Tiki Improv Fundamentals – Don’t Fear the Recipe

Grog Flight at Tacoma Cabana – Lots of Tiki Improv there.

I realize that the following may be heretical in Tiki circles. It might go against 80 years of Tiki lore, secret recipe books, and exotic rums as described by Beachbum Berry in his book, Sippin’Safari. The simple truth is that a good tiki drink isn’t hard to improvise if you know the basic pattern and have a reasonable set of ingredients on hand.

Let me be completely clear up front – I’m an avid collector of tiki recipes, and with 50+ different rums and many exotic syrups in my collection, you’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that I couldn’t fashion reasonably well with what I have on hand. I firmly believe that a tiki drink should be as authentic and well constructed as possible and I regularly consult many recipes in my extensive notebook.  However, you shouldn’t feel constrained to slavishly implementing existing recipes, or worse, not making a drink at all because you don’t have every ingredient the recipe calls for.

Think of tiki as a rich framework for improvisation – Discovering new flavor combinations that work well together. Using the following guidelines you can easily come up with your creation or a spin on an existing classic.

Matt’s Rules of Tiki

1) Tiki drinks should have rum. The flavor of the rum, not just the alcohol burn, should be easily discernible. If the rest of your ingredients cover up the rum’s true character, you’re doing it wrong. When picking your rum(s), do your best to use something close to the flavor profile, but truthfully you can get great results with a mid-tier rum like these:

2) Tiki drinks have lime juice. You might find a few that use lemon, but without one or the other it’s not really tiki.

3) Tiki drinks may have other fruit juices, but it’s not required. The most common juices found in tiki are pineapple, grapefruit and orange juice. Personally I shy away from OJ in my tiki as it just feels too cliché.

4) Tiki drinks will have one or more sweet, strongly flavored syrups or liqueurs which may or may not be alcoholic. Commonly used syrups include;

  • Orgeat (Almond)
  • Cinnamon syrup
  • Passion fruit syrup
  • Honey syrup
  • Vanilla syrup
Commonly used sweet liqueurs include:
  • Orange Liqueur (Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc…)
  • Cherry Liqueur (e.g. Cherry Heering)
  • Falernum (lime, clove essence – Non-alcoholic versions exists as well)

4) Tiki drinks should not overly sweet. It’s easy to throw a bunch of syrups and sweet liqueurs into a drink and end up with an overly sweet mess with a muddled flavor. Don’t do this.

5) Tiki drinks may use bitter spirits sparingly. Examples include:

  • Angostura bitters
  • Allspice/Pimento dram (Very pungent allspice flavor, not very sweet)
  • Pernod or other anise flavored spirits

6) Tiki drinks are traditionally served over crushed ice. If you don’t have an ice crusher, use a mallet, a kitchen towel, or whatever gets the job done.

7) An over the top garnish is always a crowd pleaser. Hollow out a pineapple,use it as a mug, and you’re a Tiki god! (Or so the drink recipient believes.)

The key element of creating your own Tiki recipes is balance. You should be able to taste every ingredient to some degree. Don’t cover up the flavor of the rum. Ensure there’s some tartness from the lime juice. Don’t throw so many flavors in that you can’t discern what’s what anymore.

One area where I diverge from accepted tiki wisdom is going with 3 or more rums in a drink. Yes, it sounds awesome (“Four overproof rums – YEAAAH!!!”), but unless you have an amazing palate you’re not going to discern the distinct flavors of each rum. For that reason I tend towards using just one or two rums – A strong Jamaican like Smith & Cross by itself, or in combination with an Agricole style are particular favorites of mine.

