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:

Continue reading “Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home”

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

Continue reading “Now Boarding TikiKon Air: Iron TikiTender 2015 Recipes from Seattle Bartenders”

Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery

This past week, Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery visited my hometown of Seattle. I eagerly anticipated their trip as the Seattle area has several top notch rum-centric bars, including Rumba and Tacoma Cabana, as well as the Pantheon of the American Whiskey, Canon. Over several evenings we visited all of them, and much rum and whiskey scuttlebutt ensued. Fun side story: At Canon, Bryan and Joanne were shocked to find four different Lost Spirits whiskeys, several that they no longer have themselves.

Continue reading “Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery”

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.

Continue reading “Lunar Tiki: The Ganymede Cocktail”

Going Full Metal Tiki in the San Francisco Bay Area

California has a disproportionately large number of great Tiki bars, which isn’t terribly surprising since Tiki originated in Southern California and the Bay Area during the latter half of the 1930s. Portland has one Tiki Bar of note (Hale Pele) and the Seattle area has Tacoma Cabana, but beyond those, Tiki is relegated to the occasional “theme night” in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no surprise then that I’ll always jump at a California trip excuse to get my fill of Tiki. During our recent visit to San Francisco for VMworld, Mrs. Wonk and I visited ten bars, four of which were Tiki. The other six bars are covered in the prior post while this post has my thoughts on the two new (to us) Tiki bars we visited, plus two returning favorites.
A disclaimer about the photos here: Tiki bars are nearly always dark. A well-lit Tiki bar would just seem…off. Thus, dark rooms, small cameras, and no flash are a recipe for dark, grainy photos.

Smuggler’s Cove – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9/10

Smuggler’s Cove decor
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Smuggler’s Cove as it’s rightly on every published “Best Tiki Bar” list and is famous for having the largest rum collection of any bar in the world. Owner Martin Cate, along with Jeff Berry, has become one of the go-to experts for Tiki-related quotes. Rather than rehashing what’s been well-documented elsewhere, I will focus on the Smuggler’s Cove experience, being a seasoned veteran with two trips under my belt.
Wait, this is a Tiki bar?

I guarantee you that nearly everybody arriving at Smuggler’s Cove for the first time has a “WTF?” moment. Set on an otherwise normal, low-rise commercial street, the view from the exterior is of a typical modern looking storefront like you’d find in an office park – and the dark, aluminum framed windows give no hint what’s behind them. No tiki torches. No Polynesian-looking sign suggesting what might be inside. Honestly, it could be any non-descript business. (Mrs. Wonk’s comment upon arriving for our first visit, “Are they going to sell me insurance in here?”) The only indication you’ve found the right place is small two-inch lettering on the glass door reading “Smuggler’s Cove.”

While the exterior may not provide many clues, the crowd of people waiting outside might give you a hint that something’s going on behind the dark facade. Smuggler’s Cove is not a large space, yet it is world-renowned, so it’s not uncommon for people to queue up outside to wait for seats inside. Here’s an important tip: If you’re a “must sit at the bar” person like I am, arrive prior to the 5 PM opening and be prepared to queue. Yes, even on a Tuesday. On our first visit, we naively arrived at 5:10 PM and there were no seats to be had. On this trip we arrived at 4:45 PM, so were first in a line of about fifteen when the door opened.

