We sat down with Dan Watson of Cleveland’s Porco Lounge and Tiki Room to chat about his work, his inspirations, the wide world of rum, and his drink for April’s Rum Wild Box, the Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow!
S&S: What’s it like to work at Porco Lounge?
DW: I get to spend my days alongside my dysfunctional Porco family in the world’s premier tiki bar, and we have amazing ownership who enable my dumb ideas (like building the world’s largest daiquiri). I’m privileged to travel the world, learning. I’ve had the honor of tending bar alongside guests like Sother Teague, Scotty Schuder, and Martin Cate. I’ve been behind the stick at festivals like the SoBe Wine and Food Festival and Tiki by the Sea. Best of all, hundreds of friends old and new visit us every night and drink rum with me. I don’t think the term “work” applies at all.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
DW: Clairin, an unaged rhum from tiny distilleries in Haiti that was never bottled until the wonderful Luca Gargano brought it to the USA via his Velier label. A cousin of French-style agricole rhums—unadulterated, unaged and bottled at still proof—Clairin is the most vibrant and lively spirit I have ever experienced.
There are three Clairins, each from a different distillery, bottled by Velier and available in the US, and I’ve just learned of a fourth on the way. A daiquiri made with the floral, spicy, vegetal Clairin Casimir is unlike anything I’ve ever had. It’s warm (but not hot—remarkable for 108 proof), I get a spiced note that reminds me of waiting in line for food in Caribbean markets, a subtle refreshing acidity, and an amazing bit of body on the finish. In fact, just talking about this is forcing me to take a break and make myself one.
S&S: What recent innovations have you been seeing in rum?
DW: The most recent innovations would be regarding classification. For example, white rum is somewhat of a misnomer, as it presumes an unaged pot-stilled Jamaican rum such as Rum Fire or Wray & Nephew to be categorized alongside an aged Puerto Rican rum like Don Q Cristal or a white agricole such as Rhum JM Blanc. Trying all three side by side will reveal them to have very few similarities in terms of flavor.
Connoisseurs and even casual consumers are starting to find the diversity of rum—from Barbados to Guyana to Jamaican to Martinique and so on—to surpass that of whiskey, be it Scotch, bourbon, Canadian, etc. Read about the Gargano classification system, advocated by The Real McCoy, or pick up the fantastic Smuggler’s Cove book by Martin Cate. It’s a really fascinating time to explore rum.
S&S: Where do you see the future of the spirit’s reputation and status? Have you been noticing a growing respect for rum over time?
DW: I see the USA slowly but surely catching up to the rest of the world in giving rum the respect it deserves. There are producers, such as Mount Gay and Appleton, that have been crafting rums for centuries, and their products are the same (or better) quality as that of any bourbon producer. Appleton’s 12 Year Rum is truly the best value in the spirits world—Joy Spence blends rums that have aged for a minimum of 12 years in a tropical climate, and it retails at around $30. Get a bottle, it’s like finding a 30-year-old Scotch at that price.
Foursquare Distillery in Barbados (the producer of Real McCoy Rum!) and their Master Distiller/Blender Richard Seale are gaining recognition as the finest distillery in the world, regardless of category. Try their Zinfandel Cask blend, Criterion, or any of their Exceptional Casks series for an eye-opening experience. Single barrel releases from independent bottlers like Velier, Compagnie des Indies, and Kill Devil are bringing us rum expressions that truly display the diversity of rum/rhum/ron. Did I mention it’s a really fascinating time to explore rum?
S&S: What have you learned from your distillery visits in the Caribbean?
DW: So much! There’s no better way to learn than through firsthand experience. Tasting distillate fresh off the still, the aroma of fermentation, cutting cane in the field with a machete—these are all experiences you can’t get from a book. There’s no better learning tool than having your questions answered by the world’s great distillers. Drinking bottles of rum alongside locals in rum shops is a fantastic cultural experience (the parts you remember, at least), an amazing level of context. (Also, tropical fruit right off the tree, fish cooked fresh from the sea, and crystal-clear beaches aren’t a bad ambiance for learning.)
S&S: Outside of the Caribbean, which regions of the world would you say are currently producing great rums?
DW: Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, is a relative newcomer to rum production. Located in an ideal climate for growing sugar cane, distilleries such as Chamarel are putting out some great french-style rhums.
