It seems to be a common theme how bartending grows from a flexible money-maker to a way of life for so many. "Why would I do anything else, I love this, I'm so happy," Caitlin Vann thought ten years ago while taking a college semester off to figure it all out. Years later and it's plain to see in her smile that she made the right choice.
Patrons often recognize her from Leon's Lounge, where her curiosity for the craft first sprouted. The historic bar "had just enough ingredients to dip my toes in the kiddie pool." From there she became interested in whiskey with its endless catalog of what's and where's and how's. But it wasn't until two-and-a-half years ago, when she applied for a job at Lei Low
, that she realized, "rum was home."
The escape-space, hidden behind a tinted door in a three-unit strip center on the edge of the Heights, is marked on the outside with a colorful Aloha wall mural and a canoe-turned-planter. The inside is a world unto itself, which is exactly what they're going for.
Tiki culture in America, which began during the Great Depression, was engineered to make people feel good. And for the few who had and the many who hadn't experienced Pacific island culture, the whole package fascinated all. With elaborate wood carvings, pulsating island beats and a colorful cocktail menu, Lei Low holds true to the tenets of Tiki life.
Vann herself was drawn in as well, "Lei Low just felt like a great place to work. You come in here and this is your world, it's hard to be upset about anything in this place."
With give-or-take 200 different rums, Lei Low isn't your typical piña colada slinger. Vann is excited by the variety and complicated nature of the spirit. "Rum is so diverse, it's vastly different, every place producing rum has a different law, has a different aging requirement." Right now she's really into Rhum Agricole, particularly from Martinique, which is a style of rum where sugar cane juice is used in place of molasses.
Well-balanced Tiki drinks at Lei Low will change your perception of rum entirely.
Photo by Kate McLean
Working at Lei Low checks off all the boxes for Vann; wonderful bosses, great coworkers, rum. "I love what we're selling, I didn't even realize I liked rum as much as I did. I feel encouraged and challenged to try different things here that I normally wouldn't work with."
Often times because of all the moving parts that go into a Tiki cocktail the challenge lies in making it all work. A common misconception is that Tiki, or rum drinks especially, equals sweet. At Lei Low this is not the case; the skill of the mix-masters' palate is essential. "You want every ingredient to shine a little bit, and when it all comes together, what a beautiful moment." If you give her a shot she loves turning whiskey drinkers into rum drinkers.
And here's a fun fact: Justin Vann, the swashbuckling sherry dealer in town (among other libations), is her brother.
Vann created the "Three Years in Paradise" for Lei Low's third anniversary last year. With a background in classic cocktails, this creation started out as a boozy stirred drink, but with a little collaboration from her teammates it became one of her favorite creations.
"The Three Years In Paradise"
1 ½ ounce Plantation Rum
½ ounce Cocchi di Torino (Sweet Vermouth)
½ ounce Peach liquer
½ ounce cinnamon syrup
½ ounce lime juice
¾ ounce grapefruit juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Mint sprigs, recommended garnish
Serve in a tiki mug over crushed ice and garnish elaborately. This drink has great depth of flavor; from the blended citrus, to the way the cinnamon works with the bitters and of course the unique flavor of the Lei Low proprietary Plantation Rum itself. Give it a try at home or you could just throw on a pair of flip-flops and treat yourself to a few hours of getting lost inside Lei Low.
Shot of advice:
Trust your bartender.
Lei Low Rum & Tiki Bar is open Tuesday through Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. and Sunday 2 p.m. to midnight.
About the closest to island life that Houston has to offer.
Photo by Kate McLean