Starting from the ingredient palette above, the next part is honing the exact amount of each ingredient. Here’s some suggestions:

  • Between 2 and 4 ounces of rum, depending on the quantity of other ingredients.
  • Between .5 and 1 oz of lime juice, depending on how much sweet you add.
  • If using other fruit juices, an ounce is a good starting point.
  • Between .5 oz and 1.5 oz of syrup and/or sweet liqueur. If you go with a lot of sweet, bump up the lime juice to compensate.
  • If using a strong bitter flavor such as allspice dram, go easy on it. I typically use 1/8 to ¼ oz. For angostura bitters, 2-4 dashes is usually plenty.
  • Using falernum requires thought to maintain balance as there are different falernum styles. Homemade falernum has sugar, but the lime and ginger pull it towards the bitter side in my opinion. Non-alcoholic falernum syrup and Velvet Falernum leans towards the sweet side of things..
 Now let’s look at a few cocktail recipes and see if and how they conform to the tiki template:

Trader Vics 1944 Mai Tai

  • 2 oz. 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum
  • Juice from one fresh lime
  • 1/2 oz. orange curacao
  • 1/4 oz. rock candy syrup
  • 1/2 oz. orgeat syrup

This is classic tiki at its finest, albeit very simple. Note there’s no fruit juice beyond the lime, and no bitter flavor components. There are three sweeteners, but a whole lime provides a lot of tart to compensate. As for the Wray and Nephew 17, good luck finding that. As mentioned earlier, you have a lot of latitude with rums. For a proper Mai Tai I’d sub in another fine Jamaican style rum – The funkier the better.

The “Mai Tai” at nearly any island hotel bar

  • 3 oz Bacardi silver
  • 3 oz OJ
  • 2 oz Grenadine
This is tiki purgatory. No lime juice – What the hell??? Rum with no discernable flavor. No balance. A sugar bomb.  The tiki gods will hunt you down if you order this.

 Jet Pilot

  • 1 oz Jamaican rum
  • 0.75 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
  • 0.75 oz Lemon Hart 151
  • 0.5 oz lime juice
  • 0.5 oz grapefruit juice
  • 0.5 oz cinnamon syrup
  • 0.5 oz falernum
  • Dash Angostura bitters
  • 6 drops Pernod
This is a personal tiki favorite and a great example of my guidelines.  It utilizes something from each ingredient category: Plenty of flavorful rum, lime juice, fruit juice, flavored syrups, liqueurs, and multiple bitters.

Daiquiri

  • 2 oz rum
  • 1 oz lime juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup
While a delightful drink and a great basis for improvisation, the daiquiri isn’t a tiki drink by most standards. Rum and lime, sure. But no flavored syrups/liqueurs, no other fruit juices, and no bitters. The daiquiri is too simple to be tiki. I call it a “tropical” drink instead.

Pina Colada

  • 2 1/2 ounces golden rum
  • 3 ounces pineapple juice
  • 1 ounce coconut cream
The Pina Colada is one of the first drinks I made when I came of age. I genuinely enjoy them, but they’re not tiki by the definition above. There’s no tart citrus of any form. Also, they’re traditionally blended, which goes against the crushed ice guideline. Like the daiquiri, I put this in the tropical category.

 Go forth and Improvise!

Starting from the tiki guidelines, it’s fun to try out new things – break a rule or two along the way. One of my favorites is to substitute in mezcal for the rum. Another is to experiment with introducing flavored amaros like Fernet or Campari. Leave comments with your own ideas!

Update on Lost Spirits Polynesian Inspired Rum

Yesterday I posted my thoughts on Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, of which I’m big fan of. In the post I mentioned that a Polynesian Inspired rum is also forthcoming. However, while it’s been teased for a while, including this review, I haven’t been able to figure out when I could buy it.

Well, as luck would have it I had a brief email back-and-forth with the distiller, Bryan Davis today. He answered both of my questions. Here’s what I learned:

1) The Polynesian Inspired version should hit the shelf in 3 weeks to a month. In my book, that’s mid-May, 2014. I’ll be grabbing a number of bottles as soon as I get the chance!

2) I was hoping for a some details on the difference approaches/methods used between the Navy Style and Polynesian Inspired versions. While I didn’t get any juicy tidbits, Brian said that he will cover these differences in his upcoming talk at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. Sadly, I’m not attending, but luckily for us rum nerds, Bryan says he’ll be uploading the video of his talk to Youtube.

