In 1942 Havana, Pleasant Storage Room opened as a small mercantile selling rice, beans and other staples, but over the years, as its name changed to Martinez House and then Bodeguita del Medio, the place evolved into something different. Since the 1950s, when visiting celebrities such as Nat King Cole, Pablo Neruda and a then-unknown university student, Fidel Castro, helped to build its reputation as a scruffy, offbeat haven for Caribbean-style cocktails, it’s become a mojito mecca, a status it hasn’t lost all these years even after the Cuban Revolution.
But don’t take anyone’s word for it. Ernest Hemingway himself, famous for his devotion to the drink, endorsed Bodeguita del Medio with a framed inscription that hangs on one of the walls. If you’re in Havana and you like mojitos, you go there.
That’s what the founders of Austin’s Pleasant Storage Room (whose name does come from that revered Havana watering hole) hope will happen with their new bar: that it becomes the local spot to enjoy rum-based cocktails — and not just mojitos. Rum, according to head bartender Alfonso Hernandez, is underrepresented at many area bars, where the diverse and dynamic spirit doesn’t always reach its full potential. At his West Fourth Street joint, rum has the starring role.
He and Pleasant Storage Room’s chef, Paul Hargrove, first developed the concept for the bar after working at East Side Showroom under such venerable mixologists as Jason Stevens, now at Bar Congress, and John Kelly O’Hare, a punch fan now living in L.A. His Commodore Punch was a constant on East Side Showroom’s cocktail menu, but it would “get lost” behind the other drinks, Hernandez said.
Not so at Pleasant Storage Room. Here, the cocktail menu features five over-proof punches, including the Commodore. One in particular, the Punch a la Regent, is so complex and time-consuming to make that it requires, at minimum, a two-day advance reservation and at least six or more people to drink it. (And its starting cost, at $180, means you’ll want it for special occasions only.)
In addition to the punches, the menu boasts a variety of rum-centric drinks divided into classics and house creations. The classics include the Cuba Libre, the mojito and the daiquiri. The “Pleasant Touch” cocktails, crafted by Hernandez, range from the gin-based Einstein on the Beach to the Make and Mend with Pusser’s Royal Navy Rum. Not all the drinks on the menu have rum — but you can bet they all wink at the style of island cocktails, which tend to be very boozy and full of spice, fruit and sweetness.
Listen to Hernandez talk about any of these cocktails and it’s immediately obvious that he’s not only enthusiastic about all the things rum can do, but he knows a lot about the spirit, too. For one, much of the attention it’s gotten recently with the resurgence of tiki culture isn’t what he wants to highlight.
“The tiki movement kickstarted around the 1950s with Trader Vic, who created really over-the-top, elaborate rum cocktails with tropical fruit juices and liqueurs inspired by Caribbean and Polynesian cuisine,” Hernandez said. “But (Pleasant Storage Room) is the other side of the rum bar coin. It’s more like a refined Havana bar like Hotel Nacional during the golden age.”
Indeed, it was important to Pleasant Storage Room’s founders for the decor to channel the eclectic and elegant energy of pre-Revolution Cuba. The exposed brick, marble bar top and brass fixtures are juxtaposed with graffiti, scruffy-looking wood floors, and bright flowers and tropical fruits on every surface, not unlike the sort of place a tourist in Cuba during the 1920s through 1940s might stumble into for a good hard drink or two.
Hernandez said he wants Pleasant Storage Room to feature all types of rum and become a steward for some of the forgotten brands, like Coruba. Right now, the liquor shelves behind the bar have bottles from more than 60 rum labels, and the collection will keep growing. “That much rum and we’ve only been open (since late April),” Hernandez said.
Plus, the bar kicks off the Summer of Rum on Friday, an event that will spotlight “cocktails that were once popular, but have since disappeared,” he said. He plans to shoot videos of him making these drinks and talking about why they’re relevant today. They’ll then be available as off-menu items that anyone can order.
Pleasant Storage Room also has a hearty menu of ceviche and Caribbean-style street food, such as jerk chicken, conch fritters and Cuban sandwiches. But you’ll be coming for those cocktails.
“I want to make rum drinks on this level,” Hernandez said as he mixed the ingredients for a daiquiri, a simple cocktail, poured into a martini glass, that asks for only rum, lime juice and cane sugar. “Because people will keep coming back when they realize they can’t find them anywhere else.”