It’s a tricky thing, choosing cocktails on a cruise ship. Do you go with the signature Drink of the Day or pick one from the menu—a list that is bloated with overly-sweet tropical smoothies and misguided classics. It would be easy for a cocktail enthusiast to get discouraged, but it’s a mistake to abandon all hope. After all, I spotted a bottle of Angostura Bitters on the back bar and even some Campari sitting neatly down below. Surely, a little patience, flexibility and some extra gratuity could rescue the situation.
Ingredients and Staff
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the mixologist at sea is the lack of fresh citrus juices. I found this ironic given the Caribbean climate, but for reasons unknown, Rose’s Lime Cordial reigns supreme, as does a variety of mixes and mystery milk. On the other hand, most of the base spirits are nicely represented. So, after carefully scanning the available inventory, I decided it was time to make a new friend.
Nice gratuities may sometimes pay dividends in service, but so can friendly conversation. I hoped to find someone that would appreciate my odd requests with interest or enthusiasm instead of just begrudgingly executing them. As if guided by ship-bound fate, I found I Putu, the lobby bartender from Indonesia. His bar sees plenty of foot traffic, but only occasionally faces a rush of thirsty customers. After only a few minutes of conversation, I discovered that I Putu shared my interest in spirit-driven cocktails and that whiskey was his poison. He also seemed open to experimentation. Since it wasn’t very busy, I figured, why not get started by messing with his garnish tray.
I guess I got lucky with a few of the ingredients. For instance, the menu featured a bunch of flavored Mojitos which meant he always had fresh mint leaves. He also had Passion Fruit syrup, mango puree and a few other odds and ends. The garnish tray was filled with lemon and lime wedges which were probably pre-cut in the kitchen (no knife or whole fruit behind the bar). That made fresh juice a problem, but he did have a muddler for the Mojitos. So, I told him how to make a Whiskey Smash! With four lemon wedges and a fistful of mint in the shaker along with some simple syrup (again, from those Mojitos), we were off and running. The waiters and other staff (and more than a few fellow passengers) looked on with curiosity as my new friend muddled the wedges into oblivion. Certainly, something unusual was happening here. There was a grin on his face and excitement in the air and everyone felt it. Then came some Maker’s Mark, followed by the ice, a few hard shakes and the party had begun.
The “Unwritten Menu”
The Smash behind us, we moved on to new adventures. I tried to explain the virtues of good, American rye whiskey, but with none on board, we compromised. I Putu was already familiar with the Manhattan, so I considered a Rob Roy, but thought better of simply subbing Scotch. Instead, I went for something I figured he would not have heard of and settled on the Saratoga. This simple recipe quickly made its way onto a napkin and I was later told it had become a favorite at the crew-only bar. Delicious, unusual, yet complex and oddly familiar—the Saratoga is easy to make and was probably the highlight of the week.
Over the course of several days, we explored the limits of what was possible, given the selection, and more than once I thought about David Solmonson and his 12 Bottle Bar. Inspired by that kind of creativity (along with a few recipes I carry around on my iPhone) we enjoyed the Mint Julep, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier, Port Light, Caipirissima (a Caipirinha with rum in lieu of cachaça), Gimlet and even a couple of Negronis.
With more time (and an unlimited budget) the list might have grown, but there are only so many days to a cruise, and the ports of call beckon with flavors of their own. But, while on board, I think I was able to make the most of it, sharing some great recipes and a few techniques with an enthusiastic new friend. I doubt that the Saratoga will end up on the menu, but I don’t think it will be the last one served at the lobby bar.