We sat down with Jen Akin of Rumba in Seattle to chat about her work, Seattle’s cocktail scene, cachaça, and her drink for August’s Eu Amo Cachaça Box, the Banana Banjo!
S&S: What’s it like to work at Rumba? How did your journey lead there?
JA: Rumba is the best bar to work at. I’ve been drawn to it and asking for a job since my first time coming here when it was barely a year old. The problem with great bars is that they are rarely hiring, so the opportunity didn’t come about for another four years. I had moved to Southern Oregon to open a small boutique hotel bar and had told Kate Perry (the former GM of Rumba) that I would only move back to Seattle for a job at Rumba. Six months later, she called me up and here I am. I have zero regrets. This bar ignited my love of rum and is constantly inspiring me.
S&S: Rumba really looks like the perfect place to spend a beautiful-weather day or night. Do you adjust your offerings according to season? Are rum and cachaça good winter companions, in your opinion?
JA: Rumba is absolutely an all-weather bar. Rum is such a diverse spirit, there’s something for everyone and for any time. We have an amazing shady patio for summer (and air conditioning that sometimes works too well!). In the winter, the décor sweeps you away from cold and rainy Seattle to your favorite tropical location. We do change the drink menu frequently and seasonally, with permanent favorites. We bring a lot of fall and winter flavors into the menu when it’s cold: apple, allspice, cinnamon all play so well with both rum and cachaça. We also have cold-weather favorites like hot buttered rum, hot cider, and coquito, which is a Puerto Rican version of eggnog (that’s so much better!). I don’t think there’s ever a bad time for rum and cachaça. It’s the only spirit I crave all the time.
S&S: What is the Seattle bar scene like? Do you feel it’s a good city for a Caribbean-inspired place like Rumba?
JA: I think that Rumba has proven that Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are perfect places for a rum bar. I’m not sure anyone thought this bar would become the powerhouse influencer it is today. I think that has to do with the growth of rum in our industry, the desire to find new and cool spirits and flavors, and the desire for education that our industry’s best and brightest strive for. Our scene is full of professionals that are looking to be better all the time. We have so many educational opportunities at our fingertips and Rumba has always been focused on education. My first time at Rumba was a Madeira tasting . . . not rum, Madeira. That speaks volumes.
S&S: Have you done much traveling in the major rum and cachaça countries of the Caribbean or South America?
JA: I haven’t yet! I have been to St. Lucia and Martinique and both were absolutely life altering. I have Barbados, Brazil, Haiti, and Jamaica in my sites though!
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
JA: Yes, and it’s constantly changing. Right now I’m really into clarifying juices and cocktails on tap. I have a molecular biology and a chemistry degree, so scientific processes fascinate me. We have a clarified and carbonated rhum agricole daiquiri on tap right now and I’m so proud of it. It’s just so cool to serve someone something that looks like soda water but is such a flavorful punch in the face. I love seeing the surprise on my guests’ faces when they try it for the first time.
S&S: Have you recognized a growing awareness of cachaça in recent years?
JA: Absolutely! My first cocktail bartending job in Lawrence, Kansas, over 6 years ago was my first time trying cachaça. It was a dusty bottle, almost empty, hiding behind lots of other bottles. I had a guest ask for a caipirinha and of course had no clue what it was. He taught me how to make my first caipirinha! Now, I think I’m a little biased because I live in Seattle, home of Novo Fogo. I think Seattle is very aware of cachaça and has been for some time now thanks to great cachaça and education from Novo Fogo.
S&S: Would you say that there’s a lot of diversity of flavor just within different brands of cachaça? Which types are you drawn to?
JA: There’s quite a bit of diversity. A lot of that has to do with the diversity in wood finishes that exists within cachaça. Novo Fogo Tanager is one of my favorites. Finished in zebrawood, it’s a beautiful almost-red shade and has so many notes of baking spice. It works so well in so many cocktails and is delicious on its own.
S&S: You could say that banana is an under-utilized cocktail ingredient. What made you think of it for Eu Amo Cachaça? Have you used banana a lot in the past?
JA: Absolutely! I think people are nervous about banana because it can become so overpowering so easily. The grassiness of cachaça lends itself to banana and both are so perfect together. I have used banana in the past with cachaça cocktails, so it just seemed natural. The spice aspect is inspired by our house-made falernum, which plays a huge role on our cocktail menu. It’s made with toasted almonds, allspice, clove, nutmeg, and fresh ginger and lime zest.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Banana Banjo?
JA: Banana splits! Or tostones, tacos al pastor. But really, I think it goes with everything.
S&S: What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy it at home?
JA: Listen to the drink’s namesake: Steve Martin’s banjo music! I listen to podcasts while drinking, and it seems to go quite well with everything. It’s the kind of cocktail that’s good for any mood. Although, I did name it for a short and sweet piece of banjo music, so maybe try bluegrass.
S&S: What would you say has been your biggest hit?
JA: I mean, in my career? Rumba. Hands down. I’m so proud of this bar and this team. This has been a real dream of mine for quite a long time, and to see it realized is unreal.
S&S: How about the weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted?
JA: I did a Bee’s Knees granita with a basil, cucumber, lavender, almond pesto. I made “caviar” with lavender, basil, cucumber, honey, and gin with gold flake using reverse spherification. That was for Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition (my first competition ever). That was so fun. I also did a gin and tonic with a little mezcal, banana liqueur (imagine that!), Fever-Tree tonic, and a spiced-chicharron rim.
S&S: What’s the best drink you’ve ever had?
JA: Ti’ Punch while swimming in the ocean in Martinique, watching the sun set with friends. Drinking is about more than just what’s in your glass. . . .
S&S: What do you want to be when you grow up?
JA: Dolphin trainer and rehabilitator.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
JA: Ha! Working! Kidding . . . kinda. I’m with my dog, reading, listening to podcasts, going to the dog park, paddle-boarding and swimming in the summer, enjoying friends and our community.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out a new place?
JA: I usually order off their house cocktail menu. I know that they’ve worked really hard on those drinks and I respect that hard work. If I’m ordering off-menu it’s a daiquiri. Daiquiris for days.