Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home

Recently there’s been a torrent of articles in the mainstream press heralding the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail movement, and highlighting well-regarded top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales about bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients, making these bars destination-worthy. I’m completely down with this upsurge in interest, and I myself regularly go overboard in my home bar, creating drinks with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.

However, it recently occurred to me that all these exotic Tiki recipes that specify seemingly esoteric ingredients and very specific types of rum can seem a little daunting to the beginning or mid-level home bartending enthusiast. I imagine it’s easy to flip though a Tiki recipe book (or the incredible Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app) and feel deflated that you can’t find a single recipe to make with what’s already in your home bar.

With this in mind, I set out on a small research project: Determining the minimum set of ingredients necessary to make a dozen or so of the most popular, beloved Tiki and tropical drinks. By deconstructing classic Tiki recipes and finding the most common elements, I’ve created a minimal working set of ingredients, which enables you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space.  It’s too late for me in that regard, but you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.

My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails that I consider the essential classics; as all lists are, it is completely subjective, but I’ve also conferred with Jason Alexander, @tikicommando. who makes classic and original Tiki drinks for a living at the Tacoma Cabana. For consistency, my recipe reference is the aforementioned Total Tiki app. Because some Tiki recipes have evolved with multiple variations, when there’s more than one recipe I’ve selected the oldest version. Without further adieu, here we go:

  • Mai Tai (1944)
  • Zombie (1934)
  • Jet Pilot (1958)
  • Fog Cutter (1940s)
  • Navy Grog (1941)
  • Planter’s Punch (1937)
  • Rum Barrel (1940s)
  • Three Dots and a Dash (1940s)
  • 151 Swizzle (1940s)
  • Cobra’s Fang (1937)
  • Singapore Sling (1937)
  • Hurricane (1940s)
  • Painkiller (1971)
  • Daiquiri (1890s)

The (brief) methodology

My next step was creating the union of all the ingredients in the above recipes. For each ingredient (with the exception of rums, see below) I noted all recipes using that particular ingredient. Then I sorted the set by which drinks use that ingredient the most. Finally, I categorized the set of ingredients into three metaphorical buckets: rums, citrus juices, and other ingredients.

Bucket One:  Rums

Let’s start with the rum category. Here I’m going to commit Tiki heresy and run counter to the notion of recipe authenticity. Ideally you’d have a wide selection of different rum styles at your disposal and use the exact type of rum called for in each recipe. However, rum-wise, Tiki recipes are all over the map, calling for light, gold, medium, and dark variations from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica, and so on. It can get pretty overwhelming in the beginning.

With a little thought and understanding of the main rum styles, you can make a pretty tasty classic Tiki drinks starting from just a few selections and substituting appropriately. My personal recommendations here are what I feel are the best convergence of suitability and wide distribution in the US. You may have other rums that work equally well–Godspeed. As long as you have at least one from each category, you can go pretty far.

Jamaican: Smith & Cross, Appleton Estate Signature Blend (V/X), Coruba Dark, Hamilton Jamaican (there are both “gold” and “dark” versions of the Hamilton– same rum, different coloring.)

Demerara: El Dorado 5, Lemon Hart 80, Hamilton Demerara (86 proof).

151 Overproof: Lemon Hart 151 is the gold standard but is currently hard to get. Hamilton Demerara 151 is a good sub; Bacardi 151, a relatively bland beast, is not. Gosling’s Black Seal 151, while flavorful, is not a Demerara style like Lemon Hart.

Gold: Bacardi 8, Don Q Anejo, Plantation 5 (Barbados), Flor de Cana 7.

Aged white: Cana Brava, Plantation 3 Stars. Cana Brava is a bit drier, from Panama, whereas the 3 Stars is a blend of Barbados, Jamaican and Trinidad rums.

Agricole: Blanc (white) agricole is my preference in Tiki. Rhum JM, Clement, and Neisson all have solid choices here.

Again, the above list is just a starting point, with my particular spin. As time and money allow, you can expand your set of rums, but for minimalist Tiki, having the right six or so bottles creates a solid base. While it pains me to not include some offbeat rums like Wray & Nephew Overproof, they’re used infrequently enough to keep them off a minimalist list. On the other hand, I explicitly called out Jamaican and agricole rums in their own categories because their particular funky flavors are a critical part of Tiki, and can’t be replicated by your basic white, gold, or dark rum. For some background on types of Jamaican (there are several) be sure to read this post. And for an alternate take on filling out your basic set of rums, has a substitutions page worth reading

You don't need this many rums to make kick-ass Tiki at home. But it is nice!
You don’t need this many rums to make kick-ass Tiki at home. But it is nice!

