How did the best rum punch north of the palm tree line end up at The Paddle Inn, a surf bar in Newburyport, Massachusetts? Well, that’s because Nolan Gawron, a writer and bartender I met on my Anguilla press trip (I always drop “Anguilla press trip” whenever I get the chance), did his research in Barbados. After all, if I’ve learned anything from writing this blog, the “research” is half the fun. Read on for my interview with Nolan and how his rum punch came to be.
First off, how did you end up at the Paddle Inn?
“A little background …. The Paddle Inn is owned by the kindest and most hospitable drink-slinging veterans of the Boston cocktail scene. Beau Sturm and his wife Trina, together with Josh Childs and chef Suzi Maitland opened the Paddle Inn in December 2016, but talk of the venture came long before.
Josh Childs owned the long revered, downtown Boston go-to Silvertone before teaming up with Beau and Trina Sturm to open Trina’s Starlite Lounge. Located on the Somerville/Cambridge border (you can literally see the city line from the window), this is THE place for a good time amongst great people– a prime destination for service industry folks and refined imbibers from Boston and beyond. They modeled their business on well-crafted cocktails, decades of industry knowledge and a welcoming, non-pretentious atmosphere. Anyone who longed for an actual destination like ‘Cheers’ can come here and be part of an ever-growing group of friends and well-doers. It’s that place where ‘everybody knows your name’…. I should mention, this is a tough thing to accomplish for a city known all-to-well for its residents’ tough exteriors and guarded demeanor. But these folks broke the mold of the angry customer whose sick of the cold and sitting in traffic. They created a community.
I digress, but not much. Can you find or expect to find peace, friendship and family in a bar? I wouldn’t try, but it happened there. Over time I came to know these bar veterans and owners as friends. Beau and I would often talk surfing, catch some waves on the Cape and spend New England winters wishing we were surfing in the tropics. One night at Starlite, Beau asked me out of nowhere, ‘if you could open a surf bar, what would you call it?’ Surprisingly I thought up two names off the cuff — The Demerara Club and … The Paddle Inn.
I don’t remember an immediate reaction, but more than a year later, Beau asked me, ‘hey do you remember that conversation?’ I barely did, and can’t believe he did, but it must have been bouncing around his head for quite some time because he asked if he could use the name. I said, “of course — are you going to hire me?” The rest is history as the tired old adage goes.
He went with The Paddle Inn, a witty double entendre that combines the idea of hospitality (“Inn) and the act of swimming back to shore (“Paddling In’).”
You have a cocktail on the menu, the “Nolan’s Rum Punch.” Can you tell us how you came up with the recipe for your take on this Caribbean classic?
“Let me start by saying I would never claim to invent the Rum Punch. I wouldn’t dare! I prefer to think of myself as an archivist and explorer, not an inventor. As both a bartender and journalist, i enjoy gathering information from my travels and conversations. A well-researched first hand study of an island classic is more important to me than a so-called ‘mixologist’ recreating a drink that’s been reworked a million times over … Nolan’s Rum Punch reflects that mentality. I went down to Barbados in January 2017 to surf and leave the snow covered city for one of my favorite destinations — and what i found out to be one of Beau’s favorite spots — Barbados. I flew into Bridgetown, rented a surf shack at Zed’s and went from there.
It was a brief stay in Barbados, but when I drank, I drank Rum Punches. I’m not sure how many, but it was a significant amount. I mean, come on! I was on vacation and it was my birthday. But there was definitely an underlying purpose. The Paddle Inn had just opened a few weeks before and we were in the process of fleshing out our Tiki cocktail offerings. With each Rum Punch sampled, I made sure to keep a ranking in the back of my mind. I thought about what I liked about each and what I didn’t. To be honest, all were quite good and resembled each other to a degree, but you could tell that many of the concoctions were made for adolescents on Spring Break. After all that field research, I was surprised to find the best Rum Punch was at the last place I went. The Sea-U Guesthouse is a small and lovely accommodation on the hill in Bathsheba, overlooking the famous Soup Bowl—a go-to for expert surfers. The maintenance man was actually an old local who claims to be one of the island’s first boardriders.
I should mention, this Rum Punch wasn’t poured by a bartender. It sat premixed in a multi-gallon glass jug in the fridge at the Sea-U’s honor bar. Just grab a glass, write what you poured on a piece of paper along with your room number and that was that. At $4.50 a pour, I had a few, and even though there were no bitters and no nutmeg to top off the drink, this was THE recipe I had searched for (the nutmeg and bitters were actually already in the mix). The next morning at check out I told the woman at the desk my intentions and asked if she minded sharing the recipe. In a few minutes I had a printout for the proportions of the prebatch in my hand. I flew back to Boston, handed the recipe to Beau and it was on the menu by week’s end.”
What was it about that final rum punch in Barbados that separated it from the rest?
“In Barbados you can order a Rum Punch ANYWHERE. They sell them at huts on the beach, at bars that are no more than a converted garages, they even sell a version of Rum Punch pre-bottled as low-alcohol, over-sugared pre-mix at liquor stores… but that version is no better than buying margarita mix or some shitty schnapps. Some are poured straight out of plastic milk jugs, some combine a suspicious premix with a grenadine or bitters floater, but none are made to order from scratch.
