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 Tacoma Cabana is your destination.
UPDATE: As of 2018, the Tiki heart of the Cabana now lives at Devil’s Reef.
I recently attended a lunch at La Isla restaurant in Seattle hosted by Diplomatico Rum, celebrating the return of Diplomatico’s line of rums to Washington State stores after an absence of several years. Alex Mejido of Domaine Select Wine Estates, a wine and spirit importer led us through tastings of the Anejo, Reserva, and Reserva Exclusiva expressions. Alas, there was no Ambassador to be had that day, but everybody seemed happy with the three we tasted.
Alex started by telling us some backstory on the Diplomatico company. Although I’ve loved the Reserva Exclusiva for years, having been introduced to it by Murray Stenson during his time at Canon, I wasn’t aware that the origin of Diplomatico rum starts with the Seagrams company back in the 1950s. It seems that Seagrams oversaw the creation and owned 51% of what’s now the DUSA distillery in Venezuela to produce a number of spirits, including rum. In the 1990s Seagrams was bought by Diageo and Pernod Ricard, which jointly held the distillery until 2002, when José R. Ballesteros Melendez took control of the distillery. Today, the distillery produces Diplomatico rum, as well as Cacique rum. In addition, it supplies heavy pot still rums for use in the Pampero brand of rum. Alex also mentioned that in addition to molasses, Diplomatico rum also includes what they call “sugar cane honey”. A more accurate term would be concentrated cane juice, i.e. sugar cane juice with all the original sugars intact, but with some of the water removed.
For the Diplomatico brand, the DUSA distillery uses a combination of column and pot still rums. We started with the Anejo which is a blend of pot and column still distillates, aged for four years. Next up was the Reserva with a bit higher percentage of the pot still, and aged for 8 years. Last was the Reserva Exclusiva, which is renowned in rum circles for being very delicious, sippable and sweet, and aged for up to 12 years.
Beyond tasting the rums, I also enjoyed great conversations with people seated next to me. My friend Jason Alexander from Tacoma Cabana was on my left as we continued our ever-present tiki discussion. On my right was Colin Kimball of Small Screen Network, producers of many great cocktail videos by Robert Hess, Jamie Boudreau, and others. Also on my right was Jeff Shilling, Party Chairman of The Cocktail Party, and social media lead at Total Wine. A great lunch, good rum and good conversation. You can’t beat that!
I realize that what follows may be heretical in Tiki circles. It might go against 80 years of Tiki lore, secret recipe books, and exotic rums as described by Beachbum Berry in his book, Sippin’Safari. But, the simple truth is that a tasty Tiki libation isn’t hard to improvise if you know the basic pattern and have a reasonable set of ingredients on hand.
Let me be completely clear up front – I’m an avid collector of tiki recipes, and with 50+ different rums and many exotic syrups in my collection, you’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that I couldn’t fashion reasonably well with what I have on hand. I firmly believe that a tiki drink should be as authentic and well constructed as possible and I regularly consult many recipes in my extensive notebook. However, you shouldn’t feel constrained to slavishly implementing existing recipes, or worse, not making a drink at all because you don’t have every ingredient the recipe calls for.
Think of tiki as a rich framework for improvisation – Discovering new flavor combinations that work well together. Using the following guidelines you can easily come up with your creation or a spin on an existing classic.
Matt’s Rules of Tiki
1) Tiki drinks should have rum. The flavor of the rum, not just the alcohol burn, should be easily discernible. If the rest of your ingredients cover up the rum’s true character, you’re doing it wrong. When picking your rum(s), do your best to use something close to the flavor profile, but truthfully you can get great results with a mid-tier rum like these:
2) Tiki drinks have lime juice. You might find a few that use lemon, but without one or the other it’s not really tiki.
3) Tiki drinks may have other fruit juices, but it’s not required. The most common juices found in tiki are pineapple, grapefruit and orange juice. Personally I shy away from OJ in my tiki as it just feels too cliché.
4) Tiki drinks will have one or more sweet, strongly flavored syrups or liqueurs which may or may not be alcoholic. Commonly used syrups include;
Passion fruit syrup
Commonly used sweet liqueurs include:
Orange Liqueur (Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc…)
Cherry Liqueur (e.g. Cherry Heering)
Falernum (lime, clove essence – Non-alcoholic versions exists as well)
4) Tiki drinks should not overly sweet. It’s easy to throw a bunch of syrups and sweet liqueurs into a drink and end up with an overly sweet mess with a muddled flavor. Don’t do this.
