Recently, a torrent of articles in the mainstream press has heralded the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail title, and highlighted top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales of these destination-worthy bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients. I’m completely on board with this surge in interest, and I regularly go overboard in my home bar, making libations with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.
However, it recently occurred to me that exotic Tiki recipes specifying esoteric ingredients and very specific rums 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 with what’s already in your home bar.
With this in mind, I set out on a research project: Finding the minimum set of ingredients needed 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 created a minimal working set of ingredients, enabling you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space. It’s too late for me — the home bar spans several rooms — but with what follows, you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.
My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails I consider the essential classics; as with all “best of” lists, it’s completely subjective. However, I’ve 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:
This past week, Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery visited my hometown of Seattle. I eagerly anticipated their trip as the Seattle area has several top notch rum-centric bars, including Rumba and Tacoma Cabana, as well as the Pantheon of the American Whiskey, Canon. Over several evenings we visited all of them, and much rum and whiskey scuttlebutt ensued. Fun side story: At Canon, Bryan and Joanne were shocked to find four different Lost Spirits whiskeys, several that they no longer have themselves.
California has a disproportionately large number of great Tiki bars, which isn’t terribly surprising since Tiki originated in Southern California and the Bay Area during the latter half of the 1930s. Portland has one Tiki Bar of note (Hale Pele) and the Seattle area has Tacoma Cabana, but beyond those, Tiki is relegated to the occasional “theme night” in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no surprise then that I’ll always jump at a California trip excuse to get my fill of Tiki. During our recent visit to San Francisco for VMworld, Mrs. Wonk and I visited ten bars, four of which were Tiki. The other six bars are covered in the prior post while this post has my thoughts on the two new (to us) Tiki bars we visited, plus two returning favorites.
A disclaimer about the photos here: Tiki bars are nearly always dark. A well-lit Tiki bar would just seem…off. Thus, dark rooms, small cameras, and no flash are a recipe for dark, grainy photos.
Smuggler’s Cove – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9/10
Smuggler’s Cove decor
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Smuggler’s Cove as it’s rightly on every published “Best Tiki Bar” list and is famous for having the largest rum collection of any bar in the world. Owner Martin Cate, along with Jeff Berry, has become one of the go-to experts for Tiki-related quotes. Rather than rehashing what’s been well-documented elsewhere, I will focus on the Smuggler’s Cove experience, being a seasoned veteran with two trips under my belt.
Wait, this is a Tiki bar?
I guarantee you that nearly everybody arriving at Smuggler’s Cove for the first time has a “WTF?” moment. Set on an otherwise normal, low-rise commercial street, the view from the exterior is of a typical modern looking storefront like you’d find in an office park – and the dark, aluminum framed windows give no hint what’s behind them. No tiki torches. No Polynesian-looking sign suggesting what might be inside. Honestly, it could be any non-descript business. (Mrs. Wonk’s comment upon arriving for our first visit, “Are they going to sell me insurance in here?”) The only indication you’ve found the right place is small two-inch lettering on the glass door reading “Smuggler’s Cove.”
While the exterior may not provide many clues, the crowd of people waiting outside might give you a hint that something’s going on behind the dark facade. Smuggler’s Cove is not a large space, yet it is world-renowned, so it’s not uncommon for people to queue up outside to wait for seats inside. Here’s an important tip: If you’re a “must sit at the bar” person like I am, arrive prior to the 5 PM opening and be prepared to queue. Yes, even on a Tuesday. On our first visit, we naively arrived at 5:10 PM and there were no seats to be had. On this trip we arrived at 4:45 PM, so were first in a line of about fifteen when the door opened.
Smuggler’s Cove decor
Smuggler’s Cove is just a bit more awesome because it’s split over three levels. Step inside and it’s very, very dark. In front of you to the right is a small bar with about eight seats, and other than drink rail with seating along the left-hand wall, no other seating on this level. Toward the back, a set of stairs leads to an upper level with seating that overlooks the main floor. To the immediate right of the entry—watch your step as you come inside–is a curving set of metal stairs leading down past a three-story waterfall to the lower level, with more seating, the pool of the waterfall, and a secondary bar in the far back. The décor and theme of all three levels is over-the-top nautical Tiki – thick jute ropes, glass buoy lamps of various colors, rum barrels, and a giant suspended anchor: imagine the Pirates of the Caribbean set squished into your neighborhood watering hole. Also coo: I met the guy (“Notch”) who designed the space a few days later at a private party high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Stephen Liles at the main floor bar helm, Smuggler’s Cove.
