Few things delight me as much as discovering a new place through local drinks. As a tri-state native, my parents took me to Fire Island a few times as a child and I've spent a handful of debauched gay weekends there as an adult. Despite more than a passing familiarity with this part of the world, I was surprised to learn that Fire Island has its very own signature cocktail: The Rocket Fuel.
It can vary, but at its core, the Rocket Fuel is a blended drink made from amaretto liqueur, coconut cream, pineapple juice, and high-proof dark rum, which is, of course, floated over the top. Think of a slightly nutty Piña Colada and you're close to what a Rocket Fuel tastes like.
For many, Fire Island is synonymous with the majority-queer communities like Cherry Grove and The Pines. A small slice of land just off Long Island's south shore, Fire Island was recently made notorious by the eponymous movie featuring a group of mostly Asian American men navigating the racial and class dynamics while trying to have fun and get laid.
In reality, Fire Island includes a number of enclaves — the aforementioned Pines and Cherry Grove, as well as decidedly less-queer areas like Saltaire, Kismet, and Ocean Beach. The latter is the claimed home of the Rocket Fuel, and both the drink and the destination were, to me, undiscovered country.
My penchant for exploring local culture through cocktails runs deep. A few years ago, a consulting gig brought me to Singapore where I spent my downtime sampling that nation's most iconic contribution to the cocktail pantheon, the Singapore Sling. My quest brought me from the birthplace of the drink, the Raffles hotel, to a massive 541-foot observation wheel where my husband and I sipped on surprisingly well-made Singapore Slings in our private cabin, to lowbrow beachside bars serving uninspiring drinks in disposable red cups. As soon as I heard about Fire Island's Rocket Fuel, I found myself, my husband, my friend, and her dog on the first ferry over.
During the ferry ride, we happened to sit next to a cluster of locals who were loudly — and in classic Long Island accents — anticipating their first Rocket Fuels of the weekend. Naturally, I chatted them up, curious to hear their thoughts on what separated the good ones from the bad. The consensus was that a Rocket Fuel should have a smooth creamy texture, due to proper use of coconut cream and blending technique, and that the rum should pack a strong punch of flavor. They also filled us in on where the best (and worst) Rocket Fuels were to be found.
Located in Ocean Beach, the bar CJ's claims to be the "home of the Rocket Fuel;" they even went so far as to trademark the phrase in 2019. (Fun fact, though you can trademark a phrase, you cannot trademark cocktail recipes or their names because the US Patent and Trademark Office considers them to be facts and instructions rather than a uniquely and ownable piece of creativity, but that is a topic for another piece entirely.)
CJ's was the first stop on our journey. We cautiously walked into the nearly-empty bar at 1pm and the bartender immediately had us pegged as tourists. "A round of Rocket Fuels?" she asked. Weary from our long subway, train, and ferry rides, we agreed and watched the bartender go to work. She free-poured the requisite ingredients into a blender, blitzed with ice, and poured into plastic cups. After that, she applied the rum on top and dutifully dropped a neon-red cocktail cherry as the final touch.
I'll be honest: It was pretty drinkable, but not life-changing. It was smooth enough, with the coconut cream and ice giving the needed consistency, but there was a bit of saccharine sweetness that lingered on the finish.
As we tentatively sipped our drinks, one of the helpful locals who had given us such candid guidance during our ferry ride suddenly burst into the bar to correct herself: The place she had said was the best place to get Rocket Fuels was, in fact, the worst place. She urged us to skip the latter.
But you really can't fully understand a cocktail (or a beach town) until you see it at its best — and worst. We made it next on our itinerary. The establishment will remain nameless but their rendition of the Rocket Fuel was indeed bad: there was an acrid, bitter note to the drink that I suspect is from substandard amaretto liqueur, or stale coconut cream (or both). To boot, the drinks came ungarnished and the rum float was barely apparent. It was simply an undifferentiated slop of beige. We left before finishing them, weaving our way through a gaggle of regulars who all seemed to be sticking to beer.
Nursing brain freezes, we spilled out onto the concrete-lined boardwalk that makes up much of Ocean Beach and headed to Maguire's, one of the area's more upscale dining locations, for a sit-down lunch. While it wasn't on our helpful local's list, fueling up with a solid meal felt like a smart move — not to mention, an opportunity to taste another rendition of the local beverage.
At Maguire's, our Rocket Fuels were served in a true glass, making them orders of magnitude fancier than any other we'd have that day, and featured one curious twist: the rum was at the bottom. I asked our server if we were supposed to use the straw to suck up the rum from the bottom before finishing the rest of the drink. He guffawed and clarified that, no, you're supposed to mix everything up with the straw, blending the rum throughout. Despite the rum inversion (or maybe because of it), these drinks were solidly enjoyable. The coconut cream was smooth and well-integrated and the drinks were not overly sweet. And the rum made its presence known at every sip.
Still, the inverted rum placement made me wonder: what's the philosophical justification for the float of high-proof rum? It would make more sense if it were simply mixed in from the jump. Then again, the pour of rum over the drink adds a bit of visual flair and drama to an otherwise unremarkably-hued drink. What's more, drinks with ice (especially those served in sunny, warm-weather locations) get watered down as the ice melts. The rum float is a countermeasure against the watering-down that happens over time. This clever trick can keep the drink balanced to its last sips.
But perhaps it's not that deep. The Rocket Fuel is, at its essence, a fun vacation drink. If you want a serious cocktail, order a Vieux Carré or a Bijou at a fancy cocktail bar. The Rocket Fuel is a cocktail with its hair down and sunscreen sloppily slathered on an already-sunburned shoulder. So whether you're bar-crawling Fire Island, or making them for yourself at home, you could do far worse than the nutty-smooth local celebrity known as the Rocket Fuel. Just remember, a beverage is only as good as the quality of its ingredients.
Recipe: Rocket Fuel