Smuggler’s Cove decor
Smuggler’s Cove is just a bit more awesome because it’s split over three levels.  Step inside and it’s very, very dark. In front of you to the right is a small bar with about eight seats, and other than drink rail with seating along the left-hand wall, no other seating on this level. Toward the back, a set of stairs leads to an upper level with seating that overlooks the main floor. To the immediate right of the entry—watch your step as you come inside–is a curving set of metal stairs leading down past a three-story waterfall to the lower level, with more seating, the pool of the waterfall, and a secondary bar in the far back. The décor and theme of all three levels is over-the-top nautical Tiki – thick jute ropes, glass buoy lamps of various colors, rum barrels, and a giant suspended anchor: imagine the Pirates of the Caribbean set squished into your neighborhood watering hole. Also coo: I met the guy (“Notch”) who designed the space a few days later at a private party high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Stephen Liles at the main floor bar helm, Smuggler’s Cove.
Since we were first in the door, and with the benefit of knowing the lay of the land, we grabbed prime seats at the main level bar; with only eight seats, any of them are prime territory.  Behind the bar was Stephen Liles, man of many hats. Stephen is a veteran at the Cove and a model of efficiency. Very little motion is wasted as he churns through the never-ending list of drink orders. Because he was so busy there wasn’t a good opportunity to chat with him for more than a few sentences. Every drink he crafted for us on both visits was top-notch.
First round at Smuggler’s Cove, including the Rum Barrel, now in my collection.
The menu at Smuggler’s Cove is a masterpiece, nicely bound and segregated into thoughtful categories, with each drink receiving a well-written description. Seriously, if you own a Tiki bar, this is the way to get your drinks the credit they deserve. The drinks are a mix of the expected as well as forgotten Tiki classics, along with house originals. A few drinks come in special Smuggler’s Cove branded Tiki mugs, which you can purchase with the drink for a few dollars more. There are dozens of different mug releases in existence, so I’m glad I’ve grabbed a different mug on each visit.  (Mrs. Wonk feels a new collection coming on.)
Plantation Royal Blend, exclusively at Smuggler’s Cove

If you’re in to sipping rums, be sure to ask for the rum list, which is a separate menu. It numbers in the hundreds, some you will not find anywhere else. One in particular is a special Plantation Rum bottling exclusive to Smuggler’s Cove called the “Royal Blend”–containing four rums and aged in three different types of barrels, the last two being Cognac and Maury (a sweet French wine). I limited myself to just two cocktails because I knew I was having the Royal Blend. Mrs. Wonk will attest that I was rendered nearly speechless for several minutes, it was that phenomenal. (Mrs. Wonk says this is good information, in case she needs to render me speechless at some future time of her choosing.)

Besides arriving early if you want a good spot, the other advice I’ll give is to eat up before you get there. They don’t serve any food, and with all the rum you’ll happily consume, you’ll rapidly go off the deep end unless you’ve laid down a healthy base of food first.  (Mrs. Wonk would have paid a considerable amount for some sad bar nuts or goldfish crackers.)

To sum it up, Smuggler’s Cove does Tiki drinks exceedingly well. Yes, it’s become a bit of a tourist destination with all that entails: sometimes long waits for cocktails, crowded spaces, clueless people ordering wine (really???) but it hasn’t jumped the shark yet, and it likely won’t. If you have the chance, don’t question —  just go.

Longitude – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
Longitude
Longitude, across the water in Oakland, is new in the Bay Area Tiki scene. However, it comes with impeccable credentials in the form of owner Suzanne Long, previously the general manager and head bartender at Forbidden Island (reviewed below). My Longitude notes here don’t have quite the same level of details as other bars, as our visit didn’t follow my normal bar visit pattern where Mrs. Wonk and I sit at the bar and soak in the experience. This was because we were fortunate to be accompanied by Josh Miller from the Inu a Kena blog. With all the great conversation, I didn’t have as much time for mental note taking.
The bar at Longitude
Longitude is newly constructed and looks more upscale and put together than your typical Tiki restaurant, combining Caribbean and African influences rather than Polynesian grass shacks and leis. Mrs. Wonk is a respected interior designer and doesn’t quite “get” the African / Caribbean mash-up (however well-executed), but Josh and I think it works.  The bar counter is a gorgeous slab of wood, the stools are casually elegant, and faux plants are abundant but tastefully done. The bar area itself is unusually bright for a Tiki bar. But at our table about ten feet from the bar, it was dark enough to require cell-phone light to read the menu. Next to us was a semi-private “hut” for large parties.
Cocktail at Longitude
The cocktail menu comprises about fifteen drinks, each with a nice description. I opted for the Queens Barrel (“three rums, sparkling citrus, and passion fruit”) which both Josh and our waitress warned me was the booziest of the drinks. It was well made and on par with the drinks at Smuggler’s Cove. With a few exceptions, the drinks are house originals, some venturing into some non-Tiki areas, such as the gin-based Farmer’s Martini. Fifteen drinks is great for a normal restaurant menu, but high-end Tiki restaurants typically feature quite a few more. Longitude takes a lot of cues from Tiki but doesn’t slavishly follow the idioms.
Longitude’s Pu Pu platter
Bonus points for Longitude for their food menu, which covers both the usually Tiki dishes (Mrs. Wonk highly recommends the well-executed Pu Pu platter, which at some restaurants can sometimes be a sugary mess but instead was tasty and well-balanced, flavor-wise.) as well as British-influenced dishes like bangers and mash, mac and cheese, and shepherd’s pie (tying into that African-explorer theme).
“Hut” at Longitude

Out visit to Longitude was during its first few weeks of operations, so they may not have pulled out all the stops yet. We had a very enjoyable time, and I’ll definitely visit again to see how they evolve.