Since we were first in the door, and with the benefit of knowing the lay of the land, we grabbed prime seats at the main level bar; with only eight seats, any of them are prime territory. Behind the bar was Stephen Liles, man of many hats. Stephen is a veteran at the Cove and a model of efficiency. Very little motion is wasted as he churns through the never-ending list of drink orders. Because he was so busy there wasn’t a good opportunity to chat with him for more than a few sentences. Every drink he crafted for us on both visits was top-notch.
First round at Smuggler’s Cove, including the Rum Barrel, now in my collection.
The menu at Smuggler’s Cove is a masterpiece, nicely bound and segregated into thoughtful categories, with each drink receiving a well-written description. Seriously, if you own a Tiki bar, this is the way to get your drinks the credit they deserve. The drinks are a mix of the expected as well as forgotten Tiki classics, along with house originals. A few drinks come in special Smuggler’s Cove branded Tiki mugs, which you can purchase with the drink for a few dollars more. There are dozens of different mug releases in existence, so I’m glad I’ve grabbed a different mug on each visit. (Mrs. Wonk feels a new collection coming on.)
Plantation Royal Blend, exclusively at Smuggler’s Cove
If you’re in to sipping rums, be sure to ask for the rum list, which is a separate menu. It numbers in the hundreds, some you will not find anywhere else. One in particular is a special Plantation Rum bottling exclusive to Smuggler’s Cove called the “Royal Blend”–containing four rums and aged in three different types of barrels, the last two being Cognac and Maury (a sweet French wine). I limited myself to just two cocktails because I knew I was having the Royal Blend. Mrs. Wonk will attest that I was rendered nearly speechless for several minutes, it was that phenomenal. (Mrs. Wonk says this is good information, in case she needs to render me speechless at some future time of her choosing.)
Besides arriving early if you want a good spot, the other advice I’ll give is to eat up before you get there. They don’t serve any food, and with all the rum you’ll happily consume, you’ll rapidly go off the deep end unless you’ve laid down a healthy base of food first. (Mrs. Wonk would have paid a considerable amount for some sad bar nuts or goldfish crackers.)
To sum it up, Smuggler’s Cove does Tiki drinks exceedingly well. Yes, it’s become a bit of a tourist destination with all that entails: sometimes long waits for cocktails, crowded spaces, clueless people ordering wine (really???) but it hasn’t jumped the shark yet, and it likely won’t. If you have the chance, don’t question — just go.
Longitude – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
Longitude, across the water in Oakland, is new in the Bay Area Tiki scene. However, it comes with impeccable credentials in the form of owner Suzanne Long, previously the general manager and head bartender at Forbidden Island (reviewed below). My Longitude notes here don’t have quite the same level of details as other bars, as our visit didn’t follow my normal bar visit pattern where Mrs. Wonk and I sit at the bar and soak in the experience. This was because we were fortunate to be accompanied by Josh Miller from the Inu a Kena blog. With all the great conversation, I didn’t have as much time for mental note taking.
The bar at Longitude
Longitude is newly constructed and looks more upscale and put together than your typical Tiki restaurant, combining Caribbean and African influences rather than Polynesian grass shacks and leis. Mrs. Wonk is a respected interior designer and doesn’t quite “get” the African / Caribbean mash-up (however well-executed), but Josh and I think it works. The bar counter is a gorgeous slab of wood, the stools are casually elegant, and faux plants are abundant but tastefully done. The bar area itself is unusually bright for a Tiki bar. But at our table about ten feet from the bar, it was dark enough to require cell-phone light to read the menu. Next to us was a semi-private “hut” for large parties.
Cocktail at Longitude
The cocktail menu comprises about fifteen drinks, each with a nice description. I opted for the Queens Barrel (“three rums, sparkling citrus, and passion fruit”) which both Josh and our waitress warned me was the booziest of the drinks. It was well made and on par with the drinks at Smuggler’s Cove. With a few exceptions, the drinks are house originals, some venturing into some non-Tiki areas, such as the gin-based Farmer’s Martini. Fifteen drinks is great for a normal restaurant menu, but high-end Tiki restaurants typically feature quite a few more. Longitude takes a lot of cues from Tiki but doesn’t slavishly follow the idioms.
