When Pleasant Storage Room closed unexpectedly late last year after less than a year in business, Austin lacked a good rum bar where colorful island culture, complete with bright Hawaiian shirts, coconut-shaped mugs and drinks with names like the Zombie, could be regularly celebrated.
But the bar’s next door neighbor, the French-centric Péché, decided not to change the focus of the space very much when Péché’s owner Rob Pate bought it — now Isla, it’s all about tiki, all the time, the only bar in Austin to fully embrace the tropical-themed bar trend currently on a resurgence across the country. Tiki bars have been opening all over the U.S. thanks to the earlier mythologizing influences of Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, and Isla has joined their ranks. (The previous extent of Austin’s participation in the tiki movement had been through Texas Tiki Week for the past few years.)
Walk in and you’ll see how easily the new bar, now open seven days a week, lives up to its name: Isla’s cool tropical vibe, highlighted by vintage art in mismatched frames and teal, yellow and burnt coral seating, “will bring the paradise to you,” as Isla’s general manager Trey Jenkins put it.
So will the drinks, of course.
For Jenkins, transferring from Péché’s absinthe-tinged bar program (he was the assistant bar manager there) to Isla’s rum-soaked one wasn’t a big transition. He had been spearheading Péché’s Tiki Sundays for the past seven months, after all. He and a couple of regulars would pick out a cocktail to make from one of Beachbum Berry’s tiki books — Berry is essentially the historian of the modern tiki movement and has now opened his own tiki bar in New Orleans — before the weekly night of rum became official, with a menu featuring a mix of Berry’s staples and some riffs on them.
“I like rum because it’s a rogue spirit,” Jenkins said. “Rum doesn’t play by the rules like the other spirits do. It just has to be made from sugar. No specifications on aging or where it has to be made. Not even any rules on how it has to come from sugar. No wonder the pirates drank it so much.”
Isla will have about 105 different rums on the shelves once all the bottles Jenkins ordered come in, the selection representing the full range of flavors and complexities that rum can have, from Martinique’s rhum agricole, a very grassy and vegetal version, to Guyana’s Demarara rums, full of spice and vanilla notes. (Quick rum lesson: Rhum agricole, or rums from French-speaking islands, he said, are produced from pressed sugarcane juice. These preserve the soul of the sugarcane flavor more than the rums from English-speaking islands, such as Jamaica or Guyana, which will have a fuller-bodied taste more reminiscent of molasses. And these are just two of the regional varieties you’ll see on shelves.)
Because all these rums can taste so wildly varied, cocktail recipes often specify which type of rum should be used, Jenkins said.”With a lot of tiki drinks, you can’t replace the rum with another because the ingredients are meant to complement the characteristics of that rum, whether it’s Puerto Rican gold rum or Jamaican rum or Demarara rum,” he said.
The drinks menu at Isla is no different, with every item detailing what rum should be used. He’s divided the bar menu into three sections: classics, featuring timeless favorites like mojitos, daiquiris and a Rum Old Fashioned; tiki drinks popularized by the mid-20th century’s love affair with cocktails full of fruit juices and topped by lots of garnishes, like the Zombie or the Painkiller; and Isla drinks created by Jenkins, like the Isla Barrel of Rum with house-spiced rum, 12-year Nicaraguan rum, grapefruit juice, lime juice, passionfruit syrup and Angostura bitters.
Within the tiki drinks section are two cocktails offered on draft, the Mai Tai and the Zombie. Jenkins is batching them ahead of time, he said, because the Zombie has a whopping eight ingredients, far too many to be whipping up one at a time each night. And the Mai Tai is sure to be popular, so it’s also a good one to have prepared early.
One of the bar’s original concoctions is the Kill Devil Cobbler, made with 12-year Jamaican rum, sherry, sugar, pineapple and orange juices, and nutmeg sprinkled on top. It’s an ode to Isla’s original name, the Old Kill Devil (a 17th-century moniker for rum), that Jenkins said “is more the name of a basement tiki bar where men in tattoos serve you” — not exactly the sort of exotic island paradise Isla hopes to transport visitors to, he said with a laugh, but worthy of a cocktail all the same.
Isla also has island-inspired food, such as grilled octopus and a Caribbean seafood pepper pot of shrimps, scallops and more cloaked in a spicy broth. That’s yet another prominent reason Isla is the place to go if you’re wishing for a tropical sojourn, Mai Tai in hand.
“Not many places in town are doing tiki on this level,” Jenkins said. “We’re proud to be one of them.”