The importance of storytelling – Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum


I frequently make new and unusual cocktails for guests at my house. Something I’ve come to enjoy is telling a story about every drink I make. Maybe it’s the unusual spirit I’ve just acquired, perhaps an unusual combination of ingredients, or a tale of how a particular bottle came to reside in my bar. My wife and I occasionally do cocktail-themed dinner parties – friends know them as “Rumpocalypse”, and every drink gets a few minutes about its background and why I chose it. Telling people about what they’ve got in front of them creates a personal connection and often emboldens them to share their thoughts about the drink, which is helpful for me in knowing how to craft an even better experience for them.

Likewise, I use slow times at bars to connect with the bartenders, asking “Is there anything interesting you’re working on?” This often yields something off-menu and that the bartender is eager to talk about. When the drink arrives I ask them to tell me a story about it. Done at the right time, e.g not during a slammed Saturday night, you’ll often have an experience you otherwise might miss.

Recently, a story that grabbed me and which I enjoy sharing, is rum from Lost Spirits Distillery. Currently there are two iterations, both “Navy style”, at 55% and 68% ABV. The story of these rums is great for several reasons. First, they have a strong, dark, forceful flavor, very much in the Jamaican style with a ton of “esters”, which are a chemical compound that provides all sorts of flavors. In the case of Jamaican style rums, I find these esters to have a pleasant, fruit-like flavor like plum, raisin or banana.  The Lost Spirits rums are a dark red hue. You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.

Next, although the flavor of these rums screams Jamaican or someplace else deep in the Caribbean, they’re actually made in Monterey, California, not far from where I grew up and went to college. I frequently drove through the farm fields in the region, and never once saw sugar cane, so the thought of a rum distillery there seems a bit alien, but very cool. These days many distilleries don’t grow their own sugar cane, and instead import molasses from elsewhere. What gives Lost Spirits an edge here is that they use baking grade molasses, which has more sugars than molasses that’s been refined more times to extract as much sucrose as possible.

Finally, and most importantly, the Lost Spirits story appeals to me because of science! While rum aficionados have come to expect that a deep flavorful rum needs to spend many years in the barrel, Lost Spirits uses deep knowledge of the chemical processes in play during fermentation, distillation and aging to focus and concentrate the flavor producing process.

A couple of examples:  During the fermentation process, distiller Bryan Davis deprives the yeast of nitrogen, thereby weakening the cell walls and stressing the yeast. Quoting him: “…properly managed the yeast can produce as many short chained esters as the first few years in a cask.” As for barrel aging, Bryan optimizes his cask preparation to get the goodness of long barrel aging in a shorter period of time. Again quoting: “We use a controlled charring process incorporating heat, flame, and even special frequencies of light to break the compounds we want out fast.” The full description of all the science (highly entertaining for a wonk like me) can be found here.

To my taste and sensibilities, the most natural comparison to the 55% ABV version is Smith & Cross. They have similar alcohol contents (55% vs 57%). The Lost Spirits is darker, with less fruit on the nose and palate than the Smith & Cross. In place of the fruit, I taste more of the molasses. The best simple description I have for the Lost Spirits taste is somewhere between Smith & Cross and Lemon Hart 151. There are several well-written reviews out there with more tasting notes, including here and here.

Although I can ease into sipping the Lost Spirits with its high alcoholic content, I prefer to use it in relatively simple drinks where its unique flavor elements stand out, rather than a multi-rum tiki concoction.  It certainly works well in tiki, but for something this special and relatively rare, I make sure to enjoy every drop to the fullest.

I’ve read that Lost Spirits Distillery has another style of rum on the way, this one being Polynesian inspired. Given my experience with the Navy Style, I’m grabbing as much of the Polynesian expression as I can as soon as it’s available!

My go-to recipe using Lost Spirits Navy Style rum is a variation of the Scarr Power from Rumba in Seattle. Rumba’s Scarr Power uses Smith & Cross and I simply swap in the Lost Spirits 55%. Much as I enjoy the Smith&Cross-based original, the Lost Spirits version is just fantastic.

  • 1.5 oz Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, 55% ABV 
  • .75 oz fresh squeezed lime juice 
  • .5 oz 2:1 Nutmeg syrup 

Add all ingredients to a small glass. Add a large ice cube or two, stir gently. Garnish with orange peel if desired.