Bucket Two:  Citrus

Let’s talk citrus juice. Here’s the breakdown of recipes by type of juice:

  • Lime (11): Mai Tai, Zombie, Jet Pilot, Navy Grog, Daiquiri, Singapore Sling, 151 Swizzle, Planter’s Punch, Cobra’s Fang, Rum Barrel, Three Dots and a Dash
  • Orange (5): Painkiller, Fog Cutter, Cobra’s Fang, Rum Barrel, Three Dots and a Dash
  • Grapefruit (3): Jet Pilot, Navy Grog, Rum Barrel
  • Pineapple (3): Painkiller, Singapore Sling, Rum Barrel
  • Lemon (2): Hurricane, Fog Cutter

No surprise, lime is the big winner here–Tiki just isn’t Tiki without lime juice. Orange juice is a distant second. Ideally all five types of juice are freshly squeezed and ready to go, and any good Tiki bar will have exactly that. However, for the home Tikitender, that may be a little excessive.

To make this work for me at home, I maintain a small stash of citrus and squeeze it as needed. Limes, oranges, lemons, and grapefruit will all keep for a few weeks with proper management. I buy lemons/limes in bulk at Costco and promptly store in the refrigerator in Ziploc bags. (There’s evidence to back up this approach.) While I buy lemons/limes in five pound bags, I find buying a few oranges and a grapefruit every few weeks to be sufficient. If I just need an ounce or two of orange or grapefruit, and I know I’ll be using more in the next few days, I’ll cut the fruit in quarters or halves to cover current needs, and wrap the remaining portion in plastic wrap. Sure, squeezing to order adds a few minutes in preparation time, but I firmly believe that having fresh squeezed juice is worth it. (I’m envious of bartenders who have fresh squeezed juice by the quart, ready to go in containers.)


Fresh pineapple juice is a tougher story for the home crowd. Squeezing pineapple in any real quantity is cumbersome and/or time consuming without the right tools. Centripetal juicers are inexpensive enough, but the resulting juice is over-aerated and foamy. Masticating juicers or hydraulic presses work better but are prohibitively expensive. On very rare occasions, I see straight pineapple juice in the carton at the grocery store and take advantage of the opportunity. Unless I have an available pineapple and have planned ahead, I reluctantly use canned pineapple juice.  Trader Joe’s and Safeway (and likely your local supermarket) carry pineapple juice in small 8.45oz/250ml cans that are a great size for a night of cocktails.

Bucket Three: Other Ingredients

With rum and citrus covered, now comes the fun part of assembling a decent set of Tiki ingredients. First the raw data:

  • Angostura Bitters(8): Zombie, Jet Pilot, 151 Swizzle, Singapore Sling, Planter’s Punch, Cobra’s Fang, Rum Barrel, Three Dots and a Dash
  • Falernum (6): Zombie, Jet Pilot, Planter’s Punch, Cobra’s Fang, Rum Barrel, Three Dots and a Dash
  • Pernod/Absinthe (5): Zombie, Jet Pilot, 151 Swizzle, Cobra’s Fang, Rum Barrel
  • Grenadine (4): Zombie, Singapore Sling, Planter’s Punch, Rum Barrel
  • Simple Syrup (4): Mai Tai, Daiquiri, 151 Swizzle, Planter’s Punch
  • Honey Mix (3): Navy Grog, Rum Barrel, Three Dots, Three Dots and a Dash
  • Orgeat (2): Mai Tai, Fog Cutter
  • Passion Fruit Syrup(2):  Hurricane, Cobra’s Fang
  • Pimento/Allspice Dram(2): Rum Barrel, Three Dots and a Dash
  • Brandy (2): Fog Cutter, Singapore Sling
  • Gin (2): Fog Cutter, Singapore Sling
  • Curacao/Triple Sec(2): Mai Tai, Singapore Sling
  • Club Soda (2): Navy Grog, Singapore Sling
  • Cinnamon Syrup (1): Jet Pilot
  • Coconut Crème (1): Painkiller
  • Don’s Mix (1): Zombie
  • Sherry (1): Fog Cutter
  • Cherry Heering (1): Singapore Sling
  • Benedictine (1): Singapore Sling

Viewed in the above manner, I was very surprised – some of my beloved “essential” ingredients like cherry heering don’t pop up as much as I thought. The clear winner–and absolute Tiki essential–is Angostura bitters. Every home bartender should have a bottle at hand (I have a quart in reserve, but that’s just me.) A four ounce bottle costs around $7, contributes to many drinks (use it a few dashes at a time), and keeps forever.

