Fanny Chu Is the Queen of Crushable Cocktails

Donna’s head bartender is helping define the DNA of the nouveau tropical drink.

Each month, as part of an ongoing portrait of rising talent in the bartending community, PUNCH hosts a resident bartender who has demonstrated a strong sense of personal style. In this installment, New York’s Fanny Chu is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout her month-long residency.

“You’re just on vacation when you’re at Donna,” says Fanny Chu, head bartender of the beloved rum-focused Williamsburg bar that she’s called home for the last four years. It’s this feeling that she enforces with each drink she creates. Toeing the line between tiki and tropical, Chu doesn’t get caught up on precisely where that line lies, but rather channels the lighthearted, escapist qualities common to both with every drink she puts on the menu.

“I want to make people feel how I felt when I first walked in,” says Chu. “What drew me to [Donna] is that it’s not a tiki bar, but they provide this elusive space where you can just go and relax and be away from the concrete jungle.”

When she moved to New York in December of 2011 to pursue her career as a trained lab technician, the only experience she had behind a bar was “free-pouring Long Island Iced Teas and Adios Motherfuckers” in California’s Costa Mesa gay bars. Had she not landed at an apartment next door to Donna, which opened in 2012, it might’ve stayed that way.

“I would go into Donna for the Brancolada,” remembers Chu, citing Jeremy Oertel’s signature Branca Menta–laced spin on the Piña Colada. It’s a drink that embodies much of Donna’s early aesthetic, which was a forerunner in what might best be termed “nouveau tropical”—that is, drinks that marry elements of classic cocktails with ingredients like orgeat and falernum, which are more commonly associated with tiki.

In 2015, Chu was hired as a barback, working her way up to a bartender position under the tutelage of former beverage director Karen Fu, and ultimately to the head bartender position, which she’s occupied since early 2018. During this time, she’s managed to build on Donna’s aesthetic, imbuing the drinks with her own twists along the way. Without straying too far from familiar frameworks—the Mai Tai, the Suffering Bastard—Chu finds ways to meld together unexpected flavors, not so different from the construction of the Brancolada that initially caught her attention. “Sometimes certain flavors you’re surprised at in terms of what goes well together,” she explains, adding that she typically arrives at these combinations by throwing two classics together and seeing what flavors work in tandem.

Her La Bandida, for example, reads like a Margarita married with a shandy, though she actually arrived at this result by first riffing on a Rob Roy variation created by a former Donna bartender, Tom Walker. From that recipe, she pulled in a blend of Aperol and crème de pêche, an unlikely pairing that now complements tequila and mezcal, salty cucumber cordial and a topper of IPA. The drink encapsulates the cumulative nature of many of her cocktails, which draw on the familiar Donna DNA and then test the limits of the template with additional ingredients. The result is a chorus of flavors that might seem disparate on paper, but still add up to a harmonious whole. La Bandida has become one of the bar’s most popular cocktails and a prime example of Chu’s approach to drink-making, which she describes as being first and foremost “to make drinks crushable.”

Here, get to know Fanny Chu in four cocktails.

Rum to the Jungle
The Rum to the Jungle is Chu’s nut-free take on the Mai Tai. “I feel really bad that people can’t taste a proper Mai Tai,” says Chu, noting that allergies to the almond-based orgeat preclude many people from trying one of her favorite drinks. Her Rum to the Jungle calls on a house-made cinnamon oat syrup in place of orgeat as well as Clairin and banana liqueur, an oddball addition that manages to make this spin even more tropical than the original.

Happy Bastard
A lighter take on the Suffering Bastard, the Happy Bastard reflects the tiki-adjacent character of many of Chu’s recipes, which are designed to be easy drinking, but in true tiki fashion contain unexpected turns of flavor throughout. Like early renditions of the Suffering Bastard, gin and brandy both make an appearance, but Chu swaps ginger beer for cucumber tonic water for a more refreshing finish; lemon adds a bright touch of acidity in place of lime, while elderflower liqueur harmonizes with the botanicals of the gin. Ginger still appears, albeit in the form of a syrup for yet another layer of complexity. It’s spicy, cooling and tart all at once. As Chu summarizes, “It’s a Happy Bastard because all these flavors marry so happily.”

La Bandida
“I wanted something crushable with tequila and salty cucumber cordial,” says Chu of her La Bandida. To these two components she adds a splash of mezcal, a house blend of Aperol and crème de pêche and a few ounces of IPA. It’s the sort of flavor pairing that doesn’t quite add up on paper, but in practice yields interesting results: The IPA manages to highlight a grapefruit note in the Aperol that makes for a citrusy, shandy-like result. “It’s weird, but delicious,” says Chu.

Nog Nog Noggin’ on Heaven’s Door
One of the ways in which Chu reinforces the escapist atmosphere of Donna is by creating cocktails that directly evoke a particular place. Her Nog Nog Noggin’ on Heaven’s Door draws on the flavor profile of Crema Catalana (“one of my faves,” she says), a custard-like Spanish dessert that she encountered while traveling through Catalonia with her fiancée. To translate it into drink form, Chu builds on a whiskey base complemented by Cognac, Cachaça, orange liqueur, cinnamon syrup, cream and eggs and serves it from Donna’s slushy machine.

 

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