Raising the Bar: A Taste of the Islands


Can you think of a better way to spend a lazy, hazy, crazy day of summer than by relaxing on an island and enjoying a refreshing island-style beverage? Well, we can’t provide the islands (unless you’re satisfied with Brown’s or Belle), but we can direct you to some island beverages right here in the River City.

For this first issue of the new River City Magazine, I visited some of my favorite local mixologists to get their take on island beverages. Both Mattias Hagglund, co-owner of The Jasper (3113 W. Cary St.), the new and hot Carytown bar well as Jason Lough, who is currently running the bar at Mom’s Siam, just three blocks east, recommended that I meet The Jasper’s beverage director, Brandon Peck.

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Considering that The Jasper is co-owned by two of the city’s most celebrated bartenders (Mattias and Thomas Leggett), it stands to reason that Brandon must have some pretty good creds. The crowds that flock to the hip little joint on a nightly basis would testify to that. But, the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. However, I wasn’t interested in pudding. I wanted that taste of the islands. Brandon prepared the perfect potent potable, the Caribbean Queen, which he tells me is his take on the Jungle Bird cocktail. The Jungle Bird uses black strap rum. Brandon goes with a black strap tequila, which is a concoction produced in-house using Reposado Tequila. Not only is the Caribbean Queen one of his own signature drinks, it has become one of the more popular cocktails in the bar.

The thing I especially like about The Jasper is that it looks and feels like a bar. While there are plenty of  tasty items on the (food) menu, this is a true bar with an emphasis on high-quality beverages.

“We have found in recent years,” says Brandon, “that younger crowds are willing to spend more money if they believe the product is good and if you give them a good atmosphere to drink it in.” Even the sign out front, that simply says “Bar,” gives you the impression that this place is unique. Don’t look for the bar’s Happy Hour information in our guide (to follow). They don’t have one. “It’s always Happy Hour around here, Mattias says. Indeed, their slogan is “Full Pours & Honest Prices.”

After sampling the Caribbean Queen, I headed down Cary to Mom’s Siam (2811 W. Cary St.). This has long been one of my favorite dining spots in all of Richmond. Most folks know Mom’s Siam for its fabulous, authentic Thai cuisine, but did you know that under the direction of front-of-house manager, Ree Kaewmanee and bar manager Jason Lough, Mom’s Siam has a pretty cool bar scene as well.

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Jason describes the bar as offering “an introduction to the craft cocktail scene.” He tells me that creating craft cocktails is not as complicated as some would like you to think it is. I asked him if he takes the restaurant’s cuisine into consideration when creating the cocktail menu. “Absolutely,” he says. “The cocktails are influenced by the food.”

For Mom’s Siam, Jason says the beverage program is rum heavy. “We use a lot of fresh lime juice, ginger, mint, basil, Thai chilis and tamarind.”

Jason says that guests of Mom’s Siam tend to like  sweet and tart tastes in both their food and drink. “Ree makes a great Old Fashioned,” he says.  She also makes a drink that she calls a My Thai. “That’s Ree’s riff on the Mai Tai,” Jason says, adding, “When I make my version, guests will say, ‘I wanted Ree’s version.’”

I gave Jason and Ree a challenge: Concoct an island cocktail. Their creation, which is made with Cruzan Black Strap rum, also features tamarind, the basic ingredient in many Thai dishes. The spice has what Jason terms a full-bodied tangy or tart taste. Other ingredients include lime and ginger, as well as a lighter, overproof rum. I cautiously took a couple of sips. This was, remember, my second cocktail of the afternoon. It truly is a drink that would go perfectly with Asian cuisine. “It tastes like summertime,” Jason said after sampling it.

It fits the bill for an island drink. “What’s the name?” I ask Jason and Ree.

“What’s your favorite place in Thailand?” Jason asks her.

Ree, a Thai native replies, “The Similian Islands.”

Jason had told me that the drink was similar to a Planter’s Punch, thus the new drink shall be known as Similian Punch. Just as a heads up, in Thai pronunciation, it would sound more like Simiran Punch. That’s how I repeated it back to Ree, who agrees on that pronunciation.

The refreshing drink has quite a unique taste. If you were to take an authentic Thai dish, turn it into a drink and mix it with alcohol, this is likely what that dish would taste like. You try it and let me know what you think.

Speaking of Thai food (and I do love Thai food), Leslie Hong, GM at Joe Kiatsuranon’s My Noodle and Bar (1600 Monument Ave.), also offers an island-style beverage, which she created for us. For her drink, Leslie uses calamansi as a base flavor. This fruit juice is better known as Filipino lemonade, and since the Philippines comprise more than 7,000 islands,  this drink would definitely qualify as an island beverage. Calamansi is a citrus fruit similar to lemon and limes, and besides making a refreshing summertime beverage, the fruit is used extensively in Filipino kitchens for anything from a meat marinade to desserts.

Leslie adds Kopper Kettle Dark Chai Spiced Rum, passion fruit, lime and Allspice Dram to create a delightful cocktail, which she calls Calamansi Crush. I like it, both the name and the drink.

All in all, my island-hopping adventure was quite refreshing. Perhaps you would enjoy an island getaway? No passport needed. Oh yeah, one more thing: Please drink responsibly.

Steve Cook
Author: Steve Cook