Continuing our series of interviews with some of our favourite people in the drinks industry, this month we catch up with Sly Augustin. Owner of the world renowned Tiki bar Trailer Happiness, Sly reveals the music that has been the soundtrack to his career and talks about his time spent hosting nights in London clubs, his infatuation with New York, the wonders of a blueberry Mojito, and getting to rap on stage with Wu-Tang Clan.
Hi Sly, could you tell us a bit about what you were like during your younger years?
I grew up in West London and went to School in Maida Vale and Notting Hill (that’s probably the reason why I sound so posh). Occasionally I indulged in constructive mischief, but overall I like to think I was a good kid. I remember I was a daydreamer and I spent a lot of time in my own head, (a twenty-minute walk to school could take me forty-five minutes). Luckily, I was around my cousins a lot while I was growing up, which helped me develop some basic social skills.
What record sums up this time in your life?
One of my favourite songs growing up was The Show, by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. It was the first song I knew all the words to, plus the B-side was La-Di-Da-Di, which was the second song I memorised off by heart, and it was also the first track I heard that had a swear word in it. Actually, now I think about it, the excellent Chicken Song, by Spitting Image, might be the first song I knew all the words to… Both songs came out in ’86 and both are excellent.
What drink sums up this time your life?
My drink of choice as a kid was obviously Ribena. I can still recall the mild disappointment whenever someone offered me Vimto. I mean Vimto’s okay, I guess. But it’s not Ribena…
What was your first introduction to hospitality?
It was when I started promoting and hosting parties in clubs and bars around central London in 2004. It wasn’t my job, as such, it was just the best way to guarantee a good night out for me and my friends. I really liked watching people enjoy something you helped create and that feeling of being somewhat responsible for other people’s enjoyment. I worked closely with bartenders and the floor staff and the thing that really stuck-out for me was the fact that relationships you built were much more valuable than the money being spent. That being said, the club scene is much more about profit than community.
What drink and song reminds you of this period in your life?
It was through hanging out in places like the Atlantic Bar, that made me realise that I preferred lively bars to night clubs. The atmosphere was a little more relaxed and personal, the people were friendlier, the drinks were better (and cheaper), plus I no longer had to endure complimentary vodka and redbull/cranberry, while listening to Nelly’s Hot In Herre.
How did your relationship with Trailer Happiness first come about?
I decided to move away from nightclubs and started to focus more on bars. I ended up setting up a regular night, where I also DJ’d, at my local, which was Trailer Happiness. I built up a good relationship with the team there and it remained strong even as staff came and went. The thing I have always loved about Tiki bars is the lack of formal barriers between customer and bartender. The friendships I made at Trailer are a large part of why I found myself in a position to buy my favourite bar many years later.
Are there any drinks that sum up this time in your life?
I remember feeling proud when I brought back rums from St. Lucia that nobody at the bar had tried, but my proudest moment was when Papa Jules named a cocktail after me on the menu. He let me try a drink he was working on and I just kept asking him to make it. The only problem was the homemade honey butter he used in the drink coated all the tins, making them super hard to clean. Needless to say it wasn’t a favourite with the bartenders.
When did you properly become enamoured with cocktail culture?
Trailer Happiness made me fall in love with cocktails, but the journey truly began in New York in the early 2000s. At that time £1 got you $2, so I regularly went there on shopping trips and while there wasn’t a ‘cocktail scene’, as such, the service was second to none. NYC was the first place I heard a bartender say: “This one’s on me”, which made me feel like I must be a decent human being rather than someone just trying to get drunk in the day.
What record sums up your time in New York?
I always bought loads ofhHip-hop mixtapes on my trips to New York, and on one of them I discovered a track by an artist called Freeway called What We Do. To this day it remains one of my favourite tracks.
Can you recall a drink that sums up your journeys to New York?
In New York I had my first ever Mojito. It was at a late-night spot called Cafeteria. It wasn’t just any Mojito mind, it was a blueberry Mojito! And after my first sip, I was obsessed. The minute I got back to London, I walked into a random bar off Regent’s street and asked for one. The bartender looked at me a little confused and said, “Sorry mate, we don’t have blueberries”. I left and went straight to the supermarket and went back to the bar armed a punnet of them. I told him he could keep the change, he laughed, and then proceeded to make me a banging blueberry Mojito which took me straight back to NY.
How did you end up owning Trailer Happiness?
I’d been going to Trailer since the beginning, and because of the parties I hosted, I had a strong relationship with the bar. It was in 2012 that I happened to pop in for a cocktail on what turned out to be the right night. I’d recently sold my home and was planning to move to New York, but a conversation with a bartender and friend, Alexx Mouzouris, started a chain of events that ended up with me buying the bar nine days later, with no idea what I was getting myself into. It’s been seven years after I made that decision and I have no regrets… Mostly.
What song and drink sums up this time in your life?
Why Don’t You, by Cleo Sol. Served with a glass of chilled vintage white port.
Where are you in your career now?
Right now, I’m promoting Trailer Happiness and its unique brand of hospitality wherever and whenever I can. The bar’s grown up a lot since I got involved in 2012 and this has enabled me to focus on things outside of Trailer’s physical location (like pop-ups and takeovers).
I love rum and I’m doing what I can to make sure the category of rum continues to grow in a way that celebrates the quality of the spirit. I want to share the knowledge I’ve acquired from the incredible people that help promote it. And I’ve had some incredible experiences along the way doing that.
Are there any particular moments that spring to mind?
Winning 24hr Bar Build [a groundbreaking competition devised by Bacardí during London Cocktail Week, 2015] is definitely up there. Also, rapping on stage with the Wu-Tang Clan in New Orleans to a room filled with some of the world’s best bartenders, who are also awesome human beings, is something that will always stay with me.
If you could only have one spirit that you had to have while stranded on a desert island what would it be?
Rum please, thanks.T
If you could only have one cocktail that you could have on your desert island what would it be?
A twist on a Ti Punch with ginger and honey.
What would be the one song that you would pick to accompany you on your desert island. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one of the previous songs?
Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, by Stevie Wonder.
What luxury item would you take with you on your desert island?
A solar powered ice machine.
Trailer Happiness is at 177 Portobello Road, London W11 2DY. trailerh.com
Interview by Miles Watson