Perfect Tiki Bar: The Drinks

A tasty & delicious tropical drink, courtesy of Martiki
A tasty & delicious tropical drink,
courtesy of Martiki

The previous installment in my Perfect Tiki Bar series touched on the importance of lighting; today I’m going to try to tackle the primary raison d’etre of tiki bars — the drinks. I will not succeed, but perhaps a nice dent will be made.

First, some tropical drink fundamentals. Tropical drinks, by and large, use rum as their base liquor. This is becuase during the rise of the tropical drink, rum was inexpensive and widely available. Unlike other liquors like gin and scotch, it tends to not lend itself to straight sipping (though there are some rums that make good sipping rums). A few fruit juices, a few dashes of flavored syrups, and a little (or a lot) of rum, and the result was a drink that was inexpensive in materials (if not in labor), and uniquely tasty. It was a delicate art, and when made by the right hands, a tropical drink was divine — it’s no wonder the demand for them swept the nation.

Proper construction of a tropical cocktail takes precision, care, time and training. Between high turnover in bartenders, and an “I want it now” customer base to serve, it is simply a difficult (but not insurmountable!) challenge for bars to make proper drinks. The past few decades have seen a decline in use of the tropical drinkmaking basics, and has resulted in modern-day tropical cocktails that are overly sweet, overly pink (or blue), and just generally gross. Here’s an attempt to right that ship:

An ideal tropical cocktail is neither sweet, nor tart. It strikes a perfect balance of flavors. Often a good cocktail will also incorporate small nuances of unexpected flavors like spices or special liqueurs, to add a sense of complexity and mystery. No one taste is overpowering or obviously detectable.

Okay, this part is interactive — take a day sometime soon, and do some side-by-side comparisons. Buy some “ReaLemon” (that’s the lemon juice you get that comes in the plastic lemon) and compare it to juice from an actual, fresh lemon. Buy some of the previously-frozen, made-from-concentrate orange juice, and try it alongside some fresh-squeezed orange juice. Eat some Chef Boyardee Ravioli, while considering the difference from a ravioli meal at a local Italian restaurant. Night and day difference.

The common thought seems to be that since you’re mixing all the ingredients together, no one will be able to taste the difference, but in reality you only get out of it what you put into it. If you’re having a summertime backyard barbecue, would you serve everyone using hospital-cafeteria-quality ingredients? No! Take that grillmaster pride, and convert some of it to drinkmaster pride.

This line of thought follows into selecting the rums and other liquors you use, as well. It is dismaying, but liquor stores tend to not have a very broad variety of rums. Most people tend to think of rums in terms of “silver,” “gold,” and “dark,” but they’re actually not always that interchangable. Try instead to experiment with rums from different countries. A note about Bacardi — it may be ubiquitous, but it is actually not very good stuff. I have a bottle of it here, but I would only use it later in the evening, when people’s senses truly are dulled. Maybe. If I was out of everything else.

Flavored liquors (e.g., mango-flavored rum) are seldom a good route. If you want a flavor in your rum, try adding it yourself. I’m a big fan of “better living through chemicals,” but save it for the bathroom cleaners — adding those flavors yourself (fresh ingredients!) will be far more delicious.

It might seem tedious, but measuring your ingredients really will make a difference. Especially when attempting to achieve the very delicate balance neccessary in a tropical cocktail, a jigger is your friend. The jigger wants good things for you. Learn to love your jigger. I personally use a small plastic angled cup from OXO designed for measuring small amounts of liquid. Some ingredients, like Pernod or Absinthe, have a very strong flavor; for these ingredients, consider trying an eye dropper or a spray mister (a well-cleaned old Chloraseptic bottle does the trick).

Presentation & Fragrance
You may be surprised to learn that many of the really delicious classic tropical cocktails are brown. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a pink or blue drink I’ve truly loved. The flair in a cocktail (aside from the top-priority taste) comes from the serving vessel, the aroma, and the garnish. Tiki mugs are the classic, and are always a crowd-pleaser, but I also very much enjoy drinking tropical cocktails out of a simple glass tumbler.

