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Jelani Johnson Takes a “Barback’s Approach” to Tiki

Our newest Bartender in Residence is bringing his unorthodox tropical cocktails to our bar this month.

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, Clover Clubs’s Jelani Johnson is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout his month-long residency.

“I thought from the time I was a teenager that being a bartender would be cool,” recalls Jelani Johnson, a Brooklyn native who splits his time between Clover Club, where he bartends, and Owney’s Rum, where he serves as assistant distiller.

What appealed to him about the position had little to do with the spotlight associated with today’s “startender”-studded drinkscape. Rather, Johnson’s primary interest has always been in the back-of-house operations. “I love bartending and being the guy behind the bar, but its not the best job in the bar,” explains Johnson. “I think barbacking is the most important job, so I take a barbacking approach to creating drinks.”

In practical terms, this often means starting with kitchen preparations first, focusing his efforts on creating unique housemade syrups and infusions and building around them. His Exotic Orchard for example, was built outward from the sweetener—a blend of easy-to-make pistachio orgeat and quatre épices syrup, inspired by the four-spice blend often called for in French cooking. From there, he settled on a delicate base of apricot eau du vie to balance the spiced notes of the sweetener, plus rum modifiers for what ultimately reads as fall-ready Mai Tai.

Now a five-year veteran of the classic-leaning Clover Club and a former fixture at the bygone New York party, Tiki Mondays with Miller (helmed by tiki iconoclast, Brian Miller, now beverage director at The Polynesian), Johnson straddles the line between two opposing approaches to drink-making. “It’s classically-based,” he says of his style, “but I definitely lean towards rum and tiki.” In other words, he continues, “I’m really just the product of Julie Reiner and Brian Miller.” 

Much like Miller, Johnson is not content to simply recreate tiki’s historic recipes. Rather, he prefers to use the tiki toolkit—fruit, spice, rum—to inventive ends that fall outside both the tiki and classic canons. Though that paradox is apparent in many of his drinks, it’s perhaps best exemplified in the Coconut Julep, a drink he developed with Clover Club head bartender, Tom Macy. With its base of toasted coconut-infused Mellow Corn whiskey, the drink, which is sweetened with coconut liqueur and orgeat, represents a tikified take on a springtime staple; and despite its apparent incongruity, it just works.

Here get to know Jelani Johnson in four drinks.

Jelani Johnson Clover ClubIllustration by Nick Hensley Wagner

Coconut Julep
The product of a collaboration between Johnson and Macy, the Coconut Julep was conceived of as a sequel to Clover Club’s ever-popular Pineapple Julep. “We wanted to do coconut, but we couldn’t get it to taste coconut-y enough,” recalls Johnson. Ultimately, the pair called on both toasted coconut-infused Mellow Corn whiskey as the base and a liquid sweetener dubbed “coconut sugar,” a blend of coconut liqueur and orgeat. This modern update is finished with a float of Smith & Cross Jamaican rum for a complex, tropical take on the cobbled classic.

Venus Fly Trap
Inspired by a sponsored Tiki Monday with Miller—which highlighted pisco, gin and rum brands—this drink calls on all three for a result that’s as unexpected as the carnivorous plant from which it takes its name. “I like to make spirit blends,” says Johnson by way of explanation. As evidenced here, Johnson’s blends often go beyond the expected rum-blends that characterize so much of tiki. To a pisco base, he adds Jamaican rum and gin, which are complemented by passionfruit purée, orgeat and lime and served over crushed ice. The result is, in his words, “fruity, complex, tropical.”

Exotic Orchard
“This was me just trying to dig into the syrup world again,” explains Johnson of his Exotic Orchard, a fall-friendly spin on the Mai Tai, which calls on a blend of housemade orgeat and four-spice syrup as sweetener. To this, Johnson adds the expected blend of rums—in this case Plantation O.F.T.D and Coruba Jamaican rum—atop a base of apricot eau de vie and pear liqueur.

Christmas in July
“You think that you can’t have a winter tiki drink, but you totally totally can,” says Johnson. “It doesn’t always have to be a fruity drink on cobbled ice.” Here, he plays on his own recipe for Hot Buttered Rum, the first drink of his to make it on the Clover Club menu, for a cold version built on brown butter-washed rum. Bolstered by housemade coconut-coffee ice cream and cinnamon bark syrup, the drink is shaken until frothy for a creamy, flip-like drink.

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