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!

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!”