Tonga Room – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7/10

Ship deck dance floor at Tonga Room, SF.

If you’re a fan of over-the-top, vintage Tiki environs, the Tonga Room is an essential pilgrimage. If you’re looking for dozens of different, expertly Tiki cocktails (a la Smuggler’s Cove), you’ll come away mildly disappointed. I’m clearly in the first category, so a Tonga Room visit is an essential part of a San Francisco visit.

More than any other Tiki Bar I’ve been to, the Tonga Room is about the visual experience. You really do feel as though you’re stepping back in time to 1945, which is when it first opened here in San Francisco. What does a visit to the Tonga Room entail? First, you set course for the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, perched at the top of Nob Hill with amazing views in every direction. (Walk if you haven’t been to the gym in a week, take an Uber if you’re committed to wearing those stilettos.)The Fairmont is an enormous, elegant historic hotel dating back to 1907. Walking through the lobby, which hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, you’ll think, “There’s a Tiki bar in here somewhere?” Find the elevator that takes you down a few floors, wander down a long hallway though the bowels of the hotel until you spy volcanic rock and a small lobby with an entrance leading into the Tonga Room. Step through the door, and…wow!

Bandstand in Tonga Room’s lagoon
In front of you is full blown wooden ship rigging. Beyond that is a pool (think: regulation size hotel swimming pool), surrounded on three side by dining tables under open thatched roofed “huts.” Along the pool rim are festive strings of lights and lanterns.  In the middle of the pool is a thatched roof bandstand made up to look like a Polynesian river boat. Take it all in – this may be the closest you’ll ever come to Tiki’s glory days in the 1940s and 1950s. The space you’re in used to be the Fairmont’s swimming pool area, but in 1945 was converted into the Tonga Room. With its long history and serious Tiki cred, the Tonga Room was designated a historical resource after an ill-conceived effort to get rid of the space a few years back.
Bar at Tonga Room, SF
The bar area is to your right, with seating for about twelve at the bar, with hi-top seating close behind. Take a seat at the bar (obviously) and grab an  old-school Tiki “picture menu”—in case you have no idea what a Scorpion Bowl looks like. The drinks include a few vintage classics (Mai Tai, Zombie, Singapore Sling), other drinks often lumped into the Tiki category (Pina Colada, Margarita), and a few house originals. I’ll be honest, I was concerned at first that the drinks would be a travesty, akin to the pineapple and OJ “Mai Tai” found at every hotel bar in Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Tonga Room sticks to the original recipes for the most part. Extra credit for the Small Hand Foods orgeat behind the bar, rather than some petrochemical based “orgeat.”
Mai Tai at the Tonga Room, SF

While the drinks aren’t up to Smuggler’s Cove / Latitude quality level, with careful ordering you can get decent-enough Tiki drinks to pass the time while you marvel at the lava-stone walls and wait out the rainstorm. Yes…rainstorm. Indoor. Rainstorm. Over the pool at 30 minute intervals. How awesome is that? If you’re with a friend or three, order a bowl (sized for two or four) and sip it through the ridiculously long straws provided. Currently there are three bowls on offer: Scorpion, Smuggler’s Cove, and Lava. On our prior Tonga Room visit, we were served by the very nice bar manager, a fellow Tiki wonk, who generously gave me our bowl for my collection. As you’d hope for a restaurant within a hotel, the Tonga Room has a slightly above average Tiki/Asian fare menu, including a Pu Pu platter, pork ribs, won tons, and spicy chicken wings.

Immerse yourself in the Tonga Room vibe, and you’ll be reluctant to leave. There’s always a detail you hadn’t noticed before. Have moderate expectations about the cocktails, soak in the Tiki history, and you’ll find yourself planning a return trip.