5) Tiki drinks may use bitter spirits sparingly. Examples include:
Allspice/Pimento dram (Very pungent allspice flavor, not very sweet)
Pernod or other anise flavored spirits
6) Tiki drinks are traditionally served over crushed ice. If you don’t have an ice crusher, use a mallet, a kitchen towel, or whatever gets the job done.
7) An over the top garnish is always a crowd pleaser. Hollow out a pineapple,use it as a mug, and you’re a Tiki god! (Or so the drink recipient believes.)
The key element of creating your own Tiki recipes is balance. You should be able to taste every ingredient to some degree. Don’t cover up the flavor of the rum. Ensure there’s some tartness from the lime juice. Don’t throw so many flavors in that you can’t discern what’s what anymore.
One area where I diverge from accepted tiki wisdom is going with 3 or more rums in a drink. Yes, it sounds awesome (“Four overproof rums – YEAAAH!!!”), but unless you have an amazing palate you’re not going to discern the distinct flavors of each rum. For that reason I tend towards using just one or two rums – A strong Jamaican like Smith & Cross by itself, or in combination with an Agricole style are particular favorites of mine.
Starting from the ingredient palette above, the next part is honing the exact amount of each ingredient. Here’s some suggestions:
Between 2 and 4 ounces of rum, depending on the quantity of other ingredients.
Between .5 and 1 oz of lime juice, depending on how much sweet you add.
If using other fruit juices, an ounce is a good starting point.
Between .5 oz and 1.5 oz of syrup and/or sweet liqueur. If you go with a lot of sweet, bump up the lime juice to compensate.
If using a strong bitter flavor such as allspice dram, go easy on it. I typically use 1/8 to ¼ oz. For angostura bitters, 2-4 dashes is usually plenty.
Using falernum requires thought to maintain balance as there are different falernum styles. Homemade falernum has sugar, but the lime and ginger pull it towards the bitter side in my opinion. Non-alcoholic falernum syrup and Velvet Falernum leans towards the sweet side of things..
Now let’s look at a few cocktail recipes and see if and how they conform to the tiki template:
Trader Vics 1944 Mai Tai
2 oz. 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum
Juice from one fresh lime
1/2 oz. orange curacao
1/4 oz. rock candy syrup
1/2 oz. orgeat syrup
This is classic tiki at its finest, albeit very simple. Note there’s no fruit juice beyond the lime, and no bitter flavor components. There are three sweeteners, but a whole lime provides a lot of tart to compensate. As for the Wray and Nephew 17, good luck finding that. As mentioned earlier, you have a lot of latitude with rums. For a proper Mai Tai I’d sub in another fine Jamaican style rum – The funkier the better.
The “Mai Tai” at nearly any island hotel bar
3 oz Bacardi silver
3 oz OJ
2 oz Grenadine
This is tiki purgatory. No lime juice – What the hell??? Rum with no discernable flavor. No balance. A sugar bomb. The tiki gods will hunt you down if you order this.
1 oz Jamaican rum
0.75 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
0.75 oz Lemon Hart 151
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz cinnamon syrup
0.5 oz falernum
Dash Angostura bitters
6 drops Pernod
This is a personal tiki favorite and a great example of my guidelines. It utilizes something from each ingredient category: Plenty of flavorful rum, lime juice, fruit juice, flavored syrups, liqueurs, and multiple bitters.
2 oz rum
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
While a delightful drink and a great basis for improvisation, the daiquiri isn’t a tiki drink by most standards. Rum and lime, sure. But no flavored syrups/liqueurs, no other fruit juices, and no bitters. The daiquiri is too simple to be tiki. I call it a “tropical” drink instead.
2 1/2 ounces golden rum
3 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce coconut cream
The Pina Colada is one of the first drinks I made when I came of age. I genuinely enjoy them, but they’re not tiki by the definition above. There’s no tart citrus of any form. Also, they’re traditionally blended, which goes against the crushed ice guideline. Like the daiquiri, I put this in the tropical category.
Go forth and Improvise!
Starting from the tiki guidelines, it’s fun to try out new things – break a rule or two along the way. One of my favorites is to substitute in mezcal for the rum. Another is to experiment with introducing flavored amaros like Fernet or Campari. Leave comments with your own ideas!
Yesterday I posted my thoughts on Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, of which I’m big fan of. In the post I mentioned that a Polynesian Inspired rum is also forthcoming. However, while it’s been teased for a while, including this review, I haven’t been able to figure out when I could buy it.
Well, as luck would have it I had a brief email back-and-forth with the distiller, Bryan Davis today. He answered both of my questions. Here’s what I learned:
1) The Polynesian Inspired version should hit the shelf in 3 weeks to a month. In my book, that’s mid-May, 2014. I’ll be grabbing a number of bottles as soon as I get the chance!