Longitude’s Pu Pu platter
Bonus points for Longitude for their food menu, which covers both the usually Tiki dishes (Mrs. Wonk highly recommends the well-executed Pu Pu platter, which at some restaurants can sometimes be a sugary mess but instead was tasty and well-balanced, flavor-wise.) as well as British-influenced dishes like bangers and mash, mac and cheese, and shepherd’s pie (tying into that African-explorer theme).
“Hut” at Longitude
Out visit to Longitude was during its first few weeks of operations, so they may not have pulled out all the stops yet. We had a very enjoyable time, and I’ll definitely visit again to see how they evolve.
Tonga Room – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7/10
Ship deck dance floor at Tonga Room, SF.
If you’re a fan of over-the-top, vintage Tiki environs, the Tonga Room is an essential pilgrimage. If you’re looking for dozens of different, expertly Tiki cocktails (a la Smuggler’s Cove), you’ll come away mildly disappointed. I’m clearly in the first category, so a Tonga Room visit is an essential part of a San Francisco visit.
More than any other Tiki Bar I’ve been to, the Tonga Room is about the visual experience. You really do feel as though you’re stepping back in time to 1945, which is when it first opened here in San Francisco. What does a visit to the Tonga Room entail? First, you set course for the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, perched at the top of Nob Hill with amazing views in every direction. (Walk if you haven’t been to the gym in a week, take an Uber if you’re committed to wearing those stilettos.)The Fairmont is an enormous, elegant historic hotel dating back to 1907. Walking through the lobby, which hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, you’ll think, “There’s a Tiki bar in here somewhere?” Find the elevator that takes you down a few floors, wander down a long hallway though the bowels of the hotel until you spy volcanic rock and a small lobby with an entrance leading into the Tonga Room. Step through the door, and…wow!
Bandstand in Tonga Room’s lagoon
In front of you is full blown wooden ship rigging. Beyond that is a pool (think: regulation size hotel swimming pool), surrounded on three side by dining tables under open thatched roofed “huts.” Along the pool rim are festive strings of lights and lanterns. In the middle of the pool is a thatched roof bandstand made up to look like a Polynesian river boat. Take it all in – this may be the closest you’ll ever come to Tiki’s glory days in the 1940s and 1950s. The space you’re in used to be the Fairmont’s swimming pool area, but in 1945 was converted into the Tonga Room. With its long history and serious Tiki cred, the Tonga Room was designated a historical resource after an ill-conceived effort to get rid of the space a few years back.
Bar at Tonga Room, SF
The bar area is to your right, with seating for about twelve at the bar, with hi-top seating close behind. Take a seat at the bar (obviously) and grab an old-school Tiki “picture menu”—in case you have no idea what a Scorpion Bowl looks like. The drinks include a few vintage classics (Mai Tai, Zombie, Singapore Sling), other drinks often lumped into the Tiki category (Pina Colada, Margarita), and a few house originals. I’ll be honest, I was concerned at first that the drinks would be a travesty, akin to the pineapple and OJ “Mai Tai” found at every hotel bar in Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Tonga Room sticks to the original recipes for the most part. Extra credit for the Small Hand Foods orgeat behind the bar, rather than some petrochemical based “orgeat.”
Mai Tai at the Tonga Room, SF
While the drinks aren’t up to Smuggler’s Cove / Latitude quality level, with careful ordering you can get decent-enough Tiki drinks to pass the time while you marvel at the lava-stone walls and wait out the rainstorm. Yes…rainstorm. Indoor. Rainstorm. Over the pool at 30 minute intervals. How awesome is that? If you’re with a friend or three, order a bowl (sized for two or four) and sip it through the ridiculously long straws provided. Currently there are three bowls on offer: Scorpion, Smuggler’s Cove, and Lava. On our prior Tonga Room visit, we were served by the very nice bar manager, a fellow Tiki wonk, who generously gave me our bowl for my collection. As you’d hope for a restaurant within a hotel, the Tonga Room has a slightly above average Tiki/Asian fare menu, including a Pu Pu platter, pork ribs, won tons, and spicy chicken wings.
Immerse yourself in the Tonga Room vibe, and you’ll be reluctant to leave. There’s always a detail you hadn’t noticed before. Have moderate expectations about the cocktails, soak in the Tiki history, and you’ll find yourself planning a return trip.
Forbidden Island – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
First, let’s start with a bit of backstory connecting Forbidden Island to other bars in this post. Back in 2006, Martin Cate along with some partners opened Forbidden Island in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. He left in 2009 to start Smuggler’s Cove, and Suzanne Long, now of Longitude, assumed head mixologist duties at Forbidden Island. As such, Forbidden Island played a role in the eventual formation of both Smuggler’s Cove and Longitude.