While the Rum Punch can be ordered anywhere in Barbados, that doesn’t mean its made exactly the same way– there are certain characteristics that stand out as the difference between a well crafted honorable creation vs. the cheap, sweet and easy concoction. And surely anyone with a somewhat refined palate can taste the difference. To begin with, you want fresh citrus, freshly grated nutmeg, and of course decent rum—or in our case, a few honorable rums. The most important part, however, is a generous use of bitters.
In my opinion, the keys to the best Rum Punch are fresh and top shelf ingredients and a ‘generous’ and heavy-handed amount of bitters. In Barbados, as at the Paddle Inn, this calls for Angostura aromatic bitters from Trinidad. Not only does it cut at the sweetness, begging for the drinker to experience a more balance and well rounded cocktail, but it also adds to the majestic separation of color in its presentation. While the best ingredients make the best Rum Punch, an aggressive amount of Ango can save any half-assed attempt. The bitters should play more of a starring role than a bit part.
I should note, after receiving the recipe from the good folks at Sea-U, we did tweak it a bit—and mainly due to our access of some better ingredients. At the Paddle Inn, we swapped out the touch of grenadine for high-end Maraschino cherry juice from the expensive imported Italian cherries we use. And, instead of using just Mt. Gay (which we love), we use a multi-rum blend that combines the subtle characteristics of our favorite rums, some of which may not be available in Barbados. We don’t feel it’s unauthentic, we feel like it’s an elevated version with better ingredients. Pour 4 oz of the mix into a pint glass, top it with crushed ice, ten (or so) dashes of Angostura Bitters, fresh nutmeg, garnish with an orange-cherry flag and voila!”
Thoughts on batching your rum punch?
“Most beach bars batch their rum punches because it’s such a popular choice. The Paddle Inn batches for the same reason. As with any other batch-prepared drink, quality and consistency can be hard to maintain. But in reality, the large batch maintains a tighter degree of consistency than making each one to order. Of course there is always a possibility of a slight variation. Fresh squeezed juice can vary with every delivery, and maybe some of our Rum Punches get a few dashes more or less of bitters, but besides that, we have a specific set of measurements and we’re all great at math. We pre-batch for convenience. We sell so many and there are so many ingredients in our Rum Punch that making them from scratch would be way too time consuming at such a busy bar. It’s not laziness, that’s for sure. Our prebatch is always refrigerated, and during service sits on the backbar on ice. We go through it so quick that it rarely makes it a day or two before we make the next batch.”
Besides the obvious rum punch, why should people make an effort to stop by the Paddle Inn?
“The Paddle Inn pairs well-crafted cocktails made by knowledgeable bartenders with an ever-changing menu of expertly execution coastal food from all over the world. Local regulars know that we’re doing something different on both fronts. The barkeeps have an encyclopedic understanding of the classics, skillfully create our original house drinks and have the imagination to make something up on the spot. That’s hard to find in the suburbs! Newburyport is a beautiful coastal town with lovely people that are well educated on quality food and drink and possess refined palettes. A good amount move from Boston looking for the same quality you can find down there. Everyone who works at the Paddle Inn knows what they’re doing—we have the best chefs and bartenders in town– and we all get it done with pride, but without pretension. If there’s an attitude, it’s one that can only be described as “laid back.” And I mean that in vibe, not laziness. We play vinyl on the turntable behind the bar, picking out classic and esoteric gems to fit the mood and play our favorite surf movies from a variety of decades. Unless the big game is on, there is a bohemian, chase-the-sun, chase-your-dreams, follow-your-adventure vibe purveyed at all times. We want to provide the customer with the closest thing to a vacation from the real world as they can get– and all the while we’re working with that same mentality. If i can’t be surfing, I want to be making/drinking a Rum Punch watching a movie of someone doing just that in Tahiti, Oahu, Australia– or even Alaska. We want to take you away from the daily grind of work and stress and make your time at the bar a quick vacation for the mind—and that combined with the great drinks and the stellar food is what keeps all of the area residents coming back.”
“While you can’t surf anywhere from the Paddle inn’s peripheral, some of the best New England surf spots are just a few miles away. We’re psyched when we see salty surfers stop by after catching a set. Sometimes you know them by their look. Sometimes you don’t. But being a surf bar, run by surfers, that crew now has a home– there’s really nothing like this anywhere near here.
People stare at the surf movies all the time. They’re sick of bars showing news and sports. Some regulars are even able to name the specific surfers in the movie. Sometimes when we’re playing the “big game” a few customers will ask if we can turn it off and put the surf movies back on. It’s that kind of place.
There have been people who have said the Rum Punch is the greatest drink they ever had, and we’re stoked when that happens. When someone vibes with something you found and something you share from your travels and from another culture, its quite special. The best barkeeps in the biz try to share experiences and hope it catches on. Respecting the roots and history of a cocktail is so much more interesting than ‘reinventing’ something as yer own by using a new ingredient. At least I think so. The drink’s description mentions “a secret recipe.” When people ask what that means, I try to retell the story without boring them. I dont want any credit, but I do love to tell the story and I love it when they care.
One night while hanging out in Boston someone yelled out my name at the bar. Soon after a lady nearby asked, “are you the Nolan from the Nolan’s Rum Punch?” I couldnt believe it. Forty-five miles from the Paddle Inn and that happened?!
— Beau and I, along with the bar manager Alana have toyed with the idea of a Paddle Inn South. And not South Shore Massachusetts, not southern US … we mean Barbados!! Give us five years!”