Off to Cuba! 

Sampling the new cocktail menu at Babalu.

I've always liked the idea of a fine Cuban cigar better than actually smoking one. So, when Michelle Laverty, "Lav" to one and all, over at Babalu, slid a creation called a Cuba Cigar across the bar, I was intrigued. A single massive square of ice swimming in Bacardi Gran Reserva Rum with Havana, hyde and smoked bitters, with an orange slice. It is a solid drink, with the bitters supporting, not hiding the rum. And here it was, that smoky, leathery ideal of a cigar without the reality of it. Which is good, because in reality I'm allergic to tobacco.

This is just one of the five new cocktails rolled out by Babalu Tapas and Tacos in Overton Square this summer. The new drinks were created under the direction of Lisamarie Joyce, a bar consultant you've probably never heard of and frequent guest of Bar Rescue, which you probably have. She became a bartender at 15, and has been one ever since, worked for TGI Fridays and created training programs and films for bartenders. "I don't do anything over email," Joyce says. "It's all 'human touch' training."

Babalu wasn't in any real need of rescue; they just wanted to shake up the cocktail list. "I don't just come up with a new menu," Joyce says. "I like to make a partnership with the company, talk to the employees, the guests. I do secret shopping. See what works — I collaborate with the staff to come up with a new menu."

click to enlarge Lisamarie Joyce - RICHARD MURFF
  • Richard Murff
  • Lisamarie Joyce

The Cuban Cigar was one of those collaborations — the brainchild of Joyce and Lav, who likes to work with spirit-forward cocktails. Some of the new choices are more a celebration of fruit than booze, though. The Lemon-Berry Sour tastes like a delicious booze-free sorbet. Mrs. M's review was simple and straightforward: "Wow." Be warned, there is Grey Goose vodka in there, with that swirl of blackberry, raspberry, and fresh squeezed sour, all lightened up with a good splash of soda. Others at the bar were eyeballing the colorful drink, and Mrs. M., being more delightful than myself, was making friends.

Next on the list, and tied for my personal favorite with the Cuban, was the Baba-Breeze: Bombay Sapphire Gin, cucumber, mint ginger, lemon, and soda. My summer go-to is a gin and soda (and yes soda, not tonic — long story), and because I can't leave well enough alone, I will substitute lemon, or mint or cucumber, for the traditional lime. It had never occurred to me to simply drag my cocktail through the garden and stick it all in there. Which explains why Joyce makes her living as a bar consultant and I don't.

Babalu is famous for its tacos and tapas — it says so right on the sign — so Mrs. M and I thought it prudent to get into the shrimp tacos at this point. In a place also known for super-fresh guacamole, it seems obvious that at least one cocktail would involve the creamy avocado. To wit, the Straw-vacado, which Lav described as an "adult smoothie." Made with Grey Goose Le Citron Vodka, avocado, strawberry, and fresh squeezed sour, this is the Guinness beer of tropical cocktails.

The last of the new menu was more fruity goodness with the La Paloma. It wasn't nearly as spirit-forward as the Cuban Cigar or the Baba-breeze, but the booze wasn't entirely in stealth mode, like the Lemon-Berry sour. This is because it is made with Cazadores Reposada Tequila — which is tasty but next to impossible to entirely hide — along with grapefruit, blood orange, and agave to soften the whole thing up.

The menu isn't entirely new. The classics remain, and after still another round of shrimp tacos, we finished off with an old-fashioned daiquiri — shaken, not frozen. Babalu is big and loud and takes all kinds — the new roll-out reflects that with something for those who'd rather be in a leather chair with a cigar, and those who'd rather think they were drinking a smoothie.

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