Forbidden Island was our last Tiki stop, shortly before heading to the airport to return home. Although Sunday at 3 PM isn’t normally the time I’d pick for a bar visit, it was the only time we had free, and hey, Forbidden Island is open! I’d convinced myself this would work out well because bars are generally empty on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, right? We strode in and… what the hell? It was packed! Turns out that Forbidden Island hosts a lot of special events, and we’d arrived just as the Tiki Car Hop was getting underway. Realizing this wasn’t going to be an optimal visit, we stuck around and did our best to extrapolate what it would be like at a less busy time (i.e., ordering and drinking while standing).
Forbidden Island bar
The interior is dominated by a long, straight bar that can easily accommodate four bartenders behind it. The back bar is a treasure trove of rums, somewhat similar in vibe to Hale Pele in Portland. Over the bar area is a low, thatched “roof,” the underside festooned with hundreds of attached dollar bills. Along the opposite wall is a row of enclosed booths, and overhead hang colorful, nautical glass buoys, rope netting, and palm fronds, giving a pleasant ramshackle vibe.
Cocktails at Forbidden Island
The cocktail menu was an abbreviated event menu (for the car hop), with around fifteen drinks listed. A friendly regular at the bar noticed our puzzled looks and explained that the normal menu has three times the number of drinks, which I was able to verify online. The full menu is broken down into “traditional Tiki,” “house specials,” “famous tiki bar tributes,” “cocktail classics,” and “pools of paradise” (i.e. punch bowls). In a whimsical twist, most of the drinks have a skull and crossbones symbol indicating their relative strength. Both the drinks we ordered met my high expectations, and if we had more time, I wouldn’t hesitate to explore more of their creations. There’s also a small food menu although we didn’t partake—it’s hard to Pu Pu while standing up.
Drink all the rum at Forbidden Island
Patio behind Forbidden Island
Forbidden Island has a patio and a small parking lot out back, which was the showplace for the Tiki Car Hop, which featured quite a few well-restored vintage cars, which we took our time wandering through. The sunny Sunday patio was perfect for day drinking outside—and a haircut, should you need it (the car hop offered services in a full-on old-style barber’s chair). Just another day in Tiki-ville! Although I didn’t have the optimal Forbidden Island experience I’d hoped for, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back next time we’re in the Bay Area.
Stay tuned for my final post from this trip which covers my visit to St. George Spirits Distillery.
During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, for TikiKon, Mrs. Wonk and I obviously made use of the opportunity to visit cocktail bars – some new, some previously unvisited, and one prior favorite. Here’s my take on each of them. Keep in mind this list isn’t intended to represent a “best of Portland” list. Rather, it’s my observations on the (too few) bars we drank at recently. Pépé Le Moko
Pépé Le Moko menu
Jeffrey Morgenthaler has built a name on the national cocktail scene as the bar manager at Portland’s Clyde Common. He recently opened a new, very different sort of bar in the same building, but just around the corner. Stand facing Clyde Common, head to the left side of the building, round the corner, and you’ll find what looks like a small storefront named Pépé Le Moko. Duck in, and you’re greeted by a small host stand and stairs twisting their way down into the dark and unknown depths of the building. As you enter the bar area, your eyes take a while to adjust to the darkness. Once they do, you’ll notice that despite the clever curved wall and ceiling paneling, you’re still quite obviously in small basement room with dark corners and exposed pipes. But a very stylish one at that.
Grab a seat at the bar and a menu–you may be in for a bit of shock. For one thing, it features only six drinks. And even stranger, the drinks on our visit included a Long Island Iced Tea, Amaretto Sour, and the Grasshopper. And that Amaretto Sour is $14. What the heck is Jeffrey is trying to pull over on us? Turns out there’s a certain brilliance to what he’s doing. There’s a certain class of cocktails from decades ago, frequently served in bad hotel bars, which aren’t well-regarded today among the cocktail cognoscenti. Pépé Le Moko aims to rescue some of those cocktails from the trash heap of history via cocktail craft and top-shelf ingredients.
The Grasshopper at Pépé Le Moko
For the cocktail wonk audience, Pépé Le Moko succeeds despite the initial shock. I started with the amaretto sour, which Jeffrey has blogged about making the best version of, so it was a natural first choice. All of our drinks were top notch, including the Grasshopper, which Ms. Wonk mocked me quite roundly for ordering. (Says Mrs. Wonk, “It may be Jeffrey Morgenthaler, but it’s still an ice cream drink. Gentle mocking deserved.”) Mocking aside, the Grasshopper was an ice cream extravaganza – rich, minty and filling. If you’re having multiple drinks, have the Grasshopper last!
