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

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:

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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.