Privateer Rum, helmed by Maggie Campbell, is disproving my longstanding theory about the inferiority of American rum. Her Queen’s Share and Navy Yard rums are taking their place alongside the great bottles of the world, and you can taste her knowledge and passion.
S&S: What was your gateway into tiki?
DW: My mother’s tales of lunches at the Kon-Tiki in downtown Cleveland when she was working her first job, and the impression that such an amazing escapist atmosphere left upon her. Then came the opportunity to bring tiki back to Ohio when I opened the Grass Skirt Tiki Room in Columbus, before moving on to Porco Lounge in Cleveland.
S&S: If you had to boil down the tiki genre to an essence, how would you describe it?
DW: Craft cocktails with all the pretentiousness stripped away.
S&S: What are some foods you’d recommend pairing with rum?
DW: Tropical fruit, seafood, Jamaican patties (a sort of fried curried filo dough empanada). Dark chocolate is an amazing pairing for rum tastings.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow?
DW: Maybe not a pairing in terms of flavors, but I was eating a plate of local pierogi while working out the recipe!
S&S: What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy it at home?
DW: How about the song by the Rivingtons from which the cocktail takes its name? “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” by the Rivingtons was a staple of the Ghoulardi show, a legendary horror movie host from Sixties Cleveland television. Subversive and clever in ways that would still be ahead of his time on television today, Ghoulardi influenced generations of artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Watch a clip from the show while you’re at it, ya Knif.
S&S: What makes the Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow fitting for this time of year?
DW: It’s almost spring, and yet there is a foot of late-season snow falling outside my window. I’m ready to be outside in the sun, drinking a tropical cocktail and enjoying how beautiful Cleveland is during the summer months.
S&S: What would you say is a good entry rum that would showcase unexpected levels of complexity?
DW: The Real McCoy 12 Year! Bajan rums (those from Barbados) have a great depth and complexity as they blend pot and column stills, yet they are amazingly smooth and approachable. Appleton 12 Year is another great one—a Jamaican rum blended to appeal to bourbon drinkers.
S&S: What’s an ingredient you would add to elevate a simple rum and cola?
DW: Try making it with Wray & Nephew, an unaged Jamaican rum—it will make your rum and coke dryer with a hint of banana. Or add a few drops of Allspice Dram (also called Pimento Dram), you’ll get a wonderful spicy clove note.
S&S: What’s one unexpected ingredient you’ve experienced in a rum cocktail that pleasantly surprised you?
DW: I’ve been doing tiki for so long I’m not often surprised. But the Piña Colada variation my coworker Steve T Bartender concocted with a base equal parts rum, falernum, and Green Chartreuse was not something I’d enjoy on paper. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.
S&S: What’s the strangest drink request you’ve ever gotten?
DW: Coke to mix with a glass of Black Tot (a $75 pour of 40+-year-old rum from the days of the Royal Navy’s rum rations).
S&S: What would you say has been your biggest hit?
DW: “Biggest” would be the 95-gallon daiquiri we built. “Best” would be whichever cocktail gets a guest to appreciate rum for the first time.
S&S: How about the weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted?
DW: I’m obsessed with reproducing various sodas using only booze. I’ll make you the best root beer you’ve ever had.
S&S: What’s the best drink you’ve ever had?
DW: A glass of Foursquare Destino I was privileged enough to drink at the distillery. As far as cocktails, Rhum Corner in Toronto has my two favorites: a frozen Corn n’ Oil with a house-blended rum float, and their Ti Punch featuring cane juice squeezed to order on the bar.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
DW: Read about rum and baseball. Watch Japanese pro wrestling. Try new foods with my wife and subject her to my cocktail experiments, while being amazed by the art she creates. Explore Cleveland’s amazing parks with my dog, Special Agent Dana Scully.
S&S: What do want to be when you grow up?
DW: Does that mean not staying up late reading comic books, and not traveling the world on a whim? No thanks.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out a new place?
DW: Actually, I dislike the bartender convention of ordering one specific cocktail, be it a daiquiri or martini or whatever, as a test of a new bar. When I walk into someplace unfamiliar I order something off their menu, usually after asking the advice of the bartender, and let them do what they do. They’ve put time and effort into my experience, after all, and I’m visiting their house.
S&S: Makes sense! Any personal hangover remedies?
DW: Coffee and a cheeseburger? There’s no magic cure that I’ve found to get me back to 100%, but at least that combo helps me get on with my day.