I deliberately don’t shake this drink, so as to keep the dilution to a minimum. I also use a small old-fashion glass, ~ 5 oz, so that a single large ice cube is nearly submerged and providing just enough chilling and dilution as the drink is slowly consumed.

The curse of the oddball ingredient – A cocktail improvisation example

Almost anybody with more than a six pack of Bud in the fridge has acquired the oddball cocktail ingredient, used for one mixed drink but otherwise lies inert on the shelf, mocking them. If you’ve got a bottle of Kahlua, you can make a White Russian, and….. hmm… what else? The same goes for nonalcoholic drink components like syrups – Some article has a drink recipe calling for cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup which sounds yummy, and look, a recipe! So you make the syrup, it taste great, but after showing it off in a few rounds of the cocktail for friends, you’ve still got a half liter of the cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup left over. Now what?

My bar counter top and refrigerator is overrun with experiments with leftovers. Pineapple Gomme syrup? Check. Banana Infused Jameson Whiskey? Yup. Apple-cinnamon shrub? Indeed. Black-tea infused Smith and Cross – Bingo. Many of the brain cells I devote to improvising cocktails is spent trying to match up my bar of misfit ingredients with new ways to use them.

The experiment so far that’s given me the biggest challenge is the Porter Reduction Syrup I used in a previous blog post, Reverse engineering a cocktail: The Cup Of Awesome. While I deeply enjoy the Cup of Awesome, I can’t make it too often or I’ll grow tired of it. And unlike a fruit based syrup that’s relatively easy to imagine replacing an existing ingredient in a favorite cocktail, a heavy, beer based syrup stands out in the field by itself. It’s not similar to a whole lot else, thus the challenge.

The other challenge with the Porter syrup is it’s intense flavor. Your choice is to either let it dominate the flavor profile of the drink (like in the Cup of Awesome), or pair it up with something that also has a powerful flavor and adjust the ratios so that neither flavor wins out. As you may have seen in prior posts, I’m big on categorizing things, and one of the classifications I frequently fall back on is robust, full-bodied flavors – flavors that you’ll always pick out regardless of what else is going on. Some of my go-to base spirits in this category are:

  • Smokey Scotch (Islay)
  • Mezcal
  • Overproof Jamaican Rum
  • Blackstrap Rum

And as accent ingredients:

  • Fernet Branca
  • Campari
  • Chartreuse
  • Allspice Dram

Tonight I went through my lists, mentally pairing the Porter Syrup taste with the base spirit taste:

  • Porter and Smoky Scotch? Maybe…
  • Porter and Mezcal? Doubtful
  • Porter and Smith and Cross Jamaican rum? Not sure.
  • Porter and Blackstrap Rum? Hmm… This sounds interesting.

So Porter and Blackstrap rum it was. Blackstrap rum is a crazy uncle in the rum world. It’s made from blackstrap molasses, which is the lowest grade of molasses – what’s left after nearly all the sugar has been removed from sugar cane juice after multiple boilings. The crystallized sucrose becomes table sugar and other products. The molasses is what remains. The only generally available Blackstrap rum available here in the U.S. is from Cruzan. It’s very dark with a strongly molasses flavor and cheap. Not at all a sipping rum unless you’re a pirate. It’s usually used to add color to Tiki cocktails as the rum float. However, given that we’re trying to find a mate for our intensely strong and dark syrup made from reduced Porter beer, it doesn’t seem so crazy.

Now, how much of each ingredient? Since the Porter syrup is very sweet I don’t want to use too much, so my first stab is a 3:1 blackstrap/syrup ratio. With just those two ingredients you have something roughly akin to an Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters), but from very much the wrong side of the tracks. The drink could work with just that. However, the egg white in the Cup of Awesome adds a nice texture to it, and works here as well, in addition toning down some of the sweetness from the Porter Syrup. While you could go 4:1 rum/syrup, the Porter flavor would fall too far into the background for my taste.

