Bartender Chat: Stephen Caronna of Lei Low Talks Rum and Hemingway
A person walks into a bar and orders _______. He or she has just earned your undying admiration.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg The magical Mai Tai at Lei Low.
If they come in here and order a daiquiri...or there's this thing called a Tea Punch. Neither of those are on the menu. But anybody who knows what they like impresses me. If you take an hour to decide what you want to drink, I usually joke around. You're not buying a car. It's not a big decision.
When you're working, where do you drink?
I really like Bad News Bar downtown, and I really like Down House, so I still go there. And honestly, I come here to drink. Even when I'm not working. I mean, you don't want to get drunk at work, but they have these delicious drinks I can't get anywhere else.
What do you order?
My favorite drink here is the Mai Tai, but my favorite drink of all time is a daiquiri. I often order daiquiris. At Bad News they'll get goofy and put Campari in it just for fun because they know me. But I like things that are so simple that when you put them together, they're more than the sum of their parts. Like, wow, these three things taste this good together. I like the simple stuff.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to use?
Any rum or Mezcal. And if you can combine rum and Mezcal, which might seem counterintuitive, that would be really cool. That was my niche at Down House. The rum and Mezcal mix. Especially a funky, Jamaican rum and a smoky Mezcal. Somehow I was able to take things that were not very approachable on their own and make them come together.
What's one thing that you wish people understood about bartending that they might not?
I wish that people would realize that there are quality bars now. We get a lot of people who say "I want a drink, but I don't want one that's sugary sweet." And you know, I get why they say that. But it's almost insulting when you put a lot of work into drinks and try to balance them and try to take almost a culinary approach to the drinks, and people just assume that you're going to be making sugary gross garbage. So I guess I just want to say look around when you go into a bar. If it looks like a quality bar, take their word for it and just order something.
But I think tiki drinks have gotten a bad rap for being overly sweet.
And rightfully so. I used to call it my personal mission to change the reputation of rum one daiquiri at a time. What's funny is often when people try a proper daiquiri, they're like wow this doesn't resemble the corn syrup and fake red dye crap I've had in the past. That's one of the best things--to open someone's eyes. They say, "I don't like rum," then you give them a rum drink, and they like it all the sudden. We're kind of opening people's eyes I guess, if you want to get all weird and deep about it.
What's one of the weirdest things you've seen while working here?
I try not to judge. People do all kinds of weird stuff. They put ice in their wine. They mix beer. Two people tried to get it on in our bathroom on the first night. I had to stop them. So that was weird. The cool thing I've noticed, though, is we offer shared drinks here, and I thought that people in Houston wouldn't like that, but they've really responded, and they're having fun drinking with these giant straws out of this giant bowl. I think that's really refreshing and cool to see people sharing and doing a communal thing.
Have you brought any strangers together with your shared drinks?
Well the people who had sex in the bathroom met that night. So I think that's bringing people together...?
If you could have a drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would it be, and why?
I think Hemingway would be a great person to drink with. He was a famous daiquiri lover and a cocktail enthusiast in general. And obviously he was a well-traveled, educated, interesting person. I'd probably drink a Hemingway daiquiri. I'd be like, "Check it out, I drink it just like you!"
Check out how to make Lei Low's most popular drink, the Mai Tai, in the video below.