While the drinks were on the spendy side, the bar snacks are a bargain: A $3 bowl of Hawaiian peanuts was addictive and big enough that we didn’t finish it in our two hour visit. For non-cocktail aficionados, Pépé Le Moko might be a tough sell. A few folks dropped in (probably because Clyde Common was packed), ordered wine and champagne, and left quickly, missing out on the whole point of this tiny craft cocktail gem.
Teardrop Lounge While many craft cocktail bars consciously pick their décor to evoke an earlier era, Teardrop Lounge is unabashedly contemporary. Visually it’s a spectacle. Within the large teardrop-shaped bar area, three or more bartenders work their magic, often pulling bottles from a large clear shelf suspended via wires from the ceiling. On a large, high wall in the back, a movie is constantly playing. (On our visit: The last hour of “Body Heat,” with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, not to mention a young Ted Danson. And then the first half hour of “The Blue Lagoon”…? Check, please.) There are just a few booths and tables – most of the seating is arrayed 360 degrees around the bartenders in the center, and that’s fine because it’s entertaining to watch them work, with the large set of tools and bitters at their disposal.
Teardrop Lounge in Porland
Teardrop Lounge is Portland’s indisputable Big Daddy of craft cocktails. The extensive menu of 20-plus cocktails covers a wide swath of the cocktail universe. It’s divided into three sections: House Originals, Classics, and Friends, which are cocktails that originated at other bars, in Portland and worldwide. There’s a punch selection (serving multiple people) on each of the three sections. For a cocktail wonk, the abundance of choice makes selecting a drink an arduous task, so it’s best to stay a while and work your way through. For those of you familiar with the Seattle cocktail scene, the closest approximation, cocktail menu-wise, is Tavern Law, in my estimation.
Teardrop Lounge menu
Our visit to Teardrop Lounge was on a Friday night, unfortunately the only time slot we had. Being located in the Pearl District, it was overrun by the beer/wine drinking 20-something crowd and the music was pumped up a bit too much for our taste. (Says Mrs. Wonk, “I’m too old for that crap. Unless it’s my music, then crank it loud.”) On a previous Portland visit, we took our seats at the bar around 5 PM; it was much quieter, and we had the opportunity to interact with the bartenders beyond just shouting drink orders. In short, Teardrop Lounge is a place worth soaking in, so time your visit appropriately.
Expatriate’s Moon gate.
Going into our bar crawl, Expatriate was the biggest unknown. Relatively new, and without a big name startender behind it, it’s located on the east side of Portland in one of the many residential micro-neighborhoods. From the street, you might not even notice going by, but then again, that’s true of a lot of exceptional bars. Once inside, the space is a big, open rectangle space with the bar along the right-hand wall. A very large, Chinese moon gate dominates the back bar, and there’s a small kitchen tucked away in the back. The décor is sparse, but what there is tends toward that of Victorian-era novels – large heavy drapery, candlesticks covered with melting wax, and stacks of books, including the ever popular “Tropic of Cancer,” in case you’re up for a little light reading.
As for the provided cocktail menu, at eight items it’s a bit short, but every drink is original and thoughtfully selected, with a nice description of the ingredients. The drink styles are modern without veering into molecular mixology. All the spirits are named-checked. A good example was my first drink:
The No. 8
Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
George Dickel Rye
Dolin Genepy des Alpes
Cocchi di Torino Sweet Vermouth
Regan’s No. 8 Orange Bitters
Cocktail menu at Expatriate
Expatriate turned out to be the weekend’s happy find, and Mrs. Wonk’s new favorite. Highly recommended! But save us two seats at the bar, please.
Hale Pele In the two years it’s been open, Hale Pele has started to attract national attention as one of the country’s best tiki bars. Owner Blair Reynolds is also behind B.G. Reynolds syrups, previously known as Trader Tiki syrups. We missed visiting Hale Pele on a previous trip because they were closed, and circumstances were looking like we’d miss it this time as well, as we were about to wrap our weekend and head back north to Seattle. However, our plans took an abrupt turn when Iron Tikitender Jason Alexander messaged me that he was driving back down after his big win and heading to Hale Pele.
