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:
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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!