The Weekly Mix: Cocktail Story Time in Honolulu

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt
May 2012



In vino veritas, sure, but cocktails are the lubricant of gonzo story time: modern craft cocktails are like potable poems, and cocktail hour forever inspires tall, tipsy tales—muscles are bigger, words are wittier, girls are prettier. So in a kind of synergistic cutting-to-the-chase, Bartender Chris Self of Thirtyninehotel in Honolulu decided to save us a step and put the wild imagination into the cocktail itself. “I decided I would like to tell a story with a cocktail,” says Self, “have a narrative to go along while I made it.” Self's not just explaining how components come together, or who distilled or infused what. He’s mixing a layer of narrative into the drink, complete with story arc, component-as-character, and satisfying, in the delicious sense, denouement.

Cocktail-as-story isn’t as much of a departure as you’d think. Beyond clever drink names and artisan spirit bylines, craft cocktails derive a fair measure of romance from the basic logic of composition: e.g., the silky sheen of egg white after a dry shake; the flamed citrus peel, as much a pyromaniac wink as a necessary extrusion of essential oils; the sublime science behind the velvet weight of an Old Fashioned. Craft makes cocktails romantic.

The Italian Geisha

But Self’s sippable story goes a Grimm Brothers-step beyond that, personifying cocktail components to explain how they came together (a kind of alco-anthropomorphist “birds and bees”). And not only does the drink tell the story Self wrote, it hints at the (much longer) story of Hawaii itself. “We have such a blend of East meets West,” says Self, who infused a basic Campari-Champagne aperitif with Hawaii’s pervasive Japanese culinary influence. “I started to research what they drink for aperitifs in Japan,” says Self, who found whisky and water, “and, of course, sake.”

Thus was born the Italian Geisha. And this, by way of Self, is her recipe-as-story:
“A beautiful woman with red hair, from Milan, named Campari [Campari] had become bitter. Her life as a Burlesque dancer [Bittermens Burlesque bitters] and her attitude had become quite tart, so she decided to get away and see the world. Campari traveled first to the Caribbean Island of Martinique, where, relaxing on the beaches, she became sweetened by a local aperitif made from sun-kissed oranges and Creole spices [Creole Shrubb]. Growing bored, Campari continued her journey until she landed in the land of the rising sun, where needing money to continue on, she took a job as an o-shaku, or ‘one who pours,’ where she learned to serve fine Japanese [Yamazaki Hibiki] whisky and [Hana Hou Hou Shu sparkling] sake before and during meals, and performing dances after. Happy in her new life of purpose and tradition, she decided to stay in Japan where she still remains today as the red-haired ‘Italian Geisha.’”

The end, and maybe not the end, of cocktail story time.

Related Photo Galleries