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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Now Boarding TikiKon Air: Iron TikiTender 2015 Recipes from Seattle Bartenders

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.

Iron TikiTender 2014 – Felix Fernandez, Marie King, Blair Reynolds, Jason Alexander

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Lunar Tiki: The Ganymede Cocktail

Recently I visited Jason Alexander at the Tacoma Cabana – a frequent experience, to be honest. On this visit, he was super excited about a new drink he’d just created. After experimenting unsuccessfully with a number of recipes, including the classic Saturn cocktail, one experiment just clicked. I of course ordered it and had to agree, it’s damn good! Jason named it the Ganymede, a reference to the largest moon of Saturn. It’s a great name, even though the recipe now looks nothing like the original inspiration.

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The Jungle Bird Goes to War

The War Bird
The Jungle Bird is a relatively recent addition to the Tiki canon, originating at the Aviary Bar in the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in 1978. It’s solidly identifiable as Tiki, and the beginner home bartender can execute it without all sorts of “exotic” ingredients that show up in more complex Tiki drinks, such as falernum, orgeat, or pimento dram. Like many Tiki drinks, the Jungle Bird recipe has evolved over time, and I’m continuing the tradition here.

As it appears in Beachbum Berry’s Remixed, the Jungle Bird recipe goes like this:

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Lost Over Jamaica – Jet Pilot inspired Tiki

Lost Over Jamaica tiki drink
Lost Over Jamaica

Of all the classic Tiki drinks (and I can seriously wonk out over the 1944 Mai Tai), a well-executed Jet Pilot with its mix of falernum, rich cinnamon syrup, and Jamaican rum funk is Tiki Valhalla. A descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s “Test Pilot,” the name personifies the ethos of the jet-age 1950s, but also conveys the slight preemptive warning that this drink “goes to 11.”
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Talking Rum with Erik Carlson and House Spirits’ Bridgetown Rum

House Spirits of Portland, Oregon is dipping their toes into the rum pool with their new Bridgetown rum, part of their limited release, small batch series. House Spirits has made a name for themselves with their Aviation Gin, Westward malt whiskey, and other releases. To help define the character of the rum they partnered with Erik Carlson, the bar manager at Stoneburner and Bastille, and one of Seattle’s better known craft bartenders. Having studied Erik’s cocktail list at Stoneburner, I can tell he’s passionate about tropical style drinks, although certainly not limited to them. Thus he was a natural choice to work with House Spirits team, which he did over a number of sampling sessions.

Having attended the Bridgetown Rum launch party at Bastille, I was sufficiently intrigued to acquire a bottle and chat with Erik during a visit to the bar at Stoneburner. The Bridgetown name is a nod to the capital of Barbados, considered the birthplace of rum and home to Mount Gay, Foursquare, Cockspur and St. Nicholas Abbey rums. Bridgetown also alludes to the bridges between Ballard (a Seattle neighborhood) where Erik lives and Portland, about 170 miles south, where House Spirits is located.

Erik described to me the details of Bridgetown rum making process. It starts with “Barbados style” molasses, which is unsulphered, baking grade molasses and is fermented with Guadeloupe yeast strains. After double distillation in copper pot stills, 80% of the distillate is aged for six months in used House Spirits Westward whiskey barrels. The other 20% is aged for 3 months in New #2 char American Oak barrels before the two parts are brought back together. For the flavor profile, Erik targeted a mixing rum that merged his three favorite styles:

  • Agricole – Straw, grass and sugar cane
  • Jamaican – Funk, molasses, baking spices
  • Barbados – Ripe fruit, vanilla, butterscotch

In its substantial, individually numbered bottle, the Bridgetown’s color is a light-to-medium gold. Although intended as a mixing rum I first nosed and sipped it neat. There’s an initial enticing hint of Smith & Cross style Jamaican funk. This quickly turns to a bit of moderate burn and tails off to a woody finish. Yes, the Bridgetown is not a sipper. Instead, its flavor profile is more attuned to cocktails where the blend of rum styles is an asset. To me, the agricole and Jamaican notes are equally present, with the Barbados a bit less evident.

The obvious choice for testing out a rum like this is the Daiquiri. However, to mix it up a bit I went with a variation of the Daiquiri’s slightly more sophisticated cousin, the Royal Bermuda Yacht club:

Royal Bridgetown Yacht Club

  • 2 oz House Spirits Bridgetown Rum
  • ½ oz lime juice
  • ¼ oz Dry Curacao
  • ¼ oz Falernum
  • ¼ oz simple syrup

Shake with ice, strain into a chilled coupe.