  • 1.5 oz Blackstrap Rum
  • .5 oz Porter Reduction Syrup
  • .5 oz egg white

In a mixing glass, whip the egg white with a small hand frother/mixer until it’s very foamy. Add the rum and syrup. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe. Normally cocktails with egg-white call for extreme shaking rather than stirring. However, shaking dilutes this drink too much. Regarding the frother, get a decent solid blade like BonJour makes rather than the cheap $5 spiral whisk versions. It makes a big difference in how frothy your egg-whites get.

The “Big Picture” message here is that cocktail recipe creation isn’t necessarily some divinely inspired zen wisdom.It’s often just a matter of iterating over flavors and ingredients on hand, mentally mashing together in your head, then trying out the ones that don’t instantly seem like a bad idea. Kahlua and St. Germain anyone?

Rums for the Aspiring Cocktail Wonk

I love all my spirit friends – There are multiple fine specimens of Whiskey, Bourbon, Tequila, Gin, and Brandy in my home bar, but the spirit I’m truly wonky for is Rum.  Rum continues to have a bad reputation among many with only a glancing familiarity of the spirit. A common refrain I hear is “It’s too sweet”, which confounds me because I find commonly used rums to be no more or less sweet than other base spirits. While rum is made from sugar or molasses, the distillation process removes nearly all of the sugar content. No, I believe people think rum is sweet because of crappy drinks made with too much day-glow syrup. 

Something that surprises people is just how diverse a category rum is. The difference between Bacardi Silver (unfortunately many people’s only reference point) and a sipper like Ron Zacapa 23, or the extremely funky Smith And Cross is many times greater than the diversity found in Gins or Bourbons. Once you’re past the idea that rum means Captain Morgan and “Rum and Coke”, you’re ready to assemble a stable of rums that span the wide gamut of cocktail styles. Nearly every non-rum cocktail you can think of can have its base spirit substituted with a rum that makes the resulting drink equal to or better than the original – Think rum Negronis, Rum Old-fashioneds , and rum Manhattans, just for example.
There’s a ton of good resources on the web that break down rum into different styles, and in great detail, and I won’t attempt to replicate them here. The worst categorization I see is along the lines of  
  • Light 

  • Medium 

  • Dark 

Lumping dark rums together is like lumping Fiats and Ferraris together because they’re both from Italy. When a drink recipe calls for a “dark rum”, I know to keep it as a safe distance.  A slightly better categorization, but one that still is confusing unless you’re a serious rum-wonk is regional. Examples of this include: 
  • Virgin Island 

  • Barbados (Bajan) 

  • Rhum Agricole 

  • Demerara 

  • Jamaican 

The problem here is that there’s still a enormous difference between rums in the same geographical category.  The agricole designation encompasses both relatively young versions that you’d mix with and aged sippers like Clement Grande Reserve. Likewise with Jamaican rums – Appleton V/X is a fine rum, but enormously different than my beloved Wray and Nephew overproof, full of funk and fire. The upshot is that imposing any sort of coherent taxonomy on rums is difficult at best – The ingredients, distillation and aging processes are far more important than regional designations. 

That said, here’s how I mentally organize my rum collection, including actual brands and labels. The categories are roughly ordered by how important I consider them in assembling a collection that covers the bases for making a broad set of cocktails. That is, I’d start with the “switch hitter” style before diving into the “White Agricole” style.  

Switch hitters – Solid, middle of the road rums that don’t veer too far into any  eccentricity. Good enough to sip straight, but not so expensive that you will cringe when using two ounces in a cocktail. They’re equally at home in a Palmetto (a rum Manhattan) as they’d be in a tiki fantasy. 
  • Bacardi 8 

  • Plantation 5 

  • Plantation Original Dark (80 proof) 

  • El Dorado 12 

  • Appleton 12 

Silver – These are  rums you’d use in daiquiris, mojitos and drinks where a silver tequila or vodka is used. 
The one I use consistently is Cana Brava. It’s flavor profile is night and day different than Bacardi Silver. Although I don’t have either at the moment, I like everything I’ve had from both Plantation and El Dorado, so you might consider the “3 Stars” and “3 year” respectively. 
  • Cana Brava
Funky – These are primarily useful for tiki or “island style” drinks. The “funk” comes from a relatively high amount of esters which are organic compounds with a fruity essence. Generally these rums are from Jamaica. When I think of swashbuckling pirates and rum, these funky rums are what I’m dreaming of. Much like people have strong aversions to smoky scotch or mezcal, you tend to either love or hate rum funk.

