Tropical, savory and highly personal, Demi Natoli’s drinks could belong only to her.
“I try and do things a little bit different than the norm,” says the Nashville-based bartender, who draws on her Cuban-American upbringing to create a roster of cocktails that break clearly and effortlessly from the status quo. With tiki as the foundation of her cocktail knowledge—her first bartending job came at the age of 20 when she opened Fort Lauderdale’s Kreepy Tiki, a bar and tattoo salon, with her parents—her drinks are undeniably tropical, but not merely in their use of exotic fruit or classic tiki builds. With ingredients like avocado oil, garlic falernum and cumin-flavored “Doña’s Mix”—a personal spin on Donn’s Mix—Natoli’s drinks nod to the robust spices and flavors of Caribbean culinary tradition, giving broader meaning to the term “tropical.”
“I kind of wanted to recreate tropical and Caribbean, but not necessarily tiki,” says Natoli, who has a long résumé in the field of tropical cocktails. She credits Gui Jaroschy and Trevor Alberts of Broken Shaker fame with teaching her the “foundation of bartending.” In 2017, after she met Lost Lake co-owners Paul McGee and Shelby Allison at The Hukilau (Fort Lauderdale’s annual tiki convention), the two offered Natoli a job and she moved to Chicago to delve deeper into the tiki realm. “Paul spent a lot of time with us, making sure that we knew every ingredient had its place,” recalls Natoli of one of the early drink-making principles she carries with her to this day. “There was nothing that’s extraneous. Everything in there had a purpose.” (To this day, Natoli is still the only bartender, outside the owners, to land a drink on the Lost Lake menu).
This way of thinking has only been reinforced since Natoli joined The Patterson House in Nashville as general manager earlier this year. As the sister bar to Chicago’s The Violet Hour, The Patterson House likewise hews toward classic formulas—and their countless twists. “I start building cocktails with the classics,” says Natoli. “I start with something I know and then make it my own.”
This familiarity isn’t merely a choice made for the sake of convenience, but rather a deliberate conceit that allows her clever twists to land with greater impact. Take her Sana Sana, for example. Within the familiar blueprint of a Saturn, perhaps the best-known gin cocktail in the tiki canon, Natoli introduces roasted garlic by adding it into the falernum, an unexpected savory twist to the tropical classic. Her Congas y Coladas, a spin on the perennial tropical favorite, the Piña Colada, calls on a cumin-infused syrup in place of traditional cane or demerara. “When you see my drinks, you might think that they look classically tiki or tropical … but then they give way and you’re like, ‘This Daiquiri is a little briny,’ or ‘This colada has a little bit of cooking spice, not baking spice, in there,’” says Natoli.
While these flavor combinations come naturally to Natoli, she notes that working with savory elements is a continuous balancing act. “It definitely takes a lot of consideration, they’re really easy to mess up” she says. But they’re also precisely the sort of drinks she herself seeks out. “If I see salt on a menu,” she notes, “I’ll pick that one.”
Here, get to know Demi Natoli in four cocktails that best represent her style.
“Avocado, onion and tomato is an appetizer that my family makes before every meal,” says Natoli. “I kind of wanted this slick, almost kind of oily and salinic tasting cocktail,” she says of her inspiration. Rather than using whole avocado, Natoli employs avocado oil which adds frothiness to the finished drink, a Daiquiri variation that calls for pineapple and fino sherry in addition to the expected lime juice and rum. She splits the latter into two components, Panamanian rum and agricole rum, which possesses distinctive salinic properties. In place of the usual simple syrup sweetener, Natoli adds bay leaf-infused simple syrup in a further nod to her Caribbean inspiration. ““We use bay leaf in Cuban cooking all the time,” she says, “there’s not a dish that doesn’t have it in there.”
In this riff on the Saturn, Natoli once again draws on the flavors of her family’s dinner table to upend expectations. “Mangoes are a staple in the Cuban household,” says Natoli, “it’s a snack, it’s usually part of your dinner,” she says of one of the more prominent flavors in the drink, which she substitutes in place of passion fruit. “And then there’s also garlic—there’s not any kind of dish that doesn’t have garlic in it,” says Natoli, who incorporates roasted garlic into a house-made falernum for a subtle savory twist. “It’s still like something that’s familiar to the guests, but it’s not something that they’ve necessarily had before,” she says.
Congas y Coladas
A twist on the Piña Colada, Natoli’s Congas y Coladas cuts the coconut syrup component with “Doña’s Mix,” a play on Donn’s Mix that incorporates cumin, layered on top of pineapple juice and funky Jamaican rum. “The drink pulls together to make a really savory, but also refreshing cocktails,” says Natoli.
Arroz Con Leche
“Every time I would go over to my grand parents’ house they would make rice pudding,” recalls Natoli. “There was always just a giant stick of cinnamon in there and the best part was licking the little crispy parts at the bottom of the pot.” To mimic the flavor of this dessert, Natoli incorporates Saigon cinnamon and coconut syrups atop a rum base, as well as amontillado sherry which provides a certain nuttiness to the drink. In a cheeky nod to her favorite part of the dessert, she garnishes the drink with a bite-size rice crispy treat. “It all rounds out to be just like a beautiful flip cocktail,” says Natoli.