2) I was hoping for a some details on the difference approaches/methods used between the Navy Style and Polynesian Inspired versions. While I didn’t get any juicy tidbits, Brian said that he will cover these differences in his upcoming talk at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. Sadly, I’m not attending, but luckily for us rum nerds, Bryan says he’ll be uploading the video of his talk to Youtube.
I frequently make new and unusual cocktails for guests at my house. Something I’ve come to enjoy is telling a story about every drink I make. Maybe it’s the unusual spirit I’ve just acquired, perhaps an unusual combination of ingredients, or a tale of how a particular bottle came to reside in my bar. My wife and I occasionally do cocktail-themed dinner parties – friends know them as “Rumpocalypse”, and every drink gets a few minutes about its background and why I chose it. Telling people about what they’ve got in front of them creates a personal connection and often emboldens them to share their thoughts about the drink, which is helpful for me in knowing how to craft an even better experience for them.
Likewise, I use slow times at bars to connect with the bartenders, asking “Is there anything interesting you’re working on?” This often yields something off-menu and that the bartender is eager to talk about. When the drink arrives I ask them to tell me a story about it. Done at the right time, e.g not during a slammed Saturday night, you’ll often have an experience you otherwise might miss.
Recently, a story that grabbed me and which I enjoy sharing, is rum from Lost Spirits Distillery. Currently there are two iterations, both “Navy style”, at 55% and 68% ABV. The story of these rums is great for several reasons. First, they have a strong, dark, forceful flavor, very much in the Jamaican style with a ton of “esters”, which are a chemical compound that provides all sorts of flavors. In the case of Jamaican style rums, I find these esters to have a pleasant, fruit-like flavor like plum, raisin or banana. The Lost Spirits rums are a dark red hue. You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.
Next, although the flavor of these rums screams Jamaican or someplace else deep in the Caribbean, they’re actually made in Monterey, California, not far from where I grew up and went to college. I frequently drove through the farm fields in the region, and never once saw sugar cane, so the thought of a rum distillery there seems a bit alien, but very cool. These days many distilleries don’t grow their own sugar cane, and instead import molasses from elsewhere. What gives Lost Spirits an edge here is that they use baking grade molasses, which has more sugars than molasses that’s been refined more times to extract as much sucrose as possible.
Finally, and most importantly, the Lost Spirits story appeals to me because of science! While rum aficionados have come to expect that a deep flavorful rum needs to spend many years in the barrel, Lost Spirits uses deep knowledge of the chemical processes in play during fermentation, distillation and aging to focus and concentrate the flavor producing process.
A couple of examples: During the fermentation process, distiller Bryan Davis deprives the yeast of nitrogen, thereby weakening the cell walls and stressing the yeast. Quoting him: “…properly managed the yeast can produce as many short chained esters as the first few years in a cask.” As for barrel aging, Bryan optimizes his cask preparation to get the goodness of long barrel aging in a shorter period of time. Again quoting: “We use a controlled charring process incorporating heat, flame, and even special frequencies of light to break the compounds we want out fast.” The full description of all the science (highly entertaining for a wonk like me) can be found here.
To my taste and sensibilities, the most natural comparison to the 55% ABV version is Smith & Cross. They have similar alcohol contents (55% vs 57%). The Lost Spirits is darker, with less fruit on the nose and palate than the Smith & Cross. In place of the fruit, I taste more of the molasses. The best simple description I have for the Lost Spirits taste is somewhere between Smith & Cross and Lemon Hart 151. There are several well-written reviews out there with more tasting notes, including here and here.
Although I can ease into sipping the Lost Spirits with its high alcoholic content, I prefer to use it in relatively simple drinks where its unique flavor elements stand out, rather than a multi-rum tiki concoction. It certainly works well in tiki, but for something this special and relatively rare, I make sure to enjoy every drop to the fullest.
I’ve read that Lost Spirits Distillery has another style of rum on the way, this one being Polynesian inspired. Given my experience with the Navy Style, I’m grabbing as much of the Polynesian expression as I can as soon as it’s available!
My go-to recipe using Lost Spirits Navy Style rum is a variation of the Scarr Power from Rumba in Seattle. Rumba’s Scarr Power uses Smith & Cross and I simply swap in the Lost Spirits 55%. Much as I enjoy the Smith&Cross-based original, the Lost Spirits version is just fantastic.
1.5 oz Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, 55% ABV
.75 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
.5 oz 2:1 Nutmeg syrup
Add all ingredients to a small glass. Add a large ice cube or two, stir gently. Garnish with orange peel if desired.