Smith and Cross is my benchmark funky rum. I’m seriously in love with its fruity essence, and at 114 proof so a little goes a long way. A Negroni made with Smith and Cross transports me to a higher plane of happiness. Wray and Nephew is even higher octane at 126 proof and the esters are quite different than Smith and Cross, and I find they complement each other.  I think of Coruba as the little brother of Smith and Cross, despite being from the Wray and Nephew portfolio. A little less Jamaican funk, but at about half the price of Smith and Cross I mix Coruba freely in my tiki drinks. 
  • Smith and Cross 

  • Wrap and Nephew White Overproof 

  • Coruba 
Luxury Sipping – I primarily sip these neat rather than mixing. Put ‘em in a snifter like a good whisky or brandy. These rums are aged for longer time periods, typically 10+ years either in a single barrel or using the Solera method. They’re sweeter, and some people call them “dessert rums.” There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how much of the sugar comes from barrel aging versus sugar added by the distiller, which the distillers frequently deny. 

This category represents a good part of my collection. Here are just a few in my bar that anybody could be confident making as their first or second purchase in this category: 
  • Zacapa 23 

  • Zaya 

  • Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva 

  • Santa Theresa 1796 

  • Plantation 20 

  • Dos Maderas P.X. 5+5 

The Zaya is a steal at around $25. It’s a good “gateway” rum to get people used to the idea of sipping rum neat rather than pouring it in a glass with Coke. 

Dark Rums – Despite my protestation earlier about using the color of a rum as a category, there are a few rums useful both for their color and the heavy body they give to tropical drinks. 
  • Lemon Hart (80 and 151) 

  • Gosling’s Black Seal 

  • Pusser’s 

  • Bacardi Select 

  • Cruzan Blackstrap 

The Cruzan Blackstrap has a particularly strong molasses flavor. A little goes a long way. 

White Agricole Style – While most rums are made from a molasses base, agricole rums are made from cane sugar juice, which is a predecessor to molasses. The taste is described as “grassy” or “vegetal”. These rums are easily used in place of rums in the Silver category above to give cocktails a different flavor element.

Although there’s a fancy official government definition for what can be called “Rhum Agricole“, including being made in Martinique, the style is made elsewhere, including Haiti and Oregon. Brazilian cachaca is very similar to an agricole style rum, the primary difference being the alcohol content it’s distilled to. 
  • La Favorite Rhum Blanc 

  • Bull Run Distillery Pacific Rum 
Spiced Rums This is a fairly wide category, as the amount and types of spices used varies widely. I don’t use spiced rums much, as I’d rather do my own infusions. However, if you must have something in this category, I’ve had good experiences with these rums: 
  • Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum 

  • Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum


Disclaimer – There are plenty of rums that I’d solidly recommend but aren’t included above because they don’t fit  well into my broad categories. Also, the list is filtered by the rums that are reasonably available to me in the United States. Much as I love my Doorly’s 12 and St. Nicholas Abbey 15 rums, it took a trip to Barbados to acquire them, and at $150/bottle for the St. Nicholas Abbey, it’s not a starter rum. 

My, isn’t that a pretty cocktail pattern!

Negroni Variations at Canon

In cooking and baking there are all sorts of pattern for food categories. For instance, most bread recipes share the basic idea of flour, yeast, liquid, and eggs. Within that pattern there is an infinite variety of ways to modify, highlight and improvise: different types and amounts of flour, yeasts, sugars, salts all let you tailor what the bread will be. The same holds true for the category of sauces – Some sort of base, e.g. tomatoes, oil, and herbs/spices. There was a recent influential book, Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman that covers this idea in great detail.
Continue reading “My, isn’t that a pretty cocktail pattern!”