If you’ve been around these parts or the Cocktail Wonk Instagram feed for any length of time, you know Tiki drinks play a big role in the Wonky lifestyle. I revere the classics like the 1944 Mai Tai and the Jet Pilot, while celebrating modern recipes from my Tiki Monster friends like Jason Alexander, Martin Cate, Justin Wojslaw, and Zac Overman. Every so often I dip my toes into crafting my own concoctions using elements of the Tiki pattern and Minimalist Tiki principles. So hereby I present an original Tiki recipe that we’ve been enjoying the hell out of lately: The Tonga Thunder.
Crappy cocktail recipes are an occupational hazard of using the internet. I do my best to roll my eyes and move on. Until I came across this horror show on Thrillist This one simply needed to be addressed.
Titled the Dead Man’s Mai Tai, the text breathlessly describes it as “… an autumnal take on a familiar tropical classic. So basically just as good! Coconut rum? Check. Dark rum? Check.”
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.
A recent trend in the cocktail world is for high-end, world class “destination” bars and celebrity bartenders to further extend their brand and cement their reputation via authoring a book. Some hotly anticipated tomes of note recently include The PDT Cocktail Book (PDT, NYC), Speakeasy (Employees Only, NYC), Death & Co. (Death & Co., NYC), and The Bar Book (Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Portland, OR). All have been eagerly anticipated and well received. In that light, the only surprise is that Martin and Rebecca Cate’s new book, Smuggler’s Cove – Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, took so long to appear on the cocktail book scene. In fairness, they’ve been a little busy with other things, like oh…opening Whitechapel, a shrine to gin akin to what San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove is to rum.
Even among the cocktail enthusiast population, the Tiki crowd is particularly passionate and eager for fresh material. I’ve witnessed firsthand the insane demand and interest for the Smuggler’s Cove book, scheduled to be generally available in early June 2016. As the fortunate recipient of one of the first books off the press, I’ve taken on the task of reading the entire opus–which clocks in at a solid 350 pages from cover to cover. As a teaser before jumping into my thoughts about the volume overall, here are ten of my favorite factoids you’ll encounter:
The Tiki revival movement is clearly having its moment these days, having been heralded in dozens of articles to that effect. Even an old standby like The Washington Post has gotten into the act, running stories about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and how to make your own orgeat. This is indisputably a good thing for people like yours truly who enjoy a balanced, expertly crafted tropical libation rather than a quart of fruit punch with cheap white rum thrown in. The elaborately constructed rum rhapsodies of the 1940 and 1950s took a serious dive downward for the following fifty years, picking up bad habits like flavored vodka and powdered drink mixes. By the start of the 21st century, Tiki was just about left for dead, consumed ironically if at all. Fortunately, the rise of the craft cocktail movement swept Tiki into its whirlwind of vintage recipes and ingredients. A decade or so later, dedicated Tiki-centric bars are popping up all over the world and modern Tiki recipes are just as easy to find as the classic Donn Beach, Trader Vic, and Steve Crane recipes from the 1930s through1950s.
Inevitably, tons of “Best Tiki Bars” lists have popped up online. Of the current “modern era” Tiki bars, these lists inevitably cite Smuggler’s Cove, Hale Pele, Latitude 29, Three Dots and a Dash, and Lost Lake, among others—all worthy of your drinking time. At the same time, a set of celebrity Tiki bartenders has become the face of the Tiki revival – people like Jeff Berry, Martin Cate, Blair Reynolds, and Paul McGee. You’ll find quotes from these fine folks all over the coverage of Tiki these days. They’ve all contributed significantly to Tiki’s new modern era, embracing the classics but not being bound by them either. A lot of attention is lavished on these revivalists, and deservedly so.
As someone who spends, shall we say, significant time in bars, fatigue from parsing ingredient lists on cocktail menus is an occupational hazard. So many Old Fashioned variations, so many twists on a daiquiri. No slight to the actual drinks, but a recipe that’s completely from out of left field is a rarity – that’s something I gotta have! The Banana Stand at Seattle’s Rob Roy absolutely falls into that category.
The Banana Stand is the brainchild of Zac Overman, a Tiki savant and recent transplant to Seattle — score one for us! Monday nights at Rob Roy are known as Tangaroa Roy–a celebration of Tiki, with anything but traditional Tiki classics. The Banana Stand made its first appearance at a Tangaroa Roy that happened to coincide with Seattle’s Women Who Love Whiskey anniversary party. Zac created a custom menu heavy on the whiskey, and The Banana Stand practically leapt off the page at me. Laphroaig? Crème de Banane? An automatic yes!
If there’s one thing New Orleans is not short on, it’s bars. In the touristy part of town (the French Quarter) you can’t go more than a block without seeing people spilling out of a bar, clutching frozen Daiquiris in a to-go cup – practically the official mascot of New Orleans. All of Bourbon Street seems to be one continuous bar, the highlight being the ill-advised “Hand Grenade”: gin, rum, vodka, grain alcohol, Midori, with a float of regret. Sure, you can head over to Pat O’Brien’s for an authentic “Hurricane” – don’t forget to pick up some powdered Hurricane Mix as you leave.
Yes, there’s much for a craft cocktail connoisseur to shake their head at in New Orleans. There are plenty of world-class bars in NOLA though– a cocktail wonk just needs to be more diligent in seeking out bars worthy of time and attention. What follows is in no way a complete list of every worthy bar in NOLA – that would take months. But as an obsessive bar hound who’s always looking for the next great “score,” what follows are a few you should put on your A-list.
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:
A highlight of the CocktailWonk blog last year was attending TikiKon 2014 in the Portland/Vancouver vortex. In addition to classes and parties, my personal highlight was the Iron TikiTender competition, which my good friend Jason Alexander, owner of the Tacoma Cabana, won in his first time as a competitor. The contest pits three bartenders against each other in a series of challenges, such as “Most Mai Tais in 10 minutes” and “Best drink with a mystery ingredient,” with judging by rum celebrities like Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove. Sadly, I’ll be missing the 2015 TikiKon as Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to New Orleans a few days in advance of Tales of the Cocktail. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear that some of my local, Seattle-based bartenders are applying to compete at Iron TikiTender 2015.