Drink / Food

Drinks with John Fladd

The Jungle Bird

He stumbled in off the street, leaving the dust and noise behind.

Afternoon, Mr. Peterson. The usual?”

Hi, Charlie. I think I need The Bird today.”

Charlie mixed the drink and slid it to Peterson without a word. He knew from long experience that on days like this, words were like razors to the older man.

Peterson stared at the pink depths of his drink for a minute, then for a minute longer, then closed his eyes and took a long pull. For a moment — just the fraction of a breath — he was back in Kuala Lumpur. He didn’t even remember her name anymore.

All he had … was this.

The Jungle Bird was first created at a luxury hotel in Kuala Lumpur* in the 1970s as a welcome drink for arriving guests. It is often referred to as a tiki drink, but I think that is a bit misleading. Yes, this cocktail is built around rum and fruit — in this case, the classic combination of pineapple and lime — but it isn’t at all kitschy; it has an elegance about it. It dances on the edge of being almost too sweet, but is pulled back from the brink at the last moment by the addition of Campari, which adds bitterness and emphasizes the alcoholic taste of the rum. It announces to the world, in a quiet way, that you have hidden depths.

(* The capital of Malaysia. I had to look it up.)

A brief rant about pineapple juice:

In theory, you could juice your own pineapple, and if you were to find yourself somewhere with a ready supply of great, fresh pineapples, that would be an excellent idea. But for most of us the most consistent and convenient source of pineapple juice is from a can. That’s fine. There’s no shame in canned pineapple juice — except perhaps from a historical colonial perspective, but let’s set that aside for the moment — but there is a problem with it. Most cans of pineapple juice are enormous — generally 46 ounces. Even if you think ahead enough to buy a six-pack of tiny six-ounce cans of it, six ounces of pineapple juice is enough for four Jungle Birds, which means that either you are blessed with friends or you’ve settled in for the evening.

I get around this by using a silicone baby food freezer tray — basically an ice cube tray designed to allow parents to freeze neat one-ounce pucks of baby food for future use. Mine came with a snap-on lid, which means that I don’t spill the juice on my way to the freezer. Because it’s made of silicone, I can easily pop each pre-measured pineapple puck into a zip-close bag for future use without it sticking to the mold like it might in a traditional, metal ice cube tray. Just make sure to thaw your juice before adding it to your cocktail; frozen juice won’t melt any faster than the ice in your shaker and might throw your drink proportions off (30 seconds in the microwave is just about perfect to melt two ounces).

The Jungle Bird
• 1½ ounces dark rum – preferably Myers’s or Pusser’s
• ¾ ounce Campari
• ½ ounce simple syrup
• 1½ ounces pineapple juice
• ½ ounce fresh lime juice
Pour all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker, including the spent half of a lime that is left over from juicing it. (Why? I feel like it adds depth to the fruit flavor in the background of the drink. Can I prove it? Not even remotely.)

Shake the cocktail until it is very cold. You will know that it is cold enough when the outside of your shaker isn’t just wet with condensation but visibly frosts and your hands start to burn with the cold. Pain is the price you pay for excellence.

Pour into a rocks glass, discarding the lime rind, which at this point has given everything it has to this operation.

Historical purists will tell you to garnish a Jungle Bird with pineapple fronds carved into the shape of a bird. I feel like that was appropriate in the lobby of the Kuala Lumpur Hilton, but is a bit too precious for anywhere less exotic. Drink it ungarnished.
Peterson would not tolerate a paper umbrella.

Featured photo: The Jungle Bird. Photo by John Fladd.

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