An element that is often overlooked in drinkmaking is the smell — our sense of smell enhances our sense of taste, and since these cocktails are cold, they typically don’t give off much smell on their own. The garnish can do that — a healthy sprig of mint (smacked to gently bruise it, and release its scent), a freshly-sliced cucumber spear, a fresh gardenia, a few drops of orange water — all are simple ways to add a whole new dimension to a drink. Other garnishes can include the classic pineapple chunk & cherry speared onto a cocktail umbrella, or one-half of a spent lime. The Tropical Itch traditionally comes with a small bamboo backscratcher for garnish. Larger garnishes can get in the way of drinking; don’t let that hold you back from going nutty, but don’t feel bad if the drink recipient yanks the garnish out. It is, after all, just for presentation.

The best resources for proper tropical drink recipes are the books Grog Log and Intoxica! by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. Berry put a lot of effort into tracking down the original, classic, true recipes of these drinks, as they were served by the masters who created them. His books are as close as we come to a gold standard. Another trusted source for recipes is Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails — unlike Berry’s tomes, which focus soley on tropicals, Haigh’s book covers a broad spectrum of drink recipes.

Don’t be afraid to stray from the recipe! If what you’ve mixed doesn’t taste quite right to you, feel free to add a little of this, or a little of that. Recipe amounts often need a little tweaking — after all, there’s a bit of variation between batches of ingredients. If you decide that you want to make a more dramatic change to a recipe by adding a whole new ingredient or leaving one out, by all means you should — but you’re now making a different cocktail, and tradition calls for you to christen it with a new name.

Where to Get a Good Drink
Bah! This all looks like too much work! Where can you just go and buy a good cocktail? I wish I could say it was easy. It’s a dying art. Some (but not all!) of the Trader Vic’s bartenders are fantastic. Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles is legendary for their consistent delivery of top-notch cocktails. The Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale is cocktail heaven. Chef Shangri-La just outside of Chicago is an unexpected haven for fine drinks, as is Hula’s Island Grill in Monterey. You can find a list of tiki locations that are top-rated for drinks on Critiki; it’s interesting to note that many of the top-rated places are actually home bars.

So there you have it! That’s my wee little dent of an attempt to lay out the fundamentals of good tropical drink making, the very mainspring of a great tiki bar. Go out and have fun playing drinkmaster, you’ll just be doing your part to keep this fine craft alive!

7 thoughts on “Perfect Tiki Bar: The Drinks

  1. Some good fundamentals there, although I’ve found that the criteria that people use to evaluate a “good” drink can be quite subjective. The biggest differences I’ve encountered appear along gender lines, with a majority of my female guests requesting sweeter drinks and the males asking for stronger ones. Whether this is cultural, biological, or some combination of both, I can’t say for certain. However, I can attest that using top-shelf ingredients in the proper proportions seems to regularly lure converts over from the “sweet” side.

    The Bum’s books are great, but I also get a lot of inspiration from sacred mixology texts like Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook, and old promotional pamphlets distributed by rum distillers like Ronrico and Havana Club; I’ve found abundant quantities of these pamphlets antique stores, and they are usually dirt cheap ($1-$2).


  2. Of course! The Trader Vic’s books are an excellent resource, shame on me for leaving them out, quite an oversight. Great idea on the old promotional pamphlets, too.

    In my experience, gender hasn’t been a good predictor for preference along sweet/tart/strong lines, but yeah, there are plenty of folks out there who like the sweet stuff.

    My mother always had an aversion to rum (must have had a bad experience) and was sure she wouldn’t like any rum-based drinks. She was a trooper when Al Knepper (who is an excellent home bartender) made one for her, she didn’t want to be rude by refusing it, so she took a little sip. She was amazed that she loved it, and now understands that her aversion wasn’t to rum — it was to crappy drinks. Or maybe crappy rum.


  3. Loved your blog…full of interesting ideas to follow up on, thanks. At my site I have a great book for sale, Island Foods and Tiki Drinks. Drink recipes, appetizers, main dish, salads and desserts. All geared to easy prep and tasty eating and drinking. Have a look and I would love to hear from you. Mahalo, Auntie Kalolina


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