In cocktails the Bridgetown holds its own but plays well with others like a good mixing rum should.  It’s nice to see that the Bridgetown rum is further expanding flavor dimensions of rums from craft distilleries along the West Coast of the US.

Power Tools for the Home Bar Wonk

I’ve realized recently that within the mixology world there are two tribes: The professionals who work at a bar and passionate amateurs, the “home bartenders”. Most experience with spirits and technique are shared by both tribes. I’m firmly on the home bartender side but I can converse with expert bartenders about many topics. When it comes to creating drinks at scale however, thinks are very different. A professional bartender needs to quickly make many drinks quickly, so the bar is set up for that. Ice is an arm’s length away, ingredients such as fresh lime juice are prepped beforehand and in easy-pour bottles, and dedicated rinsing devices speed up the turnaround time on each cocktail.

When I watch my professional friends behind the bar I wish I had those sort of conveniences. However, without dedicating a fairly large amount of space and money, I know it’s not feasible in my home bar. The space I have is roughly six feet by five feet, but I’ve packed in a few essential “power tools” which raise my cocktail making ability several notches above the guy with an ice cube tray, a lime and a couple of tumblers.

Here are my essential power tools:

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Lost Spirits Distillery’s new Polynesian Inspired Rum, and a Polynesian Paralysis variation

Lost Spirits Polynesian Inspired Rum
Polynesian Paralysis, Jason Alexander variation

Having recently gotten my hands on the Polynesian Inspired rum from Lost Spirits Distillery, I’ve been test driving it and comparing it to their first rum, Navy Style. I’ve written about Lost Spirits quite a bit already, and have chatted with Bryan quite a bit about his process, including him giving me a custom presentation of his talk from the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance. With the context of my previous post (highly suggested background reading) I can better describe the differences between the two rums. I’ll end with a few other interesting anecdotes about Lost Spirits Distillery that Bryan shared.

Polynesian Inspired Rum

Coming in at 132 proof, the Polynesian Inspired rum is a take-no-prisoners powerhouse of a rum. Starting with the label, there are obvious stylistic similarities between the Polynesian and the Navy rums. The Polynesian label is essentially the Navy label’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ships and skulls replaced with Maori and Easter Island elements, and a color change. The fonts and other decorative details remain essentially the same.

The rum’s hue is a solid medium-to-dark gold, but compared to its Navy Style stable mate is noticeably lighter in color. On the nose both rums start with a similar strong, pleasing molasses element but eventually go in different directions, the Polynesian finishing a bit lighter and fruitier. This isn’t an accident. When deciding what the Polynesian should be, Bryan accented the pineapple aspect since it’s an essential Polynesian flavor.

In my prior post about Lost Spirits, I covered the seven ways that flavor can be controlled via science. The sixth step I mentioned is barrel aging, which is where the simpler fruit and spicy smelling esters get merged into the longer chained honey esters. In that post, I described how the ester Ethyl Butyrate has a strong pineapple smell. Given that you want a rum with a strong pineapple element it’s reasonable that you’d want to minimize the transformation of this ester into other esters. Bryan accomplishes this by using a different barrel preparation that minimizes the amount of phenols that convert the short chain esters (fruity) into long chain esters (honey). In addition, the amount of rancio, the nutty smell described in step 7 of my earlier post is dialed down considerably. Up to the barrel aging step though, the Navy Style and Polynesian Inspired rums are essentially the same.

On the palate, assuming you’re up to sipping 132 proof rum, the Polynesian is much like you’d expect given the nose – A strong molasses flavor that turns to pineapple and butterscotch. Bryan says with a few drops of water it turns into a “pineapple bomb” and I can attest to that.

A few days after my bottle arrived, Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana and I sat together and tasted the Polynesian together. Jason, with his encyclopedic Tiki knowledge immediately thought it would work well in a Polynesian Paralysis variation. A few days later he sent me his recipe:

Polynesian Paralysis – Jason Alexander Variation
• 3/4oz pineapple
• 3/4oz lemon
• 3/4oz Lilikoi juice (sub passion fruit syrup)
• 1/2oz orgeat
• 1/2oz falernum
• 1/2oz Okolehao (A Hawaiian spirit, sub bourbon if not available.)
• 2oz Lost Spirits Polynesian Rum

Flash blend with about a cup of ice

Lost Spirits – Diving Deeper

Beyond just getting a custom presentation of the Bryan’s Rum Renaissance presentation, I interjected a number of questions that veered off into other interesting topics. First and foremost, I was surprised to learn that Lost Spirits has a number of patents filed on his processes, and that Bryan licenses technology and consults for major distillers. In a sense Lost Spirits Distillery is his laboratory where he gets to do all sorts of fun experiments without needing the distillery to make a certain amount of money to stay afloat.

