In the Spirit
Crafting the perfect party vessel
By Tony Cross
A few months back, I was asked by an online publication that caters to bar managers and owners to write a column discussing Tiki cocktails. There’s no Tiki scene here in the Sandhills, so I had to reach out to a few people who know a lot more than I do on the matter. I was able to chat with the bar manager from one of my favorite bars in Asheville, MG Road, about their Tiki drinks and cocktail classes. Of course, having a great cocktail is key to running a successful program, whatever style you want to promote. But with Tiki drinks, you definitely need the proper aesthetic to create beautiful visuals for your guests before they take their first sip. One of the angles I wanted to attack was Tiki mugs and glassware. I follow a lot of bartenders on Instagram and knew immediately who I wanted to message in hopes of getting an interview.
Before you make your first Tiki drink, you’ll need to choose a glass, Tiki mug, or as Danny Gallardo refers to it, “a vessel.” Danny is the owner of Tiki Diablo, in Los Angeles. I became familiar with Danny’s work after following his Instagram page (tikidiablo) a few years ago. If you’re looking for the guy to create and craft a special vessel for you, look no further. We chatted on the phone for a while, and he quickly informed me that all things Tiki had been revived much longer ago than I thought. “It was very rare to see any place as cocktail-centric,” he said of L.A. in the late ’90s. “There’s a local bar in L.A. — and this is when Jeff Berry* was still living here — where he and a group of us would get together on Wednesday nights. They had been going there for five or six years and trying to reverse-engineer these drinks. I came from the art side of it. I was carving wood Tikis, big 8-foot, 9-foot statues, and was just starting to make mugs. I thought it was very interesting that they were taking notes and drinking these drinks while discussing this stuff. And I’m like, ‘What the hell are they doing? This is crazy, I’ve never seen this before.’ So, there were cocktail nerds way back when. The Tiki movement had already had its first exposure in ’02 and ‘03.”
Danny’s mugs took off locally and statewide, and he was able to create and ship wholesale to a chain of Home Depot stores. “I took advantage of the momentum I had where we released a lineup of Tiki goods through Home Depot. That kind of helped me out with name recognition outside of the Tiki-world bubble. We were all the way to Louisiana, and over 600 stores. I used that as a launching point for pushing my method.”
Today Tiki Diablo’s mugs are international. “We’re doing a lot of work with distilleries that are not U.S.-based; ones that are appreciating what we’re doing,” he says. “Those making finely handcrafted rums are saying to us, ‘Hey, you’re a good fit. You’re making handmade, small-batch mugs, that are brand specific.’ We design and make unique mugs for every single client. No client gets the same design; everything is from scratch.”
Danny is the sole designer and sculptor in his company. He does, however, have a crew that has been making ceramics since 1980. “I’m a firm believer in surrounding myself with people that are better than I am,” he says. He makes the mugs for Berry’s world-renowned Latitude 21 bar. “A lot of stuff that I make is brand-centric. What people decide to do with the mugs is up to them, which makes a lot of my stuff hard to get. This year we’re going to put an emphasis on buying mugs directly from our website (tikidiablo.com).” Contact them, and they will customize a mug specifically for your bar or restaurant. “Three Dots and a Dash just sold a whole array (of mugs) that I made for them. Don’t quote me on the price, but they were at least $125 a piece, and sold in a matter of days.”
What Danny does see as trending in the Tiki world is collecting these one-of-a-kind mugs. “I have noticed a trend in themed bars, not necessarily a Tiki bar, but you have to have mugs as a part of your business plan now. Nowhere else are you going to clear up to $80-$100 on one item on your menu. Pure profit. Undertow, in Phoenix, those guys know what they’re doing. They order back-to-back, they sell everything out, and as they’re making their final payment, they ask me, ‘OK, what’s next?’ It’s a huge component in sales and income for bars now, getting the mugs going, and moving on to the next ones.” Danny says most businesses do this by having mug release parties. “People are lining up in the morning to make sure that they get a mug,” he says.
And what does Mr. Tiki Diablo drink in his vessels? “I’m a classic Mai-Tai guy, I love a daiquiri too. Those are my go-tos. I don’t bartend at home because all of my friends are excellent bartenders. I don’t mess with what I don’t know. Let the experts do their thing. Let me stay out of the way.”
Even if you have exquisite glassware and mugs from Danny (he was gracious enough to send the mug pictured on the previous page), you’re still going to have to make sure that what’s inside counts. Remember: Don’t skimp on the essentials. Fresh juices, homemade syrups, and quality spirits. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be considered quality. Once you have your recipe down pat, you’ll have your friends and guests loving what they’re tasting with their eyes and palates.
(* “In the Spirit” featured Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in the October 2017 issue of PineStraw.) PS
Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.