At tiki bars, drama rules all—and few drinks are more theatrical than one that’s set on fire. Less common, however, are hot cocktails, which tend to be an anomaly on lists at the tropical, beachy venues typical of the genre. But at the New York City bar Paradise Lost, which opened in October, a flamed coffee drink served hot is already stealing the spotlight.
“We live in New York; we get colder winter months,” explains Ray Sakover, beverage director and partner. “[And] we felt the Coffee Grog is an underappreciated drink.”
A mashup of the Coffee Grog served at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (itself inspired by the Don the Beachcomber classic), a Hot Buttered Rum and an Irish Coffee, the Khali’s Coffee Grog is Paradise Lost’s own take on the drink, named for a fictional character who narrates lore on the bar’s cocktail menu. “We like to consider Khali as our Jiminy Cricket,” Sakover says.
Though the drink seems straightforward—four components, combined quickly before being set aflame theatrically in front of guests—there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Along with a blend of high-proof rums, the recipe centers coffee, Gardenia Mix (essentially a spiced honey butter) and jasmine-accented coconut cream.
Workshopping the recipe began a couple years ago. The hardest part was getting the coffee right. “It’s the bulk of the drink,” Sakover acknowledges, so it had to be perfectly dialed in. After sampling various single-origin brews, he settled on Cosa Nuestra, a blend sourced from Long Island City roaster Sweetleaf. Concentrated into a cold brew, it becomes a “heartier, more savory, bold coffee that withstands the overproof rums” and other flavors, “so the coffee doesn’t get lost.”
After that, it was all about developing the creamy flavorings. “We’re very heavy-handed with the coconut cream and Gardenia Mix,” Sakover says. Making up about a third of the drink, these elements balance out bitterness from the coffee and the strength of the base spirits. The Gardenia Mix, a classic ingredient in the Pearl Diver and other tropical drinks, was loosely based on science-minded bar pro Dave Arnold’s Cold Buttered Rum specs, using xanthan gum to stabilize the honey butter so it doesn’t fall apart in the drink. Chris Stanley, head of prep and production at New York bar The Dead Rabbit, developed the Gardenia Mix recipe, and provided pointers based on The Dead Rabbit’s iconic Irish Coffee service.
The coconut cream, which gets a dose of jasmine oil, came next. “Jasmine adds a floral and slight green note,” Sankover says.
While perfecting those three elements took some trial and error, finding the right mix of rums was “a no-brainer,” according to Sakover. “We wanted something strong, bold and flammable: Demerara 151 was the move.” Along with a full ounce of Hamilton 151, three-quarters of an ounce of Smith & Cross Jamaican rum adds additional flavor and funk.
The presentation of the drink is inspired by the Mai-Kai’s tableside grog service, where the cocktail is poured and flamed in front of guests. At Paradise Lost, guests watch as a “Grog Mix” (the coffee and Gardenia Mix) and the jasmine coconut cream, which are preheated in a water bath, are combined in a heated mug emblazoned with a decal of the impish Khali, who looks sort of like a wolf with wings—plus a bomber jacket and sunglasses.
After those ingredients come together, a bartender combines the rum alongside orange and lemon peels in a Turkish coffee pot, then ignites the mixture, pouring it into each guest’s mug. “We love to play with fire here,” says Sakover. Using chopsticks or tweezers, they add the citrus peels to the mugs as a garnish alongside a “very large, very gaudy” stick of Chinese cassia.
Although the build of the drink is relatively baroque, it all melds together into a lush, harmonious whole with plenty of visual flair. And while the incendiary aspect is a key part of the drink’s appeal, Sakover emphasizes that it’s functional, too.
“It’s part show, but it also caramelizes the citrus oils and the flavors of the rum.” The end result is a drink with “complex layers of flavors with some savory tropical fruit, and a whole lotta rum.”