Daniele Dalla Pola has mixed tropical rum drinks from Miami to Singapore and has a true passion for the spirit. Now, you can find this talented Italian behind the bar at his own place, Nu Lounge, in Bologna. Over the years, he’s received some notable awards and nominations both as a bartender and for his establishment. We got the chance to catch up with him recently to find out about his inspirations, his advice for upcoming bartenders, his favorite rum drinks and more. Plus, he also announced plans for his new product lunch and hinted at some secret plans.
Forest Collins: Your name is one that comes up when people talk about rum and tiki bartenders. What originally attracted you to this style of cocktails or drinks?
Daniele Dalla Pola: As we’re talking, I’m just walking along here in Miami beach. And, actually I spent a lot of time here in the 90’s. It’s tropical here, very tropical. We are in the Caribbean, there are tropical drinks. And not far from here, there is the last tiki resort, it’s called Mai-Kai. I’ve been to Mai-Kai many, many years ago. I really enjoy seeing how they prepared these drinks, the mugs. I said to myself “wow!” I thought it was sort of amazing. Actually, I was in the right moment at the right time. I thought to myself, “I think the world needs more tiki, like Jeff Berry, like Martin Cate from San Francisco, all the American tiki bars”. Let’s say, I joined the group, and started to do it myself and started traveling more and got more interested in tiki bars and started doing tiki drinks more than before and getting my team into this and making that happen. We started to change our focus.
FC: Why do you think that tiki experienced a bit of a dark period after the 70’s when it was less fashionable or trendy than it has become once again?
Daniele Dalla Pola: Don’t forget that tiki culture, tiki pop, was the longest movement because it’s not just cocktails. It’s music, movies, fashion, art, design. It was a big thing. It was a lifestyle. The lifestyle. And everything started with this kind of cocktail, this kind of tiki restaurant like Don the Beachcomber. And that went on for 40 years, after 40 years. Think about it: it started in 1934, they begin in the 30’s until the middle of the 70’s more or less. You know, and the dark era, was first of all not only for tiki, it was everything. Restaurant chains, disco music, Vietnam war and a lot of things were changing, the world was becoming more technical, TV, everything was different.
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Also, imagine that this generation already passed through tiki when they were kids. When they are grown up, they don’t want to go there any more. And, it also was a dark era for any cocktail. The 80’s was frozen stuff, nothing good, big chains coming up. I think about the United States or America because everything happened here. America has created a lot of new trends, mostly.
And then, the comeback of the cocktails, around the beginning of the new millennium, like 2005, was like the ballooning of the mixology world coming up again. Then, people were demanding, thanks to the old TV programmes as well as the chefs, all the food revolution, foodies, all influenced a lot the cocktail scene. Because people, now, they are very attentive and spend money on food because they want to go to this place because they do this kind of food, they want to this place because they have the best of this, this chef is the guy who does this. The bartender is the same now.
FC: Can you tell us about some of your favorite rum cocktails that aren’t necessarily part of the tiki vocabulary?
Daniele Dalla Pola: Of course! Let me tell you, tiki drinks are inspired by planters punch and daiquiris, that’s the thing. Every tiki cocktail comes from a daiquiri idea. We have lime, sugar, and rum. That’s the best drink you can have in your life. Then, what happened? Don the Beachcomber he switched the sweet part. Instead of sugar, he used syrups and spices. He used lime, grapefruit, passion fruit, lemon, you know, oranges. Anyway, this is the tiki part.
Talking about rum drinks that I love, one of my favorite is the Hotel Nacional. It’s got pineapple as well as apricot brandy. I like the El Presidente. I love it. It’s not a tiki drink. There are more than one. Another: the Cuban Manhattan, it’s like a rum Manhattan. On the classics, I would say the El Presidente is great and also the Hotel Nacional.
FC: You’re a big fan of the original tiki era, so if you could go back and have any drink, with anyone in any place from that era, what would you do?
Daniele Dalla Pola: I am sure I would love to be with Don the Beachcomber when he invented the Missionary’s Downfall. I would love to be in Waikiki, with my beautiful wife and my kids, having a Missionary’s Downfall with Don the Beachcomber.
FC: I want to talk about your championship in the 42 Below world cup in 2011. Can you talk about the cocktail you made and its inspiration?
Daniele Dalla Pola: To be honest, that was created with a vodka, because a vodka sponsored the competition. We turned out a tropical cocktail, we infused the vodka with pepper and with fresh pineapple. We made up a ginger and citrus syrup and also added fresh pineapple juice. It was like a super tropical drink with infused vodka instead of rum. A very tropical cocktail. It’s called Elisir d’Amore.
FC: You were also nominated for one of the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards for best international bartender. Can you give some advice to up and coming bartenders who aspire to that kind of success?
Daniele Dalla Pola: Yes, last year I was nominated in the top ten for international bartenders. And they need to work hard, work hard every day. They have to try to be themselves; make up their own, like, personality, their own way of serving cocktail and just to be yourself is what I’m talking about. But, also focus on the guest and not on just yourself. Try to learn. If you like rum, get into rum, all the way. Learn the difference between them. Taste, try, talk to others and see what they think. And be yourself, basically.
FC: Nu Lounge has also won awards. You’re in the Top 100 on the Drinks International list of the worlds best bars and you received an award of best rum bar in Italy. What can new bar owners do to take their bar and drinks programme to the next level?
