|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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!