Stop Setting Your Rum on Fire! Tiki Fire Explained

cocktail fire garnish tiki

Rum and fire. They go together like peanut butter and chocolate, or burgers and fries. But I’m here to tell you to stop lighting your rum on fire. Sure, if it’s tasteless Puerto Rican 151 proof rum, go ahead. The less high proof vodka-in-disguise, the better. Just don’t expect setting your rum ablaze to make an awesome chalice of fire, practically a legal requirement for any volcano bowl at a decent Tiki bar.

Fire and Tiki are inextricably linked. Make no mistake, I love a good fire show with my Tiki libation, flames leaping toward the ceiling—it’s practically a sacred ritual of Tiki (assuming the fire codes allow). Add the BOOM factor, when a good Tiki master turns it up to eleven, summoning the flames of hell from a burning lime shell. Heads swivel all over the bar.

From Jason Alexander, Tacoma Cabana
From Jason Alexander, Tacoma Cabana

Just don’t for a minute think that high proof rum is the proper fuel of your flaming fantasies. Good Tiki fire springs from something very different. Something that feels almost secretive, that only wizards know

Browse through Tiki bar photos on Instagram, and it’s easy to figure out who know the “secret”:  See a small, blue flame barely rising above a lime shell? They’re not a member of the Tiki fire battallion. But a lively yellow flame that reaches four or more inches high? Secret society member, for sure.

1/2 ounce of 151 proof Don Q rum set afire. Not impressive.

If you were to conduct a simple experiment (I did it above, so you don’t have to), put a half ounce or so of 151 proof rum into a short glass and light it on fire. The result is highly unimpressive–in fact, the flame is almost invisible in daylight. The ethyl alcohol in 151 rum is a great fuel, and very pure. It burns hot–really hot–resulting in a blue flame, and not a particularly large one at that.

Now picture a grease fire. The flames can easily grow large and unruly–anything but a small, demure blue flame. When oil and grease burn, the result is an impressive yellow flame–the same kind of flame you want atop your Tiki drink, albeit obviously much more under control than a dreaded kitchen fire.

So if it’s not rum, what is this magic secret ingredient? The answer may surprise you. Stop for a moment before continuing on and make your best guess.

Ready?

Lemon extract. Yes, lemon extract. While you probably don’t give it much thought, it has three very valuable qualities for the purpose of Tiki fire:

  • It’s food safe (though not particularly tasty on its own)
  • It has a high alcohol content
  • It has a hefty amount of oil –from lemon skins

It’s a surprise to most folks that lemon extract is high in alcohol. In fact, it’s higher in proof than your 151 rum, up to 85 percent, or 170 proof. But what makes it far better than 151 as Tiki fuel is all that oil, which creates fabulous yellow flame.

The downside to lemon extract is that it’s expensive– at least if you’re buying it two ounces at a time for $5 at the local market. Don’t do that. The smart Tiki bars are buying it a quart or more at a time for around a dollar an ounce or less.

A properly prepared bread cube, acting as a wick – Jason Alexander, Tacoma Cabana

Secret ingredient in hand, how do you create the perfect flame? Typically Tiki fire masters ream the pulp out a half of a lemon or lime shell, so that it’s relatively dry. But a good flame isn’t just pouring in a slug of lemon extract– you want something to act as wick. Some bartenders swear by a sugar cube. Others prefer cubes of bread, the lighter and airier the better. And go big with the bread cube, don’t be shy!

Position the bread or sugar cube inside the citrus shell and soak it with a healthy pour of lemon extract. Tuck the shell safely and sturdily on top of the glass or volcano bowl, and find your means of ignition.  I typically use a long handled butane BBQ lighter to keep my fingers away from the flames, but a long match would work as well.

Jason Alexander, Tacoma Cabana demos cinnamon technique

Think it’s the bread or sugar cube that’s making all the difference? Think again! To vividly show the difference the fuel makes, I created two identical testbeds, each the ideal conditions for a firepot: A lime shell and bread. I soaked one chunk of bread in 0.5 oz of lemon extract, the other with 0.5 oz of 151 proof rum. The results speak for themselves:

0.5 oz lemon extract on left, 0.5 oz 151 proof rum on right
0.5 oz lemon extract on left, 0.5 oz 151 proof rum on right

While a raging Tiki fire in a lime shell is always a great show, true Tiki wizards like Jason Alexander and Justin Wojslaw know how to bring it to a crescendo with a blast of flames reaching practically to the ceiling. Justin in particular appears (to the naked eye) to put his hand into the flame and summon a raging Pele from it.

Justin Wojslaw demos tiki fire at the Diller Room, Seattle

The reality is much more prosaic: cinnamon powder. Grab a healthy pinch, and then slowly release it above the flame—the tiny ground cinnamon particles flare briefly and sparkle like a thing of awe-inspiring beauty, as you can see in this slow motion video:

The exact origins of the first use of lemon extract for Tiki fire may be lost to history. However, after I first published this post, Martin Cate messaged me some great additional context about its recent history:

“I discovered the flaming lemon extract crouton at the now-departed Bahooka in Rosemead, CA and brought it first to Forbidden Island and then Smuggler’s which is where everyone else learned how to do this. “

You can read Martin’s take on the technique from his recent Smuggler’s Cove  book. His description there made my “Top Ten Factoids” list in my review of the book.

Before finishing, I’d be remiss to not include the obligatory warning:   Safety first. Don’t do this around highly flammable materials (say, a thatched Tiki-style roof). Have a fire extinguisher handy. All that jazz. You’ve been warned.

The current resurgence in Tiki drinks has brought the benefits of craft cocktail methodologies. We now expect fresh juices, quality rums, and artful presentation. So if you’re going all out and including fire in your cocktails, do it the right way. Use the right ingredients, and don’t set your rum on fire.

Tiki fire at Cocktail Wonk world headquarters
Just another Saturday night at the Tacoma Cabana
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7 thoughts on “Stop Setting Your Rum on Fire! Tiki Fire Explained”

  1. Great post, you know i`m a sucker for tiki fire crescendos…

    My thing is using Stroh 80% bec I can`t find lemon extract here and then I use large passionfruit shells or lime shells and (big) bread. Unf i`m in an apartment with low ceiling so I have to restrict myself…..Stroh burns pretty well though with the help of cinnamon!

  2. Hello Helena (love your blog btw – I check it almost daily for updates) 🙂

    You can get lemon extract from amazon.co.uk. I have bought to small bottles (2 oz each) and gotten them shipped here to Copenhagen.
    Just a little FYI:-) Keep up the great work.

  3. If I don’t have lemon extract, how do you think 192 proof Polish grain alcohol would work? and i’ve never considered using bread as the wick… is that just a chunk of bread from a loaf, or is it dried like a crouton?

    1. David – What really makes tike fire is the *oil*, not the alcohol. The alcohol is just a transport. As I mentioned in the pieced, alcohol by itself just creates a small, blue flame.

      Lemon exact (or some other high-proof extract like orange extract) will work.

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