I deliberately don’t shake this drink, so as to keep the dilution to a minimum. I also use a small old-fashion glass, ~ 5 oz, so that a single large ice cube is nearly submerged and providing just enough chilling and dilution as the drink is slowly consumed.
Almost anybody with more than a six pack of Bud in the fridge has acquired the oddball cocktail ingredient, used for one mixed drink but otherwise lies inert on the shelf, mocking them. If you’ve got a bottle of Kahlua, you can make a White Russian, and….. hmm… what else? The same goes for nonalcoholic drink components like syrups – Some article has a drink recipe calling for cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup which sounds yummy, and look, a recipe! So you make the syrup, it taste great, but after showing it off in a few rounds of the cocktail for friends, you’ve still got a half liter of the cinnamon-blueberry-bacon syrup left over. Now what?
My bar counter top and refrigerator is overrun with experiments with leftovers. Pineapple Gomme syrup? Check. Banana Infused Jameson Whiskey? Yup. Apple-cinnamon shrub? Indeed. Black-tea infused Smith and Cross – Bingo. Many of the brain cells I devote to improvising cocktails is spent trying to match up my bar of misfit ingredients with new ways to use them.
The experiment so far that’s given me the biggest challenge is the Porter Reduction Syrup I used in a previous blog post, Reverse engineering a cocktail: The Cup Of Awesome. While I deeply enjoy the Cup of Awesome, I can’t make it too often or I’ll grow tired of it. And unlike a fruit based syrup that’s relatively easy to imagine replacing an existing ingredient in a favorite cocktail, a heavy, beer based syrup stands out in the field by itself. It’s not similar to a whole lot else, thus the challenge.
The other challenge with the Porter syrup is it’s intense flavor. Your choice is to either let it dominate the flavor profile of the drink (like in the Cup of Awesome), or pair it up with something that also has a powerful flavor and adjust the ratios so that neither flavor wins out. As you may have seen in prior posts, I’m big on categorizing things, and one of the classifications I frequently fall back on is robust, full-bodied flavors – flavors that you’ll always pick out regardless of what else is going on. Some of my go-to base spirits in this category are:
Smokey Scotch (Islay)
Overproof Jamaican Rum
And as accent ingredients:
Tonight I went through my lists, mentally pairing the Porter Syrup taste with the base spirit taste:
Porter and Smoky Scotch? Maybe…
Porter and Mezcal? Doubtful
Porter and Smith and Cross Jamaican rum? Not sure.
Porter and Blackstrap Rum? Hmm… This sounds interesting.
So Porter and Blackstrap rum it was. Blackstrap rum is a crazy uncle in the rum world. It’s made from blackstrap molasses, which is the lowest grade of molasses – what’s left after nearly all the sugar has been removed from sugar cane juice after multiple boilings. The crystallized sucrose becomes table sugar and other products. The molasses is what remains. The only generally available Blackstrap rum available here in the U.S. is from Cruzan. It’s very dark with a strongly molasses flavor and cheap. Not at all a sipping rum unless you’re a pirate. It’s usually used to add color to Tiki cocktails as the rum float. However, given that we’re trying to find a mate for our intensely strong and dark syrup made from reduced Porter beer, it doesn’t seem so crazy.
Now, how much of each ingredient? Since the Porter syrup is very sweet I don’t want to use too much, so my first stab is a 3:1 blackstrap/syrup ratio. With just those two ingredients you have something roughly akin to an Old Fashioned (whiskey, sugar, bitters), but from very much the wrong side of the tracks. The drink could work with just that. However, the egg white in the Cup of Awesome adds a nice texture to it, and works here as well, in addition toning down some of the sweetness from the Porter Syrup. While you could go 4:1 rum/syrup, the Porter flavor would fall too far into the background for my taste.
1.5 oz Blackstrap Rum
.5 oz Porter Reduction Syrup
.5 oz egg white
In a mixing glass, whip the egg white with a small hand frother/mixer until it’s very foamy. Add the rum and syrup. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe. Normally cocktails with egg-white call for extreme shaking rather than stirring. However, shaking dilutes this drink too much. Regarding the frother, get a decent solid blade like BonJour makes rather than the cheap $5 spiral whisk versions. It makes a big difference in how frothy your egg-whites get.
The “Big Picture” message here is that cocktail recipe creation isn’t necessarily some divinely inspired zen wisdom.It’s often just a matter of iterating over flavors and ingredients on hand, mentally mashing together in your head, then trying out the ones that don’t instantly seem like a bad idea. Kahlua and St. Germain anyone?