Ten years ago, there would have been no point to a Jungle Bird competition: There were no bars serving the cocktail, and no bartenders with preferred recipes in their repertoire.
Today, of course, you can get a Jungle Bird—a quasi-tiki combination of rum, pineapple, lime juice, sugar and Campari—at most any cocktail bar. Half of those may very well have a Jungle Bird, or more often a Jungle Bird riff, on the menu. And, depending on where you live, it may actually be possible to order a Jungle Bird within a bar called Jungle Bird; there are bars by that name in New York, Sacramento, San Juan, Kuala Lumpur and counting.
In fact, it was at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton that the drink was invented in the late 1970s. And there it stayed, neglected and forgotten, until tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry uncovered it in a 1989 paperback called The New American Bartender’s Guide, and republished the recipe in his 2002 book Intoxica!
The original recipe called for 1 ½ ounces of dark Jamaican rum, ¾ ounce Campari, ¾ ounce lime juice, ½ ounce simple syrup and a whopping 4 ounces of pineapple juice. The Campari, an ingredient rarely found in tiki drinks, caught the attention of young bartenders, including Giuseppe González, who was then working at the short-lived (2010-13) New York tiki bar Painkiller. He swapped out the dark Jamaican rum for heavy, intense blackstrap rum, a substitution that has since become the norm for the once-obscure drink. Significantly, he also brought the pineapple quotient down by half, making for a shorter, more contemplative cocktail.
Few forgotten recipes have benefited so completely from the attention of the craft cocktail community. By the late aughts, the drink was fairly ubiquitous. Today, it ranks as a modern classic. But, because of its relatively young reign as such, what one expects when ordering a Jungle Bird is still somewhat up for debate. To determine those criteria, PUNCH gathered judges Austin Hartman, owner of the Ridgewood bar Paradise Lounge; Shannon Tebay, a veteran bartender, currently head bartender at Death & Co.; and Tim Miner, a bartender at Death & Co. and The Long Island Bar. Together, they tasted through 10 renditions of the cocktail, culled from recipes submitted by bartenders across the United States.
“It has that nod to respectable classic cocktails, but it’s still playful,” said Miner, explaining the Jungle Bird’s broad appeal across drinking demographics. Hartman pointed out that every ingredient in the drink is identifiable to a customer. “It’s an easy read on a menu,” he said. And all agree that the inclusion of Campari played a huge role in the public embrace of the drink. “I think with the revival of cocktail culture, everyone’s palates have become accustomed to a certain amount of bitterness that they weren’t a few years ago,” said Tebay.
Of the drink’s five components, the judges felt the pineapple and lime juice, of course, needed to be fresh. The sugar syrup was necessary for body. (“You shouldn’t be afraid of the sugar,” said Tebay. “It’s still going to be bitter. It’s still going to be boozy and funky.”). Campari was fairly nonnegotiable, not to be replaced by another red bitter. And the funk of the blackstrap rum was welcome, but needed watching.
“It’s an easy spirit to be heavy-handed with,” said Miner, who likes to pair the blackstrap with a less-aggressive rum. “It’s a bully. But it’s a lovable bully.”
Per the panel, a good Jungle Bird allows your palate to pick out each of these elements; the drink should never become too smooth or too homogeneous. An ideal Jungle Bird delivers an initial bitter-funk hit that’s simultaneously challenging and bewitching. “The Campari pulls you out,” argued Miner, “then the blackstrap pulls you back in.”
Perhaps because of the cocktail’s split personality—part craft-cocktail darling, part fun-loving tiki drink—presentations varied widely and each seemed to telegraph how the bartender in question regarded the cocktail. Some versions arrived on crushed or cracked ice and were light in color and light in body, indicating a more tropical mindset. Others came in a rocks glass over one large ice cube, a serious-minded appearance that would fit right in at any darkened cocktail den.
In the end, the panel favored the latter persona. The winning drink was, appropriately, by the bartender who helped popularize it: Giuseppe González, who is now based at Starboard Tack and Mott 32 in Las Vegas. His mix of 1 ½ ounces Cruzan Black Strap rum, 1 ½ ounces pineapple juice, ¾ ounce Campari, ½ ounce lime juice and ½ ounce simple syrup, served over a large rock, was the full-bodied, bitter-boozy-juicy package the judges recognized instantly as a Jungle Bird.
Coming in second was the example created by William Elliott of Maison Premiere. His recipe called for 1 ounce of Cruzan Black Strap, ¾ ounce of Hamilton Jamaican Black, a bit more than an ounce of pineapple, a scant ¾ ounce of both Campari and lime, ½ ounce of J.M. Sirop cane syrup and a few drops of saline. While much more fussy than González’s recipe, the two drinks ended up tasting almost identical, with Elliott’s coming off as perhaps slightly boozier.
The judges struggled with awarding third place; there were many “meh” entries, and no Jungle Bird should be “meh,” the panel agreed. Eventually, the prize was granted to the version from Fanny Chu, of Donna in Brooklyn. Chu’s use of Lemon Hart Blackpool spiced rum led the adjudicators to puzzle over the various dessert-like notes they found in the drink. Because of this, they considered it more a Jungle Bird variation than a Jungle Bird. But they couldn’t deny that the cocktail worked on its own terms and outshone most of the other drinks in the competition. The remainder of Chu’s formula asked for ¾ ounce Doctor Bird Jamaican rum, ¾ ounce Campari, 1 ½ ounces of pineapple juice, and ½ ounce each of rich demerara syrup (2:1) and lime juice.
Among the competing drinks that didn’t place, a few stretched the simple drink into seven or eight parts, splitting up the rum base and/or the bitter component. This, thought Hartman, was wholly unnecessary.
“You don’t need to make it too complicated,” he said. “The Jungle Bird has worked for a reason.”