Three Dots and a Dash at Hele Pele
Walking down the street where Hale Pele’s located, you’d never guess that there’s an epic tiki bar tucked into one of the long, one story buildings. Once you’re on top of it, however, you notice a tiny pond and bridge that connect the street to the interior. Once inside, you’re assaulted by all the canonical Tiki visuals. The first impression is that of an oblong Polynesian hut, with a long bar taking up nearly all of the right side wall. Behind the bar you’ll find more than 200 different rums, so Tiki-wonks will immediately feel at home. Although there is plenty of booth seating, and a special, semi-private Chieftain’s Hut in the back, the bar is where you want to be, not least of which because many drinks are set afire. Who doesn’t want a front row seat for flames?
Tiki fire at Hele Pele!
The cocktail menu is a large, laminated, illustrated, multi-page affair with many of the obligatory Tiki classics. The drinks naturally make extensive use of the many B.G. Reynolds syrups. I worked my way through five cocktails over several hours and found them a bit sweet relative to what I make at home, but still enjoyable. There’s an extensive Captain’s List of spirits, obviously dominated by rums. When you’re done with the Tiki and ready to sip your rum straight, there’s a ton of great choices. Drink enough different rums and you can join Hale Pele’s Loyal Order of Fire Drinkers, a club requiring you have 50 of Hale Pele’s rums for admission.
Hele Pele’s impressive backbar
There are a number of good Portland cocktail bars we wished we’d had time to visit. First and foremost is Rum Club, a favorite from a prior visit. Others include Multnomah Whiskey Library and Kask. Between all the distilleries and craft cocktail bars, Portland is a cocktail wonk’s wonderland!
TikiKon 2014, a celebration of all things Tiki, was held July 11-13 at the Red Lion Hotel in Vancouver WA, across the river from Portland OR where the precursor to TikiKon started over a decade ago. A previous post of mine covered the Iron TikiTender contest, while this post cover the classes and other activities that went on at TikiKon.
Burlesque at the Kickoff party
Since many people arrived during the day on Friday, the only planned activity was a Kickoff party at Portland’s Star Theater in the evening. The headliner was Satan’s Pilgrims, a Portland surf-music band that’s been around for a number of years. Opening acts included Lushy, a Seattle band, and a PG-rated burlesque show. Deadhead rum was the party sponsor, with drink specials featuring their rum, and super-sized representations of the distinctive Deadhead rum bottle on the bar. The Star Theater is a relatively tiny theater, but there was still plenty of room to move around, chat with other people, and get close to the stage if desired.
Lushy performs at the Kickoff party.
The crowd was mostly people in their 40s and 50s, nearly all wearing Tiki shirts, dresses, vintage hats from the 50s, and so forth. While Satan’s Pilgrim’s music got my approval during an investigation of their web site, we didn’t stick around as there was a nearby bar we needed to make a pilgrimage to. More on Portland bars in a subsequent post.
Saturday was the big day. Cocktail classes, pool parties, and the Iron TikiTender contest were the main events. The cocktail classes at TikiKon are purchased separately from the TikiKon passes. There were four classes, each costing $20 and an hour long:
International Tiki Takeover
Rum Beyond Tiki
Home Tiki Bar Basics
All the classes were moderated by Blair Reynolds, owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR. Blair did a great job of jumping in to add additional context while giving the presenters plenty of time to talk. The classes were very informal – Held in the Red Lion hotel bar overlooking the Columbia River with the presenters speaking from behind the bar typically.
Blair Reynolds and Felix Fernandez at International Tiki Takeover.
Blair Reynolds and Jason Alexander at International Tiki Takeover.
Blair Reynolds, Jason Alexander, Felix Fernandez and Marie King at International Tiki Takeover.
The International Tiki Takeover was primarily the three Iron TikiTender contestants (Felix Fernandez, Marie King and Jason Alexander) talking about how they got into Tiki, while shaking and pouring pre-batched versions of their winning Tiki recipes. Each attendee received a small sample of each drink while the TikiTenders talked. The attendees interacted frequently with questions, keeping the discussion lively throughout the whole hour. Marie King brought swag (coasters, swizzle sticks, etc…) from the Tonga Hut for everybody, a nice touch.
Michael Shea and Jim Romdall at Rum Beyond Tiki.
