The Missing Ingredient to Improve Your Tiki Drink: Perspective

It has happened to you before, and it will happen again. You’re in a tiki bar, maybe even a great tiki bar, and your drink… isn’t quite right. It happens everywhere, even the best, award-winningest tiki bars. Here’s a bit of background to explain how it happens, starting with a healthy dose of perspective.

Let’s look at some typical non-tropical drinks: a Negroni, Manhattan, or Old Fashioned have just three ingredients, and they’re all straightforward booze. No juice, no liqueurs, no special syrups involved.

Not so with tiki drinks. Tiki drinks are hard. They have a lot of parts, and each of those parts is a potential point of failure. A tiki drink will commonly have at least five ingredients, up to even a dozen ingredients. Putting that many ingredients into a glass means you’re getting into smaller fractions—fussy little ingredients where ¼ ounce is adding a big punch of flavor, and a little too much or too little gets everything out of whack.

The ingredients for the Nui Nui, one of the simpler tiki drinks: amber Virgin Islands rum, allspice liqueur, cinnamon syrup, vanilla syrup, lime juice, orange juice, Angostura bitters. You’ll notice that’s Jamaican rum. I’ve got about a hundred rums right now, but none of them are amber Virgin Islands rum. See, even this photo has consistency problems!

And those ingredients, they keep changing on you. A Negroni’s gin, Campari and vermouth can be counted on to be pretty darned identical day after day, month after month, year after year. But fruit juice is a little different with each batch, and the flavor can swing quite a bit seasonally. The special syrups used—vanilla, cinnamon, passion fruit, and more—will also vary with each batch, and the source ingredients will change on you. The specific rums and liqueurs that are called for in tiki drinks are niche little things, and it’s not uncommon for the products to just disappear from the market, or lose distribution.

Isn’t it a marvel that there are bars that are able to execute these drinks with any kind of consistency at all?

Speaking of consistency, it’s not just about the ingredients. Bartenders come and go, as well. It takes a good while to find your sea legs serving a big menu of all these complicated drinks, and everyone has to start somewhere. Bartenders are human: they have loves and losses, good days and bad days, sleepless nights filled with worry, distracted days of unbound joy. Maybe your bartender is getting over being sick, or maybe they just broke up with their soulmate, or maybe they’re just having an off night. Or an off minute! That’s all it takes, a bit of distraction, and an ingredient gets missed. It can happen to anyone.

From a bartender’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense to work in a bar that is serving tiki drinks. For similar pay and similar tips, they could be making those easy Negronis, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds… or just pulling beers. But this is what they choose, and they do it because they like it. That’s part of what makes tiki bars so fun, there’s a built-in spirit of generosity, hospitality, and caring. Making the drinks is just part of the bartender’s job, though, and as much as I love a great tiki drink, it’s not what I love best about bartenders. They shine in so many other ways. Given the choice between a perfect drink in a charmless bar or a terrible drink in a charming bar, I’ll opt for the charm.

Let’s do a bit of time travel now. Back in the 1930s-’60s, what we think of as the “golden age” of these drinks… well, you might want to sit down for this. The drinks weren’t that great. In our passion for the tiki bars of old, we idealize the already idealized. As inconsistent as the ingredients are now, they could only have been more inconsistent back before it was cheap to ship products around the globe willy-nilly, and before mega-industrialization made consistency a primary goal. We barely have seasons anymore in our produce. And remember, back then, the recipes were closely guarded secrets. Most of the tiki bars were serving up their own oddball approximations. Anyone who has dug into the deeper recesses of Beachbum Berry’s compendiums of historic tiki drinks can tell you: there were plenty of clunkers. It’s through the modern cocktail-crazy age’s intense (and collaborative) study of these drinks that we’ve come to separate the cream of the crop. The drinks were a big selling point for these places, but not the point. It was just one part of a package that had a lot of other things to offer; the product was an evening of escape, not a drink.

Back to today: I can hear you crying out, “what about devolution?! It happened to tiki drinks in the 1970s, we can’t let it happen again!” I’m not worried about that, and here’s why: things aren’t like the 1970s. We have so much great documentation now about how these drinks are supposed to be made (thank you, Beachbum Berry!). Plus, competition from the broader craft cocktail scene keeps bartenders on their toes. Some of them, that is… some places are just always going to do their own thing, and that thing may not look like the perfect tiki drink emporium of your dreams. But honestly, I’m not bothered. See earlier, re: charm over quality. Still, more places are trying to really deliver on the drinks these days, and are executing at such an incredible level, there’s a lot of room for things to slip before I’d see it as a crisis. What we’re able to get at some of the tiki bars today is simply astounding and expecting it everywhere may not be necessary or reasonable. I personally consider a more mediocre tiki drink experience to be a perfectly appropriate and unalarming norm.

I think there’s a point of diminishing returns in the focus on oh-so-perfect tiki drinks. As I said earlier, drinks are supposed to be only one part of the package with these places. An overfocus on what’s in the glass can mean that the most important garnish on a tiki drink—the room it’s being served in—is neglected. Tropical drinks alone do not make a tiki bar. In some towns, good tiki drinks in otherwise plain bars are a dime a dozen. I don’t find them particularly interesting, and I try not to clutter Critiki with them. It’s the places that are trying for the whole experience that deserve recognition.

Sidewinder’s Fang as served at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, photo by Hang10tiki

You already knew that Smuggler’s Cove was something special, but maybe this perspective helps you understand why it’s held in such high regard within the bar industry. Serving a menu of ~100 different and complicated drinks, at high volume, consistently, it’s a superhuman feat. Bar industry veterans make a beeline to Smuggler’s Cove when they’re in town, to marvel at seeing this in action. This is why Smuggler’s Cove appears on the lists of best bars in the world, this is why Steven Liles was chosen as Bartender of the Year by Imbibe magazine. What they’re doing is incredible, and very, very hard to match.

So when you’re ordering a tiki drink in a tiki bar, enjoy your drink for what it is, be astounded if it’s perfect, see if you can enjoy it even if it’s not, gently ask for help if it’s undrinkable (an ingredient probably got missed, a simple accident), and consider thanking your bartender for choosing to work in a tiki bar by going a little extra with your tip. What would we do without them? We’d be drinking beer, like true savages.


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