Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home

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:

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Checking out Amaro di Angostura with a New Cocktail Recipe – The Gaspar Grande

Even non-cocktailians are aware of Angostura bitters, the ubiquitous bottle in bars everywhere with the oversized white label, which bartenders use like salt and pepper in all sorts of drinks. Recently, the Trinidad-based company took a bold step and released a new spirit — Amaro di Angostura. Unlike the brand’s well known orange and namesake Angostura bitters, the Amaro Di Angostura isn’t intended to be used just few dashes at a time. I was intrigued enough to contact Angostura USA’s PR firm and they graciously sent me a bottle to review.

First, consider the name. Per Wikipedia, an amaro is “an Italian herbal liqueur that is commonly drunk as an after-dinner digestif. It usually has a bitter-sweet flavor…” Using amaro in the name is an interesting choice – technically it’s correct usage, but may be confusing to people who don’t realize that amaro is a category of liqueurs, rather than a specific brand.

To truly understand Amaro Di Angostura, it’s first necessary to really grasp the flavor of Angostura bitters. Angostura bitters are typically used in small quantities as part of a cocktail, so many people would be hard pressed to describe the flavor in isolation. Taken straight, the Angostura bitters flavor is very strong and quite bitter (no surprise given the name), with gentian root, cinnamon, clove, and citrus flavors. The exact ingredients are a closely guarded recipe – supposedly only five people know the Angostura secret.

Here’s a fun fact I spring on people: Angostura Bitters are 90 proof, equal to that of your typical rum, gin, or whiskey, so it’s entirely possible to use it as a full-fledged spirit in a cocktail, rather than as an accent. Two house favorites that do exactly that are the TrinidadSour and the Port of Spain, each utilizing up to a 1/2 ounce or more of bitters. (Budget tip: Buy your Angostura bitters in the 16 oz. size. I have several such bottles in reserve at any given moment.) The deep red color of Angostura bitters also adds a wow factor to drinks that feature it in large quantities.

The marketing story of the Amaro Di Angostura unfolds like this: “… [We] combined Angostura® aromatic bitters with neutral spirit and added more spices until a magnificent herbal liqueur was created. The spirit, spices, and bitter herbs were mixed and then left to marry for 3 months.”  In short, Amaro Di Angostura is a combination of Angostura bitters, neutral spirits and more spices. Given that the House of Angostura also makes rum, the neutral sprit is likely rum distilled to a very high proof.

When I read this, my wonky senses lit up with questions: While Angostura Bitters are 90 proof, the Amaro di Angostura is 70 proof, so 10 percent less ABV by volume than the bitters. Yet if the description is to be believed, neutral spirits (at close to 190 proof) were added to the mix, presumably to aid in the extraction of flavors from the additional spices. To bring the proof down to 70, water must have been added–something not mentioned. What’s more, Amaro Di Angostura is sweeter than straight Angostura bitters, so some sort of sweetener, e.g. sugar, was likely added. This isn’t to say that Amaro Di Angostura isn’t a pleasure to drink – just that the marketing material likely omits a few things.

As an experiment, I took a half ounce of Angostura bitters and diluted it with enough 1:1 simple syrup to bring it down to 70 proof, equivalent to Amaro Di Angostura. Side-by-side, the sweetness was roughly equivalent, but I found the Amaro Di Angostura to be less harsh. I also enlisted Mrs. Wonk in a blind tasting, and she much preferred the Amaro Di Angostura. The marketing description mentions cinnamon, toasted caramel, liquorice, and chocolate notes. I get the cinnamon and to a much lesser extent the chocolate; Mrs. Wonk noticed the toasted caramel and cinnamon too.

The Amaro Di Angostura is eminently sippable straight. However, with its palate of intense flavors, it begs for use in cocktails. Since Angostura bitters, cinnamon, and sugar are frequently found in Tiki drinks, it was a no-brainer to go that route. And since Angostura makes rum, the choice there was obvious as well. I named the drink after a small island off the coast of Trinidad rumored to have a storied pirate past, including buried treasure.

Gaspar Grande
  • 2 oz. Angostura 1919 rum
  • 1 oz. Amaro Di Angostura
  • 0.5 oz. lime juice
  • 0.5 oz. honey syrup (honey and water, 1:1)

Shake with ice, serve in double old-fashioned glass or tiki mug over crushed ice.

The packaging for Amaro Di Angostura is attractive and reasonably classy without going overboard. The slightly ribbed bottle has a hint of elegance, and the bright yellow cap remains true to the yellow cap tradition of the Angostura Bitters bottle. The Amaro Di Angostura retail for around US $25 for a 750 ml bottle. While it’s quite a bit different than your traditional Italian amaro, if you’re a fan of the classic Angostura bitters taste I’d recommend having a bottle on hand.

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!

Cocktail Componentry – How a drink is built

 

Trinidad Sour

In cooking, we all know that different ingredients play different roles. You’ve got your proteins, starches, vegetables, spices, flavor enhancers like salt, and so forth. In the cocktail world there are similar categorizations. Let’s look at some very broad categorizations of common cocktail ingredients.

Base Spirits – These form the backbone of your drink and usually contribute the majority of the alcoholic content, as they’re usually at least 80 proof (40% alcohol.) Typically these are one (or occasionally two) of the following:

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