Jim Romdall and Michael Shea at Rum Beyond Tiki
Next up was the Rum Beyond Tiki class with Jim Romdall of Rumba in Seattle, WA, and Michael Shea of Rum Club in Portland, OR. The broad topic was how rum is used in other types of drinks besides Tiki. As with the prior class, both Jim and Michael shook sample of non-Tiki drink from their respective bars while describing them. I’m a regular at Rumba so I was surprised when Jim said that Rumba’s “Sexy Old Fashioned” was their most popular drink. A lot of time was spent talking about the need to introduce and educate customers about the many types and flavors of rum beyond Bacardi Silver that represents most people’s perception of rum. Towards the end of the session the discussion migrated to other underrated spirits that warrant more promotion. I was happy that pisco was one of the spirits mentioned, as I’m planning a future post on this topic.
I missed the Home Tiki Bar basics source because A) I didn’t have a ticket, and B) have been doing Tiki in my home bar for years. Thus, I can’t provide any insight into that particular class.
Martin Cate preaches the Gospel of Rum during Regarding Rum.
Esteban Ordonez holds forth at Regarding Rum.
The final class was Regarding Rum, with Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA, and Esteban Ordonez, Brand Ambassador for Don Q rum. Martin took the lead in using history as a narrative to work their way through a number of styles. They started with Wray and Nephew Overproof, a white rum and a very interesting choice as the starting point. Next up was the Don Q Cristal, Don Q Anejo, which Esteban took the lean in describing. Following that was Clement Select Barrel, used to cover the Agricole style of rums. As each rum was discussed small samples were passed out to the attendees. The final rums discussed were Appleton 12 and a special Smuggler’s Cove exclusive bottling, Plantation Royal Blend. Martin described the Royal Blend as rum from each of the former English colonies in the Caribbean, brought to France for further aging in Cognac and Maury (French dessert wine) barrels. I was highly anticipating this last tasting and it did not disappoint – Rum perfection!
Reading through the course descriptions after the fact, there were some differences from the descriptions and how the discussions actually played out. Nonetheless, all of the topics discussed were relevant and the attendees seemed happy with what they saw.
After the classes I wandered out to the pool party. A B-52s cover band was playing and a mermaid was posing for photos with attendees. Inside, where it was much cooler, the Island Marketplace filled a medium-sized room with vendors selling an assortment of Tiki paraphernalia. I grabbed a ceramic Deadhead Rum Tiki mug for $20.
Mermaid at the Rock Lobster pool party
Deadhead Rum’s cool trailer.
The big Sunday event was the home bar tour, wherein 150 attendees were shuttled around all day in buses to various home Tiki Bars in the Portland area. I unfortunately didn’t sign up in time to get one of the 150 tickets, but will be doing so next year for sure!
One of the big events at TikiKon 2014 (held July 11-13 in Vancouver, WA at the Red Lion) was the Iron TikiTender competition. In this event, the three finalist went head to head in a series of challenge testing their skill and knowledge of Tiki bar tending. Prior to this, numerous applicants had submitted entries including an original Tiki recipe, from which only three were selected.
It was a blazingly hot, sunny evening, a relatively rare occurrence in the Pacific Northwest, when the Iron TikiTender finalist took their positions behind their mobile bar carts, and in front of the Seattle-based band, The Ukadelics. On the left was Felix Fernandez from Siro Urban Italian Kitchen in Orlando, FL. In the middle was Marie King from the Tonga Huts in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, CA. On the right was Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana in Tacoma WA.
Iron TikiTender finalists setting up
Drink all the rum!
Full disclosure – I’m friends with Jason and we talk Tiki on nearly a daily basis so I was rooting for him. Nonetheless, I was hoping for Tiki-awesomeness from all of the TikiTenders. Not only was it hot, but for much of the competition there was loud live music going on 15 feet behind them, so all the TikiTenders more than earned the Iron part of the title.
Blair Reynolds introducing Felix Fernandez, Marie King, and Jason Alexander.
To the immediate left of the stage, Blair Reynolds, owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR handled the MC duties. On the far left was the judge’s table. The three announced judges were Michael Shea, owner of Rum Club in Portland, OR, Jim Romdall, bar manager at Rumba in Seattle, WA, and Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA. They were joined by Esteban Ordonez, National Brand Ambassador and Corporate Mixologist for Don Q Rum.
Judges Jim Romdall, Michael Shea, Martin Cate, and Esteban Ordonez.
The first event was the speed round. The TikiTenders had 10 minutes to make as many Mai Tais as they could. To keep things honest, one each of the TikiTender’s Mai Tais was randomly selected and taken to the judge’s table. TikiTenders could use their own recipe within reason. Presumably some combination of the number of Mai Tais created, along with the judge’s selection of the best Mai Tai determined who won the round. Marie King created the most Mai Tais, 36 out of 68 total. However, to my recollection the judge’s selection of the best Mai Tai, and the overall round winner wasn’t announced. The completed Mai Tais were delivered to the VIP attendees which I unfortunately was not part of so I didn’t get to sample them.
