Tiki Expert Shannon Mustipher Reimagines the Cocktail

Photos by Noah Fecks from "Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails"

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    Shannon Mustipher has risen fast in the world of cocktails. Trained as an artist, with a background in hospitality, she arrived at Gladys, a Carribean restaurant and bar in Crown Heights, with a unique opportunity: Make the best rum bar in New York City. It was a challenge. Mustipher had little experience with rum-based cocktails, but dove into the genre with passion. Her artistic background proved to be an asset as she was able to creatively envisage new twists on old forms, including the often maligned tiki category of drinks.

    “Of the cocktail genres, tiki is the most receptive to reimagining and remixing,” Mustipher writes in her 2019 book, “Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails.” “Rooted in the desire to elicit surprise and delight, the best tiki springs from a combination of personal experience, imagination and craft.” In addition to the book, Mustipher has been consulting and touring, with a series of presentations, workshops and pop-ups.

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    “Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails,” published by Rizzoli in 2019

    What’s your favorite drink to make when entertaining at home?

    At home, I like to keep it simple and easy to serve, relatable and easy to enjoy. In the winter, that means bottled Manhattans and Negroni riffs. In the spring and summer, it’s punches.

    What’s the biggest misconception about cocktails?

    That they are sweet, or too complicated to make. The cocktails that have stood the test of time—classics seldom have more than four ingredients—are a great place to start when mixing at home, and once you’ve got five or six go-tos down pat—be it a martini, old-fashioned, or what have you—you can start to add a twist to it.

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    At left, Poolside and at right, Antilles Jewel. Photos by Noah Fecks

    How did you first become interested in cocktails?

    I started hosting dinner parties in college—this was in the early 90s (I am dating myself) and Prohibition-era-type cocktail bars were beginning to crop up. I was a huge fan and as I caught the hospitality bug early on after getting my first job as a barista, when I hosted parties I went out of my way to give my guests a memorable experience. At that time I didn’t know anyone in my age group who was hosting dinner parties with cocktails.

    You studied art history as an undergrad. Has that background influenced the way you think about drinks?

    Without question. I think of spirits and flavors like colors on a palate—how do I combine them in a pleasing way? How do I create an experience that paints a picture, creates, or connects to a memory, a time, or place? In my favorite scenario—mind you, not all cocktails need to achieve this, as simple, quaffable drinks have their time and place—the cocktail takes you someplace.

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    Photo by Noah Fecks

    What drew you to Brooklyn?

    I came here to show my art, to pursue something creative. I meandered into the photo industry and worked as a styling assistant for a few years, before coming back to hospitality. I wanted to make something with my hands, and I still loved serving people.

    At left, No Woman No Cry and at right, Mutiny on the Bounty. Photos by Noah Fecks

    Your book has gotten a huge response. Has that changed your life in any way?

    Yes! In the best possible way. Touring with the book gave me the opportunity to meet bartenders across the country, and connect with cocktail and tiki fans of all stripes. Meanwhile, it’s not all glamour. I work a lot now. I love it. I’m inspired to get more done than I did the day before, to see how far I can take it. Writing the book demanded that I take the phrase “all in” to a different level.

    Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Brownstoner magazine. It was completed before the pandemic.

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