Daniele Dalla Pola: What I think is, I will say something that works for both questions: by yourself you go nowhere. There is no way that you can achieve great success alone. You need a team, you need to create a team. Alone, it’s impossible to reach any big goal. So what I suggest as a bar owner or as a bartender, look, you need to have a good team, team of people, who speak the same language, I mean a bartending language. You need to be able to talk, to know what to do, talk about what’s good and bad. With the team is the only way to success.
FC: Tell us how rum is perceived in Italy and if you have to adjust your approach to your drinks given the cultural norms of the customer base at Nu Lounge in Bologna.
Daniele Dalla Pola: Italy is one of the biggest rum countries in the world. Not just now, but always. As you know there are a lot of rum lovers. Italians travel a lot to the Caribbean for many, many years, always going to the Caribbean and always to drink rum. And when they come back they want to drink rum as well.
And, of course, I can tell you that the cuba libre, the rum and coke, can be the most popular. If you come to Italy and you want to open a bar, you can get at least 800 to 900 rums. It’s big rum country, I mean there are a lot of bars, there are a lot of rums. Of course, because now we know a lot because of the internet. But, we talk about it back in 2002/2001 when I opened the bar. I had like 35/40 rums. I didn’t even pay attention to that because that was normal to me. In America, now, if you go in the bar, they have like 40 rums, oh great, oh come on. Here, it’s like normal. Just imagine if you go to Martinique, you can have at least 100 rums just in one small island.
FC: Do you have a drink you use to introduce new customers to the category of rum or tiki?
Daniele Dalla Pola: What’s happening now is that we changed our direction in the bar. In the last few years, we are working on this new tiki project, which is we are not doing anymore classic tiki. Of course if you ask we will make it for you, but they are not on the list. We have the new cocktail list coming out, which is our version of the classics. Like we have a new tiki, a completely new tiki, if you take the Bali Hai cocktail, 1970, you add a lot of citrus, you’ve got a lot of lemon. When you taste it, it’s not right for the modern palate. So we try to take history and make it for the modern palate. When we design the drink we think about ladies. Because, ladies have the perfect palate. We create for the ladies’ palate, of course, with a kick of rum. One I love is called the Kamaaina, that word means a Hawaiian local. We serve it in a young coconut, it’s got guava nectar, coconut cream, 2 rums, citrus. Also, if you want some advertising from me, I’m coming out with my own product.
FC: That’s great! Tell us about the new product:
Daniele Dalla Pola: It’s called Alamea. It’s a name that means precious in Samoan and it’s also a star fish. The logo for the product is a star fish. It’s a range of infused liqueurs with flavors like Hawaiian coffee, Pimento Rum and Peach Brandy.
We will do the official launch at the Berlin Bar Show in October, on 10 and 11 of October at the bar show.
FC: In another interview, I heard you mentioned maybe creating a tiki school. Are you still looking at doing that.
Daniele Dalla Pola: No, to be honest. I was looking at doing that with a friend who owns a school. But, what we are doing instead here is the Tiki Christmas, we throw a tiki class for two days in Bologna. Then we throw a Hawaiian party in my bar. But a proper school is not something I’d like to do, because first of all I don’t have time and second I’m not a professional. I’m the action guy, serving people, getting drinks. It’s another kind of guy that teaches people in a school.
I can go for the masterclasses as that’s part of my job. I go to every bar show, do some master classes, couple hours talking about experiences, something new, different stuff, but it’s not like a proper class where people come and sit down. That’s not for me.
FC: You travel a lot for work. Tell me some of your favorite rum bars around the world.
Daniele Dalla Pola: I can’t say my favorite, because it depends on the mood, it depends on where you are. If I’m feeling great and want to go for a rum it can be any place in the world that is the best. But, I’d love to go see Jeff Berry at Latitude 29, I’ll actually go next month. I like Smuggler’s Cove from Martin Cate, it’s one of my favorite. To be honest, I like to go in this kind of place. I can’t wait, Tuesday, I’ll be at Mai-Kai.
FC: What’s behind your passion for pineapple?
Daniele Dalla Pola: Pineapples, everybody knows. Now it’s very fashion. For example, I’m sitting here in the lobby of the hotel, in Miami, and there are two beautiful pineapples here. It’s very fashion at the moment, I see every kind of designer putting it on things. Everywhere. I have a tattoo of a pineapple. It’s a symbol of hospitality.
I was talking to my son this morning, he was born here in Miami and we were just looking at his birth certificate for some paperwork. And, the hospital where he was born, their logo is a pineapple. In Hawaii it’s the symbol of friendship. In Taiwan they are good luck. It’s a beautiful just to see it. It’s like a piece of art. And if you eat it, it’s healthy too.
FC: Do you have any future projects that you want to share with us?
Daniele Dalla Pola: My product is coming out. Official launch in October.
We have another new project; we open a beach club in Italy in 15 days.
FC: Will it have tiki drinks?
Daniele Dalla Pola: No, it’s beach club with some tropical touches. It’s complicated. I won’t be there, but one of my team will be there with a new bartender.
To be honest, I have kind of secret, I’m in Miami because something is happening, there are a few situations going on, my future plan is that it would be nice to come back here.
FC: And, I’m sure they would be happy to have you there.