Marie King speeding though the most Mai Tais.
Felix Fernandez is double pouring in the Most Mai Tai competition.
Jason Alexander (foreground) cranking through his Mai Tais.
Judging the Most Mai Tais quality.
The second event was the Most Garish Garnish. The TikiTenders had 10 minutes to come up with the most outlandish Tiki Garnish. Each contestant got an enormous ceramic turtle bowl that they filled with ice to create their garnish with. A hub-bub quickly arose as Jason pulled out a hollowed out pineapple turned into a hibachi, with smaller auxiliary pineapples mounted on the side to be filled with flaming Tiki fire. Marie King appeared shocked by this as she had started from scratch and may not have been aware that parts of the garnish could be prepared ahead of time. Jason didn’t simply deposit his Tiki hibachi in the turtle bowl and call it done, however. He used the whole 10 minutes to festoon it with flowers, bacon-wrapped pineapple and wooden straws in addition to preparing the pineapple torches. Marie’s entry used what I believe were lychee fruit, oranges and other fruit to create underwater scene, in addition to 18 inch long sparklers. Felix’s entry used a series of stacked fruit including orange bowls which he filled with ever more alarming amounts of overproof rum. When it came time to judge, the TikiTenders lit their respective pyrotechnics. Despite a relatively calm breeze, in the bright sun the flames were unfortunately not as dramatic as they might have been indoors. While there was much discussion and inspection from the judges, I’m not sure the winner of this portion was announced.
Marie King lights her Most Garish Garnish entry
Felix Fernandez’s Most Garish Garnish
Jason Alexander (L) responds to Martin Cate’s questions.
Jason Alexander lights his Most Garish Garnish.
The third event was the trivia competition, wherein the TikiTenders were tested on their knowledge of Tiki trivia. Each contestant had their own big red buzzer to hit when they knew the answer. At least that was the theory. The buttons had a mind of their own, and eventually all the TikiTenders huddled around Felix’s bar cart, so it was more or less obvious who hit the button first, regardless of whether the button registered it. Questions included: “Name three Tiki bars that have been in operation for over 50 years”, and “What country still has an established rum distillery that uses two pot stills.” Out of roughly six questions, I was happy to see that I correctly answered two. Nobody walked away with this portion, but Marie had more points than Jason or Felix.
The fourth and final event was to create an original drink using a “mystery” ingredient, unknown to the TikiTenders till the clock started. They then had 10 minutes to create a drink to be judged. The mystery ingredient was revealed to be Don Q Anejo rum – Surprise! Although the winner of this portion wasn’t announced, Mrs. Cocktail Wonk was watching the judges closely and opined that Jason’s drink seemed to receive the most favorable reaction.
The mystery ingredient – Don Q Anejo!
Felix Fernandez working with the Don Q.
Marie King working with the Don Q.
The judges were looking thirsty for the final drink!
Jason Alexander explains his drink made with the Don Q Anejo.
At one point the band stopped playing to announce that their van was being towed, so they needed to take a break. This, the buzzer issues, and the desperate hunt to track down one of the TikiTenders so that the winner could be announced were just a few of the funny incidents which made the competition memorable.
Finally the TikiTenders gathered in front of the bar carts for the winner to be announced. At this point, without knowing some of the individual round winners, my money was on Marie to take it. When they announced that Jason was the winner it took a few seconds to fully register. As the winner, Jason received $1000, the largest of a set of Tiki statues created especially for the event, and a custom Tiki idol pendant. Felix and Marie shared 2nd place, each receiving $250 and a slightly smaller statue.
Jason Alexander is announced as the Iron TikiTender winner!
Esteban Ordonez doles out the celebratory Don Q shot to Jason Alexander.
Marie King gets the Don Q treatment.
Winner Jason Alexander at the VIP after-pary.
After the event the TikiTenders, judges and the crowd milled around as the festivities continued. At one point Esteban commenced pouring Don Q rum down the throats of the TikiTenders and other judges. Somehow even I got in on that action. There was an after-party in the VIP lounge which I snuck in to briefly to snap a few photos and then Ms. Cocktail Wonk and I headed out to partake of some new Portland bars. Stay tuned for my Portland Bar trip report coming soon!