Falernum, used in six of the recipes, is the one “unusual” ingredient that might intimidate an aspiring home Tikitender. Despite it’s mystical-sounding name, it’s nothing more than a heavily spiced sugar syrup made from rum, lime peel, ginger, almonds, cloves, and other spices, depending on the recipe. It’s a fun project to make at home but takes a few days for the infusion to work. There are many recipes out there, each a little different. (For my money, Kaiser Penguin’s is a good starting point.) While making your own falernum is a rite of Tiki-initiation, if you just can’t do it, BG Reynolds and Fee Brothers sell non-alcoholic falernum syrups. And if you come across Velvet Falernum, it’s an interesting ingredient in some types of drinks, but its flavor profile is quite a bit different than the typical falernum that Tiki recipes call for – I find it much lighter and less intense than house made falernum.

Pernod, used in five recipes, might seem surprising in a list of Tiki ingredients, but there’s a good reason. Don the Beachcomber, father of many classic Tiki recipes, used six drops of Pernod in many of his recipes. It’s tempting to skip the Pernod, but unless you firmly believe you hate the flavor of anise, it adds a pleasant background element– I highly recommend not skipping it. You may be hesitant to buy a bottle just for a recipe that calls for six drops; here’s my take: All you really need is an ounce or two. Acquire a small empty bottle with a dropper top, then hit up a friend with a nearly full bottle sitting on their shelf, and fill ‘er up for a small donation.  (Terms to be negotiated between you and your source.) In the absolute absence of Pernod, you can substitute another anise-flavored spirit like absinthe or herbsaint. Even though I have a full bottle of Pernod, I keep a small dropper bottle of it for quick dispensing.

Grenadine (essentially, deep red pomegranate syrup) is something you can make easily enough at home — there are number of recipes online (such as Imbibe’s) with varying degrees of complexity. Alternately, Small Hand Foodshas an excellent grenadine I can personally vouch for, as does BG Reynolds. Whatever you do, use real grenadine, not some cheap, corn-syrup based brand like Rose’s.

Simple syrup and honey syrup are fast and trivial to make in small batches that will last a few weeks. Just add one part table sugar or honey (as appropriate) to one part water, then stir or shake to blend well till all the sugar or honey is fully dissolved. Refrigerate for optimal stability.

So there you have it – Angostura bitters, Falernum, a dropper vial of Pernod, grenadine, sugar and honey are the primary focus. As for the remaining ingredients on the list, you can acquire them as needed for a given recipe. Personally, I can’t imagine not having passion fruit syrup and orgeat in my arsenal, and I suspect that if I expanded the recipe lists to a larger set, you’d see them pop up in a higher percentage of recipes. The Painkiller (Mrs. Wonk’s gateway Tiki drink), for example, is a superset of the Piña Colada, so coconut crème gets you two recipes for the price of one. Interestingly, if I take the somewhat oddball Singapore Sling (a Mrs. Wonk favorite) and Fog Cutter out of consideration, then brandy, gin, sherry, cherry Heering, and Benedictine fall off the list. But I’d probably have some explaining to do at home.

Tiki Professionals at work! Maybe don't try at home
Tiki Professionals at work! Maybe don’t try at home

Finishing touches

Ice:  Nearly all Tiki drinks call for crushed ice, so no half-moon ice cubes from your freezer, please! I have a Waring IC70 Ice Crusher, which works reasonably well and costs about $80. However, there are less expensive hand-cranked models available, and some kitchen blenders have an ice-crushing mode. In a pinch, a Lewis bag or kitchen towel along with a mallet can get you the crushed ice your Tiki drinks require—along with a bonus bit of stress relief.

Garnish:  Tiki is all about the garnish – an un-festooned Tiki drink is a sad, sad sight. Luckily, you can easily up your garnish game in a few small steps. Fire is always tasteful in Tiki, so after squeezing those limes, hang on to the shells to use as your firepot. Here’s how: Remove as much of the remaining pulp as possible, then pop in a piece of day-old bread to soak up your Tiki fuel of choice, e.g. 151-proof rum. A 3/4 inch cube of bread is a good starting point. Pour in your fuel to saturate the bread, set the shell in the drink, and set it afire! (Just please watch your eyebrows and bangs if you dare to drink before the flame dies out.) Even if you don’t set fire to them, the spent lime shell itself is the classic garnish for a Mai Tai.

(Major update. Oct. 2016. The secret is out. Don’t light your rum on fire. Instead, read this recent post for what the pros use!)

Citrus shell, with bread cube, on fire.
Citrus shell, with bread cube, on fire.
Using a spent lime shell as a garnish
Using a spent lime shell as a garnish

A wide swath of peel from lemons and oranges can be arranged festively. My favorite trick is to use a Y-peeler to cut 1×3 inch strips from the fruit. I then coil the peel a few times and stick a toothpick through it to hold it in place, as you can see here.

