Belle Isle Moonshine

Replace your vodka with something better.

Behind the Bar: Tommy Nelson / Sabai

Behind the Bar, RichmondBrandon Day1 Comment

The Thai word sabai translates as "happy", but is more commonly used to emphasize a tranquil and relaxed state of mind. Richmond's own Sabai is a paradise in its own right. From the brilliant, custom-made decor to the enchanting lights that line the bar, Sabai transports you, at least mentally, to a place of pure bliss.

While the ambience of Sabai is tranquil, what comes out from behind the bar is electric and exciting. You can thank Tommy Nelson, Sabai's bar manager and beverage director, for the beautiful creations that are whipped up behind the bar's shiny lights and rows of flowers. We stopped by and got cozy at Sabai to learn a little more about Tommy, his cocktails, and how all of the pieces come together to create such a memorable bar experience.

Tell us about yourself…

I'm the Bar Manager/Beverage Director at Sabai, where I've been for a little over a year.

What got you into bartending?

I was always reading up on cocktail history and making cocktails at home prior to getting a job in the industry. I had been working from home as a supervisor for a telemarketing company and was really unhappy with it. Working from home was not for me and I knew I needed to do something that was the opposite, something more social and physical. More importantly, I wanted to do something I felt passionate about.

I was at a show one night at Strange Matter and struck up a conversation with a guy who, as it turned out, was a bartender at Rappahannock. We started talking about work and he offered me a job starting as a bar-back. I worked hard and took every opportunity to learn more. I ended up taking over the bar manager position there before working my way to Sabai.

What’s your favorite thing to drink? Any guilty pleasure drinks?

I enjoy seasonal drinking. In colder weather, I love a nice whiskey (neat or on the rocks) or warm Cognac. Now that spring is approaching, I've been craving classic gin & tonics. As for guilty pleasure drinks, I'm down with a frozen margarita on a hot day.

Outside of work, what do you find yourself doing?

I still read a ton of books about cocktails, spirits, beer, and wine. The more history-focused ones tend to appeal to me the most. I also play electric guitar, when I can find the time. I work a lot.

Tell us about your bar…

Sabai is a Thai restaurant and tiki bar with some incredible industrial decor. It's fast-paced, high-energy, loud, and fun. I play a lot of 70s and 80s punk/post-punk music. Flowers, parasol umbrellas, and punk rock. A perfect mix of everything you need.

What’s the neighborhood and surrounding area like?

The neighborhood is great. Many of our regulars live and/or work nearby and just walk over. They are dedicated Sabai fans and never fail to come out, even when it snows.


Who do you typically find coming in for a drink?

Depends on the time of night. Earlier in the shift we get families or couples dining. Later we get people who are going out for the night, maybe to a show at the Broadberry. Our late night crowd is a mix of industry folks, regulars, and people (future regulars?) who just want some great late night food and a nightcap. It's a great mix that keeps us on our toes.

What makes your bar unique?

I think people are impressed by the decor when they walk in. As for the drinks, they are big and garish but we take a lot of time to ensure they are balanced; they aren't as sweet as they look. We also have one of the biggest rum selections in the city and we are really into it.

What’s your favorite part about working there?

My favorite thing about working at Sabai is the diversity of our customers. Getting to talk to people who aren't normally into cocktails is a lot of fun. We make a conscience attempt to be very approachable and love answering questions. We also get a lot of people who know a great deal about food or drinks. It's nice to know they appreciate what we do. We get customers who ask for custom cocktails and are happy to oblige. If all you're looking for is a cheap beer and a shot, we've got you covered too.

What’s a good night look like for you? What are people ordering?

The best nights for me are so fast-paced that I barely have time to think. I do my best work in these conditions. When my team is synced up and dancing around each other, everything just flows so effortlessly. 

What are some of your Belle Isle creations?

Try it at Sabai...

+ 1½ oz. Paw Paw-infused Belle Isle 100 Proof
+ ½ oz. Aperol
+ ½ oz. pineapple juice
+ 1 tsp. falernum

Shake briefly with crushed ice and pour into a champagne flute. Garnish with pineapple leaf and orchid.

...or try it at home.

+ 1 oz. Belle Isle 100 Proof
+ 1 oz. Salers Gentian liqueur
+ 1 oz. Dolin Blanc vermouth

Stir with ice and strain into an old fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel.

Recipes by Tommy Nelson of Sabai
Photos by Joey Wharton