Every summer, social media suddenly becomes abuzz with publications, bartenders and trendsetters prognosticating about which cocktail is going to be the drink of the summer. Their picks are usually Instagram-perfect for serving at summer parties, enjoying poolside or even sipping while cooling off during a sultry afternoon.
Who would have thought that the ultimate summer vacation cocktail would actually arrive during the last few weeks of the season? Or that it would originate from a cocktail lounge and gaming parlor tucked in the mezzanine level of a Hollywood hotel?
Yael Vengroff, the beverage director at The Spare Room in The Hollywood Roosevelt and the 2018 Spirited Awards American Bartender of the Year, created this coconut-sherry liquid sunshine as a one-off for a Tiki series she hosts at the bar every May through September.
The L.A. hotel bar’s popular “Evening of Tiki” cocktail series welcomes guest bartenders from around the world to mix and serve their own brand of over-the-top Tiki drinks. Past guests have included Paul McGee of Lost Lake in Chicago, Anu and Chris Elford of Navy Strength in Seattle and Jose Luis Leon and Ariana Ruiz of Mexico City’s Licorería Limantour. But Vengroff also presents her own menu of Tiki cocktails just for the evening’s festivities.
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Her menu often gets overlooked as crowds flock to the visiting bartenders to get a taste of their imported drinks. But even though James Beard award-winning Brooklyn bar Maison Premiere was in the house this past July serving up elegant Jungle Birds and Hurricanes, a record-scratch moment jolted the room when Tiki-attired revelers first sipped Vengroff’s Cabana Club cocktail.
Daniel Djang, the co-founder of multicity fundraising cocktail event Art Beyond the Glass and founder of the Thirsty in LA cocktail blog, was among the guests that night who became an instant fan. “A frozen sherry-absinthe cocktail served in a coconut? Yes, please!” he says, grabbing for the drink.
Served in a young coconut with a glittery orchid garnish and gold straw, it didn’t stand out too much among the aloha shirts and elaborate tropical fascinators. But word of mouth quickly spread as those in the know pushed those who didn’t into ordering it. The bar ended up selling out of the blended cocktail even after the bartenders accidentally batched an excessive amount before the event.
The Cabana Club cocktail is so simple, and yet it’s more layered than your standard patio pounder. It compels its drinker through a journey of creamy coconut, rounding it out with the nuttiness of amontillado sherry, holding attention with herbaceous absinthe and then bringing it home with cinnamon spice.
“My goal is how do I make something so incredibly simple but next-level mind-blowing also?” says Vengroff.
The idea for the Cabana Club first came to Vengroff years ago in her hometown of Houston when she survived a particularly hot summer by drinking sherry and coconut water. And that combination, which she calls her desert island go-to, married perfectly with one of her favorite cocktails, a Prohibition-era Bahamian classic, the Gully Wash. “I loved that flavor profile,” she says. “And I just took those two ideas and merged them.”
Even though there are just a few weeks of summer left, this coconut cocktail will transition seamlessly into fall. “It’s definitely not your May summer cocktail, which is more like watermelon fizz,” says Vengroff. “It’s guiding you toward warm, more obscure, complex flavors that you typically experience in the fall or winter but still retaining that delectable-treat aspect.”
Because the Cabana Club was so popular that night, its stay at the bar has been extended, earning it a spot as a chalkboard special for three to four weeks. But for those who won’t be able to make it to The Spare Room anytime soon, the cocktail is easy to make at home for an instant vacation.