Lost Spirits first came out with a series of whiskeys including three different Leviathan releases and an Umami release. The distillery continues to age more whiskey stock and they have plenty of back orders, so naturally the question is “Why make a rum?” The initial reason Bryan and Joanne Haruta, his business partner started making rum was to season their whiskey barrels. Over time they found themselves enjoying the rum quite a bit and they decided to sell it. These days they find themselves focusing more and more on the rum side of things. Bryan says one reason for focusing on rum is that high end whiskey buyers typically buy just a bottle or two and add it to their 600 bottle collection whereas serious rum lovers will buy and consume multiple bottles over time.

As we now know, Cuban is the next rum style coming from Lost Spirits. However Bryan also mentioned an interest in doing a “Jamaican ester bomb” which I immediately endorsed with all available enthusiasm. But don’t expect a clone of Jamaican dunder rum, as one of the central elements of Jamaican dunder is clostridium saccharobutyricum which grows optimally in the soil surrounding the dunder pit. Bryan grows his “dunder” in five gallon plastic buckets that are controlled with lab grown bacterias, and thus he has the freedom to control the bacteria, tailoring it to the flavor profile he wants. In Jamaica, dunder pits aren’t such a big deal at the distilleries. In Monterey County, CA a bacteria pit is out of the question as it might create some serious problems with the health inspector.

When deciding what style of rum to make, here’s the Lost Spirits process:
• Design a really cool label
• Based on the label, envision what the rum tastes like
• Do the science to produce a rum with that flavor profile.

In my post on Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, I said “You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.” Thus, it delighted me then when Bryan recounted that they watched Pirates of the Caribbean approximately 40 times when deciding what the Navy Style should taste like.

For the Polynesian, Bryan set out to make a rum that’s perfect for all sorts of Tiki drinks. Another reason for doing the Polynesian rum is to show that the notion of molasses “terroir” isn’t nearly as important as some believe. Starting with the same ingredients and by tweaking just a few processes, Lost Spirits Distillery has created two largely different rums, and a third rum, the soon to be available Cuban style, should further prove this point.

Bartender! There’s Chile in my Tiki Drink (The Aztec Warrior)

The Aztec Warrior at Rob Roy, Seattle

Recently I had the good fortune to be at Rob Roy in Seattle on a night that Brady Sprouse was tending bar. I’ve enjoyed Brady’s previous work at Smith and have wonked out on a few occasions with him about craft cocktail ingredients and such. After the abnormally busy Thursday night crowd died down I asked Brady to make me something off-menu and of his choosing. What he delivered to me was a mezcal-based Old Fashioned variation that included Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur.

Ancho Reyes is a relatively new spirit from Mexico, flavored primarily by the ancho chile. Up till this point I’d never tried it so Brady offered me a small sample of it, neat. I anticipated that it was going to be fairly spicy but I was pleasantly surprised when it had a mild to medium heat and enough sweet and other spice elements to make it easily sippable.

As I nursed my drink, the thought “Hey, this might be interesting in Tiki!” popped into my head. I mentioned this off-handedly to Brady and he immediately replied “I’ve got an interesting idea along those lines if you’re willing to try it.” Never one to forego mixological experimentation I said “Sure!”

Brady went to work with his magical bottles, and other then a quick dash of Smith and Cross at the end, I saw no rum appear. What he eventually set in front of me had the full on Tiki mug treatment, so that was encouraging. I naturally asked about the ingredients and was most surprised that he used the Ancho Reyes as a base spirit. Turning back to the Ancho bottle in front of me, I saw it was indeed 80 proof, and subsequent research shows that the primary ingredient is “neutral cane spirits”, which I’m going to call close enough to rum for this discussion.

Finally taking a sip, a smile crossed my face. The chile spice is definitely present but doesn’t dominate and it’s unquestionably a tiki-style drink. Brady was nice enough to jot down the recipe, which he quickly dubbed the “Aztec Warrior.” If you’re a tiki-wonk you’ll notice a certainly similarity to the Jet Pilot, one of the house specialties at Casa CocktailWonk. The primary difference between the Aztec Warrior and the Jet Pilot are that the rums are swapped out for Ancho Reyes and Batavia Arrack.