Forbidden Island – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
 

First, let’s start with a bit of backstory connecting Forbidden Island to other bars in this post. Back in 2006, Martin Cate along with some partners opened Forbidden Island in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. He left in 2009 to start Smuggler’s Cove, and Suzanne Long, now of Longitude, assumed head mixologist duties at Forbidden Island. As such, Forbidden Island played a role in the eventual formation of both Smuggler’s Cove and Longitude.

Forbidden Island was our last Tiki stop, shortly before heading to the airport to return home. Although Sunday at 3 PM isn’t normally the time I’d pick for a bar visit, it was the only time we had free, and hey, Forbidden Island is open! I’d convinced myself this would work out well because bars are generally empty on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, right? We strode in and… what the hell? It was packed! Turns out that Forbidden Island hosts a lot of special events, and we’d arrived just as the Tiki Car Hop was getting underway. Realizing this wasn’t going to be an optimal visit, we stuck around and did our best to extrapolate what it would be like at a less busy time (i.e., ordering and drinking while standing).

Forbidden Island bar
The interior is dominated by a long, straight bar that can easily accommodate four bartenders behind it. The back bar is a treasure trove of rums, somewhat similar in vibe to Hale Pele in Portland. Over the bar area is a low, thatched “roof,” the underside festooned with hundreds of attached dollar bills. Along the opposite wall is a row of enclosed booths, and overhead hang colorful, nautical glass buoys, rope netting, and palm fronds, giving a pleasant ramshackle vibe.
Cocktails at Forbidden Island
The cocktail menu was an abbreviated event menu (for the car hop), with around fifteen drinks listed. A friendly regular at the bar noticed our puzzled looks and explained that the normal menu has three times the number of drinks, which I was able to verify online. The full menu is broken down into “traditional Tiki,” “house specials,” “famous tiki bar tributes,” “cocktail classics,” and “pools of paradise” (i.e. punch bowls). In a whimsical twist, most of the drinks have a skull and crossbones symbol indicating their relative strength. Both the drinks we ordered met my high expectations, and if we had more time, I wouldn’t hesitate to explore more of their creations. There’s also a small food menu although we didn’t partake—it’s hard to Pu Pu while standing up.
Drink all the rum at Forbidden Island
Patio behind Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island has a patio and a small parking lot out back, which was the showplace for the Tiki Car Hop, which featured quite a few well-restored vintage cars, which we took our time wandering through. The sunny Sunday patio was perfect for day drinking outside—and a haircut, should you need it (the car hop offered services in a full-on old-style barber’s chair). Just another day in Tiki-ville! Although I didn’t have the optimal Forbidden Island experience I’d hoped for, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back next time we’re in the Bay Area.

Stay tuned for my final post from this trip which covers my visit to St. George Spirits Distillery.

2014 Iron TikiTender competition!

Jason Alexander’s Most Garish Garnish

One of the big events at TikiKon 2014 (held July 11-13 in Vancouver, WA at the Red Lion) was the Iron TikiTender competition. In this event, the three finalist went head to head in a series of challenge testing their skill and knowledge of Tiki bar tending. Prior to this, numerous applicants had submitted entries including an original Tiki recipe, from which only three were selected.

It was a blazingly hot, sunny evening, a relatively rare occurrence in the Pacific Northwest, when the Iron TikiTender finalist took their positions behind their mobile bar carts, and in front of the Seattle-based band, The Ukadelics. On the left was Felix Fernandez from Siro Urban Italian Kitchen in Orlando, FL. In the middle was Marie King from the Tonga Huts in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, CA. On the right was Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana in Tacoma WA.

Iron TikiTender finalists setting up
Drink all the rum!

Full disclosure –  I’m friends with Jason and we talk Tiki on nearly a daily basis so I was rooting for him. Nonetheless, I was hoping for Tiki-awesomeness from all of the TikiTenders. Not only was it hot, but for much of the competition there was loud live music going on 15 feet behind them, so all the TikiTenders more than earned the Iron part of the title.

Blair Reynolds introducing Felix Fernandez, Marie King, and Jason Alexander.

To the immediate left of the stage, Blair Reynolds, owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR handled the MC duties. On the far left was the judge’s table. The three announced judges were Michael Shea, owner of Rum Club in Portland, OR, Jim Romdall, bar manager at Rumba in Seattle, WA, and Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA. They were joined by Esteban Ordonez, National Brand Ambassador and Corporate Mixologist for Don Q Rum.

