Originally created in the early 1970s at the British Virgin Islands’ Soggy Dollar bar—reachable only by sea—the Painkiller is a textbook boat drink. A combination of rum, pineapple and orange juices (both typically from a can) and coconut cream, it puts refreshment above complexity, inviting bartenders to try their hand at balance in a cocktail that never had it in the first place. “There’s no acidity,” notes rum expert Paul McGee, of the often cloying combination of ingredients. “It just starts off with a terrible recipe.”
But judging by a recent tasting of 10 recipes submitted by bartenders across the country, the Painkiller is not a lost cause. Though some pulled the formula too far into Serious Cocktail territory, with unorthodox additions such as Pedro Ximénez sherry and cold-brew concentrate, those that succeeded managed to honor the uncomplicated nature of the original, calling for thoughtful changes that made the vacation drink feel worthy of a spot on any contemporary cocktail menu.
Among the most common issues plaguing the entries was a tendency for overdilution. The volume of the drink is large to begin with—eight and a half ounces, of which five are juice. Add to that the dilution from shaking with ice cubes, or buzzing the drink with pebble ice in a stand-up mixer, and it can quickly become a watery mess. Other common faults were a lack of acid, too much rum or too little rum.
On that last point, despite the cocktail’s trademark being owned by Pusser’s Rum (who, it ought to be known, did not even create the recipe), few of the submitted Painkillers called for the brand. In almost every recipe, Jamaican rum made an appearance as part of the base-spirit blend, a selection that the judges (myself, McGee, Sunken Harbor Club’s St. John Frizell and Punch editor-in-chief, Talia Baiocchi) found favorable for its ability to boost the tropical banana and pineapple notes.
Taking top honors was Matthew Belanger, of Death & Co. Los Angeles. His interpretation of the Painkiller leans on a blend of Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, El Dorado 15-year Guyanese rum and Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum for the base, with only an ounce and a half of pineapple juice (compared to four ounces in the original spec) alongside an ounce of Coco Lopez and three-quarters of an ounce of orange juice. It was among the most rum-forward of the bunch, and the judges unanimously enjoyed the unorthodox garnish of a lavish mint plume alongside the requisite freshly grated nutmeg. Frizell noted that the drink’s spirit-forward construction might be “too much of a good thing,” but praised the drink for its refreshing qualities and long finish.
Second place went to Jelani Johnson, assistant distiller at Great Jones Distilling Co. The judges quickly picked up an additional source of acid, in this case lemon juice, and likewise found the rum to shine through thanks to four different expressions, led by Coruba Jamaican rum alongside Plantation O.F.T.D., El Dorado 12-year and a teaspoon of Rum Fire. The judges thought the nutmeg was particularly well integrated thanks to Johnson’s decision to shake the drink with grated nutmeg, rather than simply dusting it atop the finished drink. Johnson’s was also the only drink served on Kold-Draft ice cubes rather than with pebble ice, making it read more like a traditional cocktail than a colada. As McGee observed, “It tastes like a Painkiller you would get at a cocktail bar.”
Third place went to Chris Coy, of the Inferno Room in Indianapolis, whose recipe similarly called on a split rum base of four expressions in equal half-ounce measures: Bounty Dark Rum and Bounty Spiced Rum from St. Lucia, pot-still Jamaican rum Worthy Park 109 and the Guyanese Hamilton Demerara rum. To that, he added three ounces of pineapple juice, two ounces of store-bought toasted coconut syrup and one ounce of orange juice, all flash-blended and topped with an impressive arrangement of a pineapple fan, pineapple fronds, an orange wedge and an orchid. The coconut and rum harmonized well in almost Piña Colada–like fashion. As any Painkiller ought to be, Frizell dubbed it “a crowd-pleaser.”