Thanks to bars like Lani Kai in New York and San Francisco's Smuggler’s Cove, the Tiki revival is hotter than ever. Ambitious amateur cocktailians are even taking the tropical trend to their home bars. But what if you don’t know your orgeat syrup from your falernum, or can’t tell a Navy Grog from a Singapore Sling? No worries. We’ve sourced tips from Tiki experts on how to craft your own umbrella-adorned libations and turn your patio or basement into a lounge fit for Trader Vic.
Ultimately, Tiki cocktails depend on a good base rum. But since several styles are often used in a single drink, one bottle on the back bar won’t cut it. It’s best to stock a light, white Puerto Rican rum like Cruzan; a complex, dark Jamaican rum like Appleton Estate; a medium-bodied, gold St. Lucia rum like Chairman’s Reserve; and an herbal Rhum Agricole such as Rhum Clément VSOP.
Equally indispensable are the flavored syrups and liqueurs in these recipes. You just can’t make a real Mai Tai without almond-flavored orgeat syrup or a Zombie sans Falernum—a sugarcane-based liqueur infused with almond, clove and lime. And cocktails like the Tropical Sunrise depend on real grenadine (not the sugary syrup that comes from a jar of Maraschino cherries) for their color and sweetness.
Although organic and artisanal versions are available, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Tiki expert and author of cocktail book Surfin’ Safari (SLG Publishing, $20), doesn’t think they taste as good as those commercially made. He prefers the exotic offerings from Trader Tiki and Fee Brothers.
Admittedly, that’s a lot of essential ingredients to purchase, so Berry suggests selecting a cocktail recipe that appeals to you, and purchasing the ingredients for that drink. Over time, you will build up the components of a well-stocked Tiki bar.
Beyond the rums and the syrups, certain bar tools are requisite. Along with the standard items like cocktail shakers and strainers, keep a blender handy (“an electric swizzle stick” as Berry calls it) and either an electric ice crusher like the Waring Pro, or a canvas Lewis bag for a less expensive, manual method of ice crushing.
To serve your tropical cocktails, seek out sleek, double Old Fashioned glasses and coupes or consider investing in whimsical Tiki mugs from outlets like www.tikifarm.com or www.tikibosko.com. For added flair, use edible orchids, fresh mint and fruit speared with bamboo picks as colorful garnishes. And as most Tiki drinks batch quite easily, consider keeping a punch set handy for entertaining guests.
Admittedly, Tiki drinks are labor-, time- and tool-intensive, but they are also full of flavor and festive to serve. If the classic cocktail is a short story or song, says Berry, a Tiki drink is a book or a symphony—the end result is well worth the patience and effort.
If you wish to transform a patio or basement into your own Tiki retreat, take some notes from home cocktailian Charlie John of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. As an avid surfer and lifetime fan of tropical beaches, John carved out part of his basement home into the ultimate tropical lounge, complete with a thatched roof bar he handcrafted and a bar counter adorned with surfing photos protected by a thin layer of clear epoxy. (Similar prefabricated bars can be purchased from www.tikibarcentral.com or www.tropicaltikis.com.) For ambiance, he recommends festooning the bar with string lights and paper lanterns and lining the bar with carved idols and hula statues. But beyond the stocked bar and tropical décor, “You have to have some appropriate music to create the mood,” John says, “whether it be authentic 1950s Tiki lounge music like Bali Ha’i or your standard Bob Marley reggae.”
While such tropical makeovers may sound a bit daunting to the Tiki neophyte, the future is looking bright. “I would be inclined to say with the current revival going on, it's only going to get easier,” he notes.
Bring the tropics to your home with these Tiki recipes!
Trader Vic, 1944
This classic concoction has been abused over the years with powdered mixes and inferior ingredients. But Trader Vic’s authentic version is fresh and balanced, with a potent kick.
1 ounce dark Jamaican rum (such as Appleton Estate)
1 ounce Martinique Rhum Agricole (such as Neisson)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce orange Curaçao
¼ ounce orgeat syrup (such as Fee Brothers or Trader Tiki)
¼ ounce simple syrup
Mint spring for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake well. Pour into a double Old Fashioned glass without straining. For extra lime flavor, sink the squeezed lime shell into the finished drink. Garnish with a mint sprig. Serves 1.
Named for a Filipino warrior from the early 1500s, this cocktail gets its tanginess from passion fruit syrup. You can easily craft your own syrup by mixing thawed passion fruit purée from a Latin or international market with a 1:1 ratio of simple syrup.
3 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice
2 ounces fresh lemon juice
1½ ounces dark Jamaican rum (like Appleton or Coruba)
1½ ounces light Puerto Rican rum (like Cruzan)
1 ounce simple syrup
1 ounce passion fruit syrup
Orange peel, for garnish
Combine all ingredients except the orange peel in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake well. Pour into a large snifter without straining. Garnish with the orange peel. Serves 1.
Don The Beachcomber 1937
With diced pineapple and mint, Berry cites this as the original “farm-to-glass cocktail.” Since its base is white rum with just a small amount of peach brandy added, it’s also a drink that highlights the lighter side of Tiki.
1 ounce light Puerto Rican rum (like Cruzan)
1 ounce honey syrup (honey mixed with warm water in a 1:1 ratio)
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce peach brandy
¾ cup ice, crushed
¼ cup fresh pineapple, diced
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, tightly packed
2 small mint sprigs, for garnish
Combine all ingredients except the mint sprig garnishes in an electric blender and blend at high speed for 20 seconds. Pour into coupe Champagne glasses or cocktail glasses. Garnish with small mint sprigs. Serves 2.