Judges Jim Romdall, Michael Shea, Martin Cate, and Esteban Ordonez.

The first event was the speed round. The TikiTenders had 10 minutes to make as many Mai Tais as they could. To keep things honest, one each of the TikiTender’s Mai Tais was randomly selected and taken to the judge’s table. TikiTenders could use their own recipe within reason. Presumably some combination of the number of Mai Tais created, along with the judge’s selection of the best Mai Tai determined who won the round. Marie King created the most Mai Tais, 36 out of 68 total. However, to my recollection the judge’s selection of the best Mai Tai, and the overall round winner wasn’t announced. The completed Mai Tais were delivered to the VIP attendees which I unfortunately was not part of so I didn’t get to sample them.

Marie King speeding though the most Mai Tais.

Felix Fernandez is double pouring in the Most Mai Tai competition.

Jason Alexander (foreground) cranking through his Mai Tais.

Judging the Most Mai Tais quality.

The second event was the Most Garish Garnish. The TikiTenders had 10 minutes to come up with the most outlandish Tiki Garnish. Each contestant got an enormous ceramic turtle bowl that they filled with ice to create their garnish with. A hub-bub quickly arose as Jason pulled out a hollowed out pineapple turned into a hibachi, with smaller auxiliary pineapples mounted on the side to be filled with flaming Tiki fire. Marie King appeared shocked by this as she had started from scratch and may not have been aware that parts of the garnish could be prepared ahead of time. Jason didn’t simply deposit his Tiki hibachi in the turtle bowl and call it done, however. He used the whole 10 minutes to festoon it with flowers, bacon-wrapped pineapple and wooden straws in addition to preparing the pineapple torches. Marie’s entry used what I believe were lychee fruit, oranges and other fruit to create underwater scene, in addition to 18 inch long sparklers. Felix’s entry used a series of stacked fruit including orange bowls which he filled with ever more alarming amounts of overproof rum. When it came time to judge, the TikiTenders lit their respective pyrotechnics. Despite a relatively calm breeze, in the bright sun the flames were unfortunately not as dramatic as they might have been indoors. While there was much discussion and inspection from the judges, I’m not sure the winner of this portion was announced.

Marie King lights her Most Garish Garnish entry

Felix Fernandez’s Most Garish Garnish

Jason Alexander (L) responds to Martin Cate’s questions.

Jason Alexander lights his Most Garish Garnish.

The third event was the trivia competition, wherein the TikiTenders were tested on their knowledge of Tiki trivia. Each contestant had their own big red buzzer to hit when they knew the answer. At least that was the theory. The buttons had a mind of their own, and eventually all the TikiTenders huddled around Felix’s bar cart, so it was more or less obvious who hit the button first, regardless of whether the button registered it. Questions included: “Name three Tiki bars that have been in operation for over 50 years”, and “What country still has an established rum distillery that uses two pot stills.” Out of roughly six questions, I was happy to see that I correctly answered two. Nobody walked away with this portion, but Marie had more points than Jason or Felix.

Tiki Trivia!

The fourth and final event was to create an original drink using a “mystery” ingredient, unknown to the TikiTenders till the clock started. They then had 10 minutes to create a drink to be judged. The mystery ingredient was revealed to be Don Q Anejo rum – Surprise! Although the winner of this portion wasn’t announced, Mrs. Cocktail Wonk was watching the judges closely and opined that Jason’s drink seemed to receive the most favorable reaction.

The mystery ingredient – Don Q Anejo!

Felix Fernandez working with the Don Q.

Marie King working with the Don Q.

The judges were looking thirsty for the final drink!

Jason Alexander explains his drink made with the Don Q Anejo.

At one point the band stopped playing to announce that their van was being towed, so they needed to take a break. This, the buzzer issues, and the desperate hunt to track down one of the TikiTenders so that the winner could be announced were just a few of the funny incidents which made the competition memorable.

Finally the TikiTenders gathered in front of the bar carts for the winner to be announced. At this point, without knowing some of the individual round winners, my money was on Marie to take it. When they announced that Jason was the winner it took a few seconds to fully register. As the winner, Jason received $1000, the largest of a set of Tiki statues created especially for the event, and a custom Tiki idol pendant. Felix and Marie shared 2nd place, each receiving $250 and a slightly smaller statue.

