tropical vacation that continues each time you open the book.