Aztec Warrior (Brady Sprouse)

  • 1.5 oz Ancho Reyes Chile Licor
  • .5 oz Batavia Arrack
  • .5 oz rich cinnamon syrup
  • .5 oz Falernum (Use alcohol-based, house made, rather than Velvet Falernum)
  • .75 oz grapefruit
  • .75 oz lime juice
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • .25 oz Smith and Cross (for the float)

Combine everything except the Smith & Cross. Shake, pour over crushed ice. Float the Smith & Cross, then garnish with a dash of Angostura Bitters and whatever Tiki-like garnish you like.

Expanding the Tiki Lexicon – Coffee flavor in Falernum?

Coffee-Falernum brew in progress!

One day as Jason Alexander and I were doing our usual Facebook chatting about all topics rum and Tiki, we were both lamenting that with 70 years of history and a well-established set of ingredients, it can be difficult to really innovate in the Tiki space. Sure it’s fun to make classics and tweak things with latest rums, spices and syrups, but sometimes you just want a new flavor “toy”.

Falernum is a canonical Tiki ingredient and it’s a grab bag of flavors – Clove, lime, ginger, and almond are the basics, plus lord knows what else people add to their homemade concoctions. Yes, falernum seems like a ripe place to introduce a new flavor element. I’ve long thought that the flavor of coffee fits well within the flavor profiles of other Tiki ingredients – strong and spicy. Think allspice dram, cinnamon syrup, vanilla, and so forth. While coffee flavors occasionally show up in Tiki recipes, those recipes are relatively rare in the canon of Tiki recipes.

Although it might seem odd at first, adding coffee flavor to the falernum stew makes sense. All the traditional falernum ingredients, as well as coffee are found in the Caribbean; Jamaica is famous for its Blue Mountain coffee beans. And while coffee is a strong flavor that might ordinarily dominate some infusions, clove, ginger and lime are no slackers in the strong flavor category either. With that in mind, Jason and I decided to try making a falernum with coffee and immediately realized we had different ideas about to achieve it.

In the context of Tiki and syrups, coffee is unusual in that its flavor essence is easily extracted by water, and we have a long history of doing so. This was the approach Jason thought of – Make a strong espresso and mix it with sugar to make a strong coffee syrup that’s then added to the infused rum component in place of the normal 2:1 simple syrup. My thought was to treat the coffee like the clove, ginger and lime peels – grind it and add it to the rum base to let the alcohol do the flavor extraction.

As I write this, Jason has his Coffee-Falernum ready and has been using it at the Tacoma Cabana. My rum infusion is still brewing, and tomorrow I’ll finish it off before taking it down to Tacoma where Jason and I will compare/contrast the flavor. If either or both of them pass muster, I’ll update this post with the results and recipes.

Update – 6/8/14

Jason and I tasted the falernums down at Tacoma Cabana last night. We both agreed that Jason’s turned out a little bitter, but this wasn’t due to the coffee itself. We both attributed it to the lime peel, with backing evidence from Jason’s normal falernum. When he made his coffee falernum, he simply set aside a small amount of the rum brew to mix with the espresso syrup. Jason’s going to continue experimenting with his method however.

I was pretty happy with my falernum, although the coffee element was stronger than I’d hoped for. About 2 seconds after adding the coffee to the rum brew I wished I’d added less ground coffee. Nonetheless, the final result showed promise. You get the coffee taste up front for a few seconds but it then rapidly segues to the traditional falernum flavors (lime, ginger, clove). In my recipe below I’ve reduced the amount of ground coffee to bring down the initial coffee flavor dominance.

Coffee-falernum

  • 40 whole cloves
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/4 cup fresh ground coffee
  • 8 oz Wray & Nephew White Overproof rum
  • Zest of 5 small limes (reduce if bigger limes)
  • 3/4 oz sliced raw ginger
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup water

Crush the cloves, then toast the cloves and almonds on a cookie sheet or aluminum foil in an oven at 325 degrees for ~5 minutes.

Let cloves/almonds cool before adding them and the ground coffee to the rum in a sealable jar to form a brew. Let sit for 24 hours.

Add the lime and ginger to the brew. Let sit for another 24 hours.

Prepare the 2:1 simple syrup with the sugar and water.

Strain the rum brew through cheesecloth or other fine filter into the simple syrup. Stir well.

After the taste testing, Jason made two Castaways, one with his falernum, the other with mine. The one using mine was quite tasty – I’ll be making that one at home.

Castaway (Coffee Falernum Version)

  • 3oz Pineapple juice
  • .75oz Coffee-falernum
  • 1.5oz Plantation 5 (or other gold Barbados rum)

Shake over ice, pour into tall glass