Each month, as part of an ongoing portrait of rising talent in the bartending community, PUNCH spotlights a resident bartender who has demonstrated a strong sense of personal style. In this installment, Garret Richard of Existing Conditions is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout his month-long residency.
Ask any of tiki’s revivalists and they’ll tell you that Garret Richard is the torchbearer of the next generation of tikiphiles.
A true student of the genre, for the last eight years Richard has been, in his own words, “trying to unlock the puzzle of those older [tiki] recipes.” By this he doesn’t mean decoding the notoriously cryptic early recipes of Don the Beachcomber, something that Jeff “Beachbum” Berry dedicated many years and several books to, but refashioning those classic recipes with the resources of a wildly different drinkscape.
“Every single thing has changed,” says Richard. “Grapefruits were more acidic than they are now, rums are more rectified now. You have to interpret the intention of what the original drink was and make it maybe even better than what it really was.” In practical terms this means taking steps, like acid-adjusting citrus or exploring new infusion techniques, to achieve the desired profile.
Richard got his start by entering a cocktail competition at Lani Kai, Julie Reiner’s bygone tiki bar at which he was a regular. Holding his own against the likes of Ivy Mix and Natalie Jacob led to a position at The Monkey Bar, back when Reiner was still at the helm. From there, Richard moved to Prime Meats where he worked alongside Damon Boelte, Natasha David and Katie Stipe before opening The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley with Jim Kearns. It was at Slowly Shirley that Richard debuted his “Exotica” series, a recurring tiki pop-up now held at Raines Law Room at The William that channels the elegance of 1960s Polynesian Pop (the inaugural pop-up, in 2017, was accompanied by live music from Alika Lyman Group and a burlesque performance).
Now you can find him behind the bar at Existing Conditions, New York’s new home of the high-concept cocktail, where he’s drawn inspiration from owners Don Lee and Dave Arnold to create drinks, like his Isle Delfino, that expand the definition of tiki. A modern take on the Daiquiri that employs the same techniques as Arnold’s Tea Time, an alcoholic take on the Arnold Palmer, the drink is built on a base of milk-washed, jasmine tea-infused rhum that’s spun in a centrifuge. The milk binds to the tannins in the tea, citric acid curdles the milk and the centrifuge clarifies the mixture, separating the solids from the infused rum. The result is a drink that combines familiar flavors with behind-the-scenes studiousness. As such, it perfectly encapsulates the paradox that makes tiki so intriguing: To achieve the singular focus of a Mai Tai or Zombie, for example, requires unseen nuance.
“There’s a sort of contradiction where there’s layering of flavor and complexity, but the more and more I study tiki I see that all the ideas are really focused,” says Richard. “There could be 11 ingredients that make a sarsaparilla swizzle possible, but when you have it, it’s very focused and tight. I enjoy the challenge of it.”
Here, get to know Garret Richard in four drinks.
“This drink came out of multiple failures of trying to do tea well in a drink,” says Richard. An avid tea drinker, Richard wanted to incorporate jasmine tea into a modern take on the Daiquiri, which he does by infusing it in milk-washed rhum that’s then run through a centrifuge to clarify. The citrus component is comprised of acid-adjusted grapefruit and a pineapple syrup acts as the sweetener. “I really wanted to do something with jasmine and grapefruit—I’d seen it in a lot of perfumes but not necessarily in a lot of cocktails,” says Richard. “I’ve had success with jasmine and pineapple together so those two things were in the back of my mind. This drink just kind of came together from multiple loves really.”
A variation on the Leilani Volcano—a mixture of rum, coconut, guava, pineapple and lime—the Ohana builds on a base of coconut-infused gin in place of rum. “Every time I tried to make [the Leilani Volcano] or tasted someone else’s redone version of it, it was either too creamy or it was just kind of one-note,” says Richard. When he added Plymouth Gin and contrasted its botanicals with coconut, “suddenly the guava pops more [and] the different layers of pineapple taste more like pineapple,” he explains. In a nod to another favorite cocktail, the Mai-Kai Special, which also calls on guava and coconut, Richard adds banana in the form of a cordial, something he relies on to evoke the sweet, rich banana flavor associated with, say, Bananas Foster, rather than the greener flavor favored by many bottled banana liqueurs. “I think a lot of it for me is trying to tap into people’s nostalgia and sense memory,” he says.
By his own estimation, Richard has collected most, if not all, of the Galliano advertisements from the 1960s and ‘70s, one of which served as the inspiration for his Golden Horseshoe. “There was a small little book that Galliano gave out and there’s a recipe in there that won a competition in the ‘70s that I believe was just pisco, blanc vermouth and Galliano. That was kind of my jumping off point,” says Richard. He swaps pisco for tequila and adds more savory elements, like thyme liqueur and saline, to highlight the lemon and black pepper elements of the gin, underscoring the vanilla notes in Galliano. While some might say a stirred tequila drink has no place in tiki, the Golden Horseshoe succeeds in layering seemingly disparate flavors in a manner akin to many tiki classics. “When you distill it down to what it is, tiki drinks have these weird curve balls and layers of complexity and you can do that in stirred drinks all day long,” he says.
“The Kahuna Barrel was me trying to figure out what my Rum Barrel would be,” says Richard of the countless variations of the tiki classic, sometimes known as a Rum Keg, typically consisting of tropical juices, sweetener and, of course, rum. “I think the Mai-Kai’s Rum Barrel is the best,” he says. “They have all sorts of weird little idiosyncrasies about how they make drinks; they have very specific Florida orange juice, a very specific rum blend and a lot of building this drink was trying to emulate those flavors,” he says. Calamansi purée and orange juice replicate the specific tang of Florida orange, while the rums (Appleton Reserve, Coruba Dark, Hamilton 151) are blended to mimic the extinct Kohala Bay.
Illustration by Nick Hensley-Wagner.