When Disneyland opened it’s own Tiki bar, Trader Sam’s, it was a safe assumption that the décor would be dialed-in. Escapism is what Disney does best! But what about the drinks? Thankfully, Trader Sam’s has Kelly Merrell. Kelly was there at the beginning of Trader Sam’s and he brought his cocktail making skills with him. Here is Kelly’s story…
What brought you into the “Tiki lifestyle” and how long has it been part of your life?
Kelly– I’ve always been into history and the aesthetics of past eras, even going back to when I was a kid. I loved the Mid-Century movement in the late ’90s and the burgeoning Tiki scene at that time as well. But it wasn’t until 2010 that a neighbor of mine, Jason Weckerly, suggested I should check out some Tiki events. So I went to check out this thing called Tiki Oasis with some friends and I had a blast! Just 10 months later, I was on the Trader Sam’s opening team and now I’m stuck with Tiki all the time!
You also have had long history with Disney. Can you talk about that?
Kelly– I originally started working at Disneyland in 1994. I wanted to be a Jungle Boat skipper, but they put me in the Custodial Department instead. Turns out, walking around Disneyland sweeping and cleaning bathrooms was actually a great job! I really enjoyed not just that job, but working for Disney as well. After college graduation in 1998, I quit Disney to set off into the real world, but I always looked for a reason to come back. In 2005, I was re-hired back into Disneyland, but this time as a bartender at the Lost Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. I became a shift lead, then went through Disney’s Emerging Leader program and spent some time as a salaried Food & Beverage Manager. In late 2010, I was put on the Trader Sam’s pre-opening team and the rest is history.
How did you get into bartending?
Kelly– Like most people my age, I got into bartending by accident. I was in grad school in 2002 and needed a night job and I figured I’d try my hand at slinging drinks. I got pretty good at it and worked at some great places (like Red Lobster!), but it wasn’t until a few years later when it dawned on me that this could be my profession. The craft cocktail movement was in its infant stages on the West Coast and I wanted to be a part of it. Since then, I’ve tried to learn everything I can about bartending and hospitality. I’ve completed the Certified Sommelier Program, the Cicerone Beer Server Program, and passed the Bar Smarts Live Cocktail/Bartending Exam and in-person test. You can never learn too much!
Can you talk about Trader Sam’s and your involvement?
Kelly– I was put on the pre-opening team for Sam’s in late 2010 as a manager. It was simply my dumb luck that I got selected to be a part of a new Tiki bar just as I was getting into the Tiki scene. On top being on the team that created the training regiments, operating guides, inventory control, and the like, I also put together a “Tiki 101” seminar for all new hires who had no idea what a Tiki bar even was. Eventually, I moved into a Lead Bartender role which, in my opinion, is way more fun than being a manager. Not only do I get to bartend and talk to all your smiling faces, but as an hourly supervisor, I still get to be a part of the leadership team of the bar. It’s important to me that I’m able to help shape where Sam’s is going in the future!
What is your favorite Tiki drink? Why?
Kelly– This changes with my mood, but one of my all-time favorites is the Jet Pilot. It’s subtle, well-balanced, strong enough without being overpowering, and delicious! I tend to lean towards richer drinks like the Jet Pilot, QB Cooler, 3 Dots, and Navy Grog.
What is your favorite Tiki bar, not including Trader Sam’s?
Kelly– I can’t pick just one! I don’t want to sound like one of those “best of” lists that people always love arguing about. I am a huge fan of all the So Cal Tiki bars as well as Smuggler’s, Forbidden Island, Frankie’s, Golden Tiki, and the Mai Kai (of course.) I even got to visit a Tiki bar in Prague and it wasn’t half bad. Because I work like a madman, I regretfully haven’t yet made it up to visit our Portland or Chicago or Seattle brethren. And I’m behind on my visits to the newer generation of Tiki bars like Pagan Idol, False Idol, Grass Skirt, and Pacific Seas, but I can’t wait!
What does the future hold for you?
Kelly– Hopefully, more of what life is giving to me now. It’s been a good ride the past 5 or 6 years and I’d love for it to continue. I don’t foresee Sam’s going away any time soon and I plan on being there until they peel my dead body off the ground. Hopefully, the Tiki revival doesn’t jump the shark, so to speak, and we don’t see a bubble burst like it did almost 50 years ago. As long as the demand for quality cocktails exists, Tiki will always have a part to play. Also, Katie and I are getting married in December, so that’s a great future, too!
Anything else you would like to add?
Kelly– Continue to visit your local Tiki bars everyone. Cheers!
Here’s my write up on Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar
Here is the Trader Sam’s web page