Fresh mint sprigs always add flair. We keep a small patch of mint growing in a backyard container (advisable, as it will take over your garden if you don’t keep it reined in), but it’s also easy to just buy at the market and keep fresh in the refrigerator with a bit of water. In my Instagram feed, people have raved about my improvised lemon coil (above), topped with an inserted mint sprig, giving the impression of a tiny pineapple. And of course, fruit wedges (orange and pineapple in particular) are always a quick and easy addition to up a drink’s tropicality.
Making top-notch Tiki at home requires more commitment than say, a Gin & Tonic, but let’s be honest, it’s infinitely more fun! With a relatively modest investment in a few rums, a trip to the store for fresh citrus, and a handful of ingredients, you can make fairly faithful replications of many classic Tiki drinks. And if the Tiki bug bites you hard, you’ll enjoy the endless search for the next rum, the next exotic ingredient, and even more over-the-top garnishes.
Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana, winning Iron Tikitender 2014
Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana, winning Iron Tikitender 2014

16 thoughts on “Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home”

  1. First off, I’d like to thank you for this blog post. As frugal/tiki enthusiast and engineer, I appreciatedhow meticulously thought this out. Here are my thoughts:
    Lemons and Limes:
    I squeeze and freeze all Lemons and Limes the moment they hit my house. I then store these in the freezer in 4oz containers. The day of – I bring them out and place them on the counter. Not only is it as good as fresh squeezed, nothing goes to waste.
    I usually go for the following [which may piss off the purists, but keeps my budget in check]
    PR White: El Dorado 3
    PR Gold / Demerara: El Dorado 5
    Overproof: Hamilton 151
    Agricole: Rhum Clement VSOP
    Jamaican (Gold) : Appleton XV
    Jamaican (Dark): Blackwell
    This means: 6 essential bottles for me that pretty much cover the whole spectrum.
    Bonus Bottles: Smith & Cross [pretty cool funk bomb]
    Plantation Pineapple Rum [Great on occasion
    Plantation dark [Cheap brown for $15, why not?]
    El Dorado 15 or Appleton 12 [Aged sippers…?]
    Falernum: A must! I make Kaiser Pinguins’ lime-less version because it lasts longer. You need to modify each recipe to bump up the lime to compensate but it works great. Very consistent!
    Orgeat: Ive tried making Orgeat countless times…but my guests prefer Torani’s artificialness in a Mai-Tai. Shrug! Works for me.
    Cinnamon Syrup: .5 sugar, .5 water, 2 smash cinnamon sticks for 2 hours.
    Passionfruit Syrup: Equal parts rich simple & Goya Frozen Pulp.
    Grenadine: Equal parts Sugar and Pom.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Great comment, and much appreciated.

      I’ve frozen lemon and lime juices on occasion, when I have too many, but in general I try to squeeze to order, or at most, keep some in a small mason jar for a day or two.

      Your rum list looks solid, given your desire to keep it simple. My only thought is that the Appleton and Blackwell’s are particularly funky. My main mixing Jamaicans are Smith & Cross, Coruba, and Hamilton. The Mezan XO is also really funky, at about $33.

      My falernum is limeless as well. I make a modified version of some recipe. It may be Kaiser Penguin’s.

      Orgeat: Agreed. I gave up on making it. I’m pretty happy with Giffard, or Small Hand, but the latter can be spendy.

      Passionfruit: I get Auntie Lilikoi for cheap. It’s far better than bottled stuff.

  2. Awesome, I will check out Auntie Lily. Goya is super cheap though you can find it in the ethnic markets usually (freezer section).

    As for Jamaicans I have never found Coruba locally, so im stuck with S&C and Blackwell. I find Blackwell to be more molasis than funk, and S&C all funk! So depends on what you want 🙂

  3. Mr. Wonk,

    Smuggler’s cove’s book splits rums into 8 categories. Pick anything in those categories and youre good to go! Seems like a great choice to this confusing topic.

    1. > Pick anything in those categories, and youre good to go.

      I don’t believe it’s simple. If you read my Smuggler’s Cove book review (also here on the site), you’ll note that I make a clear distinction between categories and flavor profiles. Also as noted, there are numerous examples of rums in the same category, but vastly different flavor profiles. The example I gave was from the “blended aged” category. Nobody will claim that Cockspur VSOR and Dos Maderas 5+5 have anywhere near the same flavor profile.

      1. You picked two extreme examples, and for the most part, 90%+ work well and give you a good representation of the drinks original intention.

        1. > You picked two extreme examples…

          You and I may know that, but does the person who’s just getting into rum and building out their collection?

          Without even trying there’s another example: Pot still unaged. Smith & Cross and Prichard’s Crystal Rum. Very different flavor profiles.

      2. Spot on Matt. After using Martin’s lists as a basis from which to build bar stock, I too began to realize that some of the rums in the same “Cate’s Category” (e.g. Black Blended for example) have entirely different flavor profiles (Goslings Black Seal vs Hamilton Guyana 86) no way do those taste similar. I enjoy knowing the distillation method and aging information that Maestro Cate breaks out but man the differences…

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