With cocktail bars like San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, and Mother of Pearl in NYC, there’s no doubt that tiki is alive and well in the country’s metropolises. Navigate to America’s heartland, though, and you’ll primarily find watering holes touting kegs stocked with domestic drafts and endless malted grain options on menu. And yet, right there on the square of Springfield, Missouri (basically, the Ozarks), is The Golden Girl Rum Club, a bright, minimalist piece of tropicalia that’s far from the norm of a Midwestern city haunt.
How One Missouri Bar Is Turning Beer Drinkers Into Tiki Lovers
“Stepping into Golden Girl transports you to another place or time,” Rogan Howitt, co-owner of Golden Girl, explains. “Think Cuban Daiquiri bar, or vintage Floridian beach bar—minus the sand and any sense of schtick.” It’s here, behind the stick, that Howitt, a Springfield native, aims to provoke the shot-and-a-beer mentality of local imbibers. “Whiskey and beer are everything here. There’s no doubt that we are helping change that, but it will always be our biggest challenge.”
Here, Rogan talks about how he’s making waves in middle America with his ace in the hole: rum.
Supercall: How did you get into bartending?
Rogan Howitt: I've always been into hospitality. As soon as I turned 21, I got a barbacking job at a local lounge/Martini bar. This is southwest Missouri in the early 2000s, and classic cocktail culture was very slowly coming our way.
SC: When did you get your first taste of tiki?
RH: Visits to New York City were guided by lists, compiled by my wife and me, of bars and restaurants broken down by neighborhood and borough. I’m not even sure of how we heard about the now-closed PKNY, but walking into it in 2011 was a game-changer, and I felt a paradigm shift. No drinking experience had ever spoken to me the way PKNY did. I didn't know cocktails could taste this way: big citrusy, funky, pot stilled rums, spices, wild complexity and strength. I came home to Missouri even more interested in learning about spirits and mixing cocktails that you couldn't find in the area. In 2015, the stars aligned. My brother, who already owned one of the top 40 whiskey bars in America (Scotch & Soda), was approached by an investor for a project. We hashed out our vision of a breezy, bright, Cuban-style rum bar, and The Golden Girl Rum Club was born.
SC: How does Golden Girl fit into such a beer and whiskey-drinking city?
RH: Springfield has a number of bars and restaurants with strong cocktail programs, but we took a chance on a relatively unknown spirit in the area, and it’s been eye opening for the community. We are one of only a few rum-based specialty bars within a five hour drive in any direction. As such, we’ve become a destination that’s a step out of the norm, and that’s what makes us stand out. Our bar program utilizes a cocktail palate that was basically unknown to our market until now. GGRC's success so far is hopefully inspiring to new groups of people wanting to start up new specialized projects.
SC: Let’s talk about the challenges GGRC faces as a rum bar in a sea of whiskey bars.
RH: Some people aren't able to see past the look of a bar or whatever base spirit is used. While some associate rum with pirates and sailors, most of our market connects it with sweet, tropical, poolside cocktails that are cheap, taste like coconut and pineapple, and are only memorable because of the hangover. Our drinks are developed so they speak for themselves, but in tandem, we have to market to the masses here, and understand we aren't everyone's cup of tea.
SC: So, how do you introduce a newbie to tiki?
RH: Education is key for us, not only in a historical sense. Making sure our staff are able to communicate to guests what this style of cocktail should taste like, or how to deal with a customer who refuses an umbrella in their cocktail. Shifting conversation from "what whiskeys do you carry" to the similar characteristics of jamaican rums and whiskey is crucial.
For the cocktail, I always start with the Mai Tai. It should be tart, lightly sweet, a bit savory, definitely balanced and rum-forward. This is the one drink I can recommend to any type of drinker that always surprises and delights. The Satellite Swizzle [passion fruit liqueur, falernum, orgeat, lemon juice, gin, Angostura bitters and Miller High Life] on the menu at GGRC elevates and expands on the Mai Tai. Orgeat, falernum and passion fruit are a trinity of tiki heavy hitters. Dry herbal components from the gin can surprise tiki newcomers who were expecting a sweet, sugary spirit as their base. The beer—my personal favorite—lengthens and carbonates, and offers familiarity as well.