The Seattle area hasn’t had a true authentic full-time Tiki bar for several years, despite being the location of the first franchised Trader Vics in the 1940s. There was a Trader Vic’s in Bellevue a few years back but they shuttered after a few years. Hula Hula positions themselves as Polynesian, but they’re far from well-crafted Tiki. Rumba specializes in all sorts of rum drinks and does Tiki well, but Tiki isn’t their focus.
Portland is known for its Tiki Kon gathering and the Hale Pele bar is well respected in the Tiki world. But if you’re looking for full time, petal-to-the-metal Tiki in the Pacific Northwest, the Jason Alexander at the Tacoma Cabana is your destination.
I first came across Jason Alexander, co-owner of the Tacoma Cabana, on Instagram, where he goes by @tikicommando. I could tell by his photos, posted nearly nightly right before his bar opens, that he’s dead serious about authentic Tiki. Unsurprisingly, he had a decent amount of followers – most likely people like me who have a love for cocktails and most importantly Tiki! A lot of people in his position would use something like nitreo or jarvee to increase their followers and engagement, but it appears Jason is happy just engaging with smaller numbers who share his passion.
Like me, Jason got into Tiki less than five years ago. He’s studied the Beachbum Berry books and knows the classics – The 1944 Mai Tai, the Navy Grog, the Zombie, etc… And while Jason can spins out classic Tiki cocktail for you with ease, his real strength is riffing on the classics, creating rock solid modern creations with a nod to the past. One of the house specialties is cocktail flights – Taking a drink like the Navy Grog, then coming up with two other variations, and serving all three as downsized cocktails.
For a rum wonk like me, sitting at the bar underneath an actual cabana is the only place to be. Hundreds of different rums dominate the back bar, with just a smattering of non-rum spirits. In the Jamaican category alone there’s at least two dozen options.
Most bars would do well to have three of the Plantation Rum lineup (e.g. the Barbados 5, 20th Anniversary, and Original Dark. But browsing through the Cabana’s Captain’s list I count at least 14 different Plantation expressions. (2017 update: He’s got a LOT more now.) If you’re looking for high end tasting rums, you’ll find them as well, including Clement XO, Mount Gay 1703, Plantation Guadeloupe 1998, Zacapa XO and El Dorado 21.
I can spend hours scanning the rum wall and chatting him with about rums we both have, as well as his recommendations on what I should consider for my next acquisition. Besides the Wall O’Rum, the other great thing under the cabana is the television. Normally I’m against TVs in bars, but the Cabana’s television plays a never-ending loop of Gilligan’s Island episodes. What’s not to love?
The cocktail menu is extensive – The Mai Tai section alone has six different variations, including the original 1944 version, and a $50 “high roller” version with Clement X0 and Appleton 21. His Zombie follows the original 1934 Don the Beachcomber prescription. Other classics in his repertoire include the Fogg Cutter, Suffering Bastard and the Jet Pilot, a house favorite at Casa CocktailWonk. House originals include the Sea Grave, Drunken Helmsman, and Swizzle of the Damned.
Jason is a stickler for making his own falernum and syrups. He’s also a master fire conjurer. As an authentic Tiki-tender, many drinks come garnished with fire. Not just a small blue flame from some burning 151 rum that quickly extinguishes. No sir! Tacoma Cabana’s flaming lime shells are full-on tiki torches that on occasion reach multiple levels of fiery tiki-awesomeness.
Tacoma Cabana is only from Wednesday to Saturday. So, if you’re travelling a great distance to visit (like many do), don’t just assume you can show up any old day. While the Cabana’s hours eliminates my prime bar-going evenings (Monday & Tuesday), the upside is that Jason’s there every shift. If the Cabana is open, Jason and his ever-present fez are behind the stick, serving up Tiki righteousness.
Jason graciously has shared many of his original recipes with me, and given the OK to print some here. First up is the Sea Grave, allegedly inspired by one of my own Tiki-improv drinks that I posted to Instagram. I’d say on looks alone it’d be sure to help me get instagram followers, but the taste is the biggest win of this beverage! Anyway, here’s the recipe:
Sea Grave (Tacoma Cabana)
- 1/2 oz lime
- 1/2 oz Jamaican Punch Cordial (see below)
- 1/2 oz Allspice Dram
- 1/2 oz Cherry Heering
- 2 oz Smith and Cross
Shake with ice and pour into a double old fashioned glass. Sprig of mint and an orange twist.
To make the Jamaican Punch Cordial:
- 16 oz white sugar
- 16 oz lime juice
- 2 oz Angostura bitters
- 1 whole nutmeg, grated
Combine all ingredients in a jar or container. Let sugar and nutmeg dissolve in lime, and don’t strain. Give it a good shake every few minutes and let it brew for a few hours before use. This recipe makes a lot, so you might consider making a ¼ or ½ batch for home use.
Next up is the Drunken Helmsman:
Drunken Helmsman (Tacoma Cabana)
- 1 oz lime
- 1/2 oz maple syrup
- 1/2 oz falernum
- 1/2 oz Amaro Meletti
- 1 1/2 oz Plantation Dark Overproof
Shake with ice and pour unstrained into a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint and orange twist. For the falernum, a house-made, rum-based falernum is better in this drink than Velvet Falernum or Falernum syrup.
Finally, a bonus recipe, my twist on the Drunk Helmsman:
Lost Helmsman (Cocktail Wonk)
- 1 oz lime
- 1/2 oz maple syrup
- 1/2 oz falernum
- 1/2 oz Averna
- 1 1/2 oz Lost Spirits Navy Style rum (68%)
As much as I love Plantation Dark Overproof, the Lost Spirits Navy rum has a strong, dark molasses funk crying out to be used in Tiki drinks. If you only have the 55% ABV version, bump it up to 2 oz. And Ii you don’t have Averna, try using Gran Classico, or Amaro Meletti, another favorite of Jason’s.