Jason Alexander is announced as the Iron TikiTender winner!
Esteban Ordonez doles out the celebratory Don Q shot to Jason Alexander.

Marie King gets the Don Q treatment.

Winner Jason Alexander at the VIP after-pary.

After the event the TikiTenders, judges and the crowd milled around as the festivities continued. At one point Esteban commenced pouring Don Q rum down the throats of the TikiTenders and other judges. Somehow even I got in on that action. There was an after-party in the VIP lounge which I snuck in to briefly to snap a few photos and then Ms. Cocktail Wonk and I headed out to partake of some new Portland bars. Stay tuned for my Portland Bar trip report coming soon!

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.

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

South of the Border Zombie

South of the Border Zombie

With Mrs CocktailWonk off in Europe this week touring faucet factories and perusing liquor stores on my behalf, I’ve been catching up on some quality bar time around Seattle. However I’d been ignoring my home bar and by Friday I was feeling some homemade Tiki was in order (surprise!) but with an upcoming visit to Tacoma Cabana in my very near future, I knew the rum bases were covered. I’ve always considered rum and tequila to be kindred spirits and I enjoy a hearty, smoky mescal nearly as much as an ultra-funky Jamaican rum. My mind went to the Zombie and the wheels started to turn.

The short version of the Zombie recipe is multiple rums, Apricot Liqueur, pineapple and lime juice. My goal was to replace them with ingredients more associated with Mexico while keeping it balanced and hewing to the Zombie pattern, and I’m pretty happy with the results:

South of the Border Zombie

South of the Border Zombie

  • 1oz Cabeza (blanco tequila)
  • 1oz Sombra mescal
  • 1oz Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
  • 1oz Damiana
  • 1oz Grapefruit

Shake, pour over crushed ice in a chilled glass. Liberally dash Peychaud’s bitter over the top of the ice.

The Cabeza is a good quality blanco tequila, singing background to the other players here. The Sombra provides a healthy dose of mezcal smokiness. To me, it’s the mescal equivalent of Smith and Cross rum.

 The Crema de Mezcal bears special note here – It’s not a regular mescal. Rather, it’s 90% mescal, and 10% agave syrup so it’s much sweeter than a mescal. It’s fantastic to sip straight or simply add a bit of lime juice and you’ve got something akin to a smoky margarita. I relied on the Crema de Mezcal sweetness to help balance out the sour from the lime, so factor that in if you substitute for it.

For the pineapple juice component of a Zombie, I used grapefruit juice like the Paloma, another well-known Mexican drink. Grapefruit juice isn’t as sweet as pineapple juice, but the Crema de Mezcal helps to bring up the overall sweetness. Lastly, the Damiana replaces the Zombie’s apricot liqueur. Damiana is a Mexican herbal liqueur flavored primarily from the Damiana tea leaf. It falls into the same herbal flavor category as spirits like chartreuse or Benedictine, and is moderately sweet in its own right.

The South of the Border Zombie is well balanced and with four different spirits, packs a punch like the original Zombie. You get a dose of smokiness but it’s not overwhelming. It’s not overly sweet, and some people might enjoy it with a touch more Crema de Mezcal or simple syrup to up the sweet to sour ratio.

The Essential Arsenal of Tiki Rums

Coruba Dark, Wray & Nephew, Smith & Cross, Bacardi 8, Plantation 5

When I first fell down the Tiki rabbit hole, working my way through Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, I realized how little I knew about rums. Demerara, Jamaican, Lemon Hart, Virgin Island, Trinidad, Wray and Nephew… So many names and styles to keep track of and start acquiring! Since then my rum collection’s grown far beyond the space I set aside when designing my home bar.

By this point I’ve made enough Tiki recipes to have a good sense of what I keep coming back to over and over in my Tiki drinks. These are the bottles that I always have a backup bottle or two in reserve. Most of these rums aren’t traditionally considered “sipping” rums, so just because a superb rum like Mount Gay X0 isn’t on this list doesn’t mean I don’t consider enjoy it.

This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive and cover every rum style used in Tiki. The list is also constrained by brands available to me in the United States, which is often much different than what’s available elsewhere, especially with the more boutique brands.

Continue reading “The Essential Arsenal of Tiki Rums”