It’s no surprise to long time Cocktail Wonk readers that Tiki is a central pillar of what I do here. While most nights find me laboring over an elaborate concoction at my home bar, I never miss the chance to sit at the bar of a full-blown Tiki master. Last night, after many tortuous months of waiting, I slipped into a seat at the soft opening of Devil’s Reef, in Tacoma, Washington.
Crappy cocktail recipes are an occupational hazard of using the internet. I do my best to roll my eyes and move on. Until I came across this horror show on Thrillist This one simply needed to be addressed.
Titled the Dead Man’s Mai Tai, the text breathlessly describes it as “… an autumnal take on a familiar tropical classic. So basically just as good! Coconut rum? Check. Dark rum? Check.”
Rum and fire. They go together like peanut butter and chocolate, or burgers and fries. But I’m here to tell you to stop lighting your rum on fire. Sure, if it’s tasteless Puerto Rican 151 proof rum, go ahead. The less high proof vodka-in-disguise, the better. Just don’t expect setting your rum ablaze to make an awesome chalice of fire, practically a legal requirement for any volcano bowl at a decent Tiki bar.
A recent trend in the cocktail world is for high-end, world class “destination” bars and celebrity bartenders to further extend their brand and cement their reputation via authoring a book. Some hotly anticipated tomes of note recently include The PDT Cocktail Book (PDT, NYC), Speakeasy (Employees Only, NYC), Death & Co. (Death & Co., NYC), and The Bar Book (Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Portland, OR). All have been eagerly anticipated and well received. In that light, the only surprise is that Martin and Rebecca Cate’s new book, Smuggler’s Cove – Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, took so long to appear on the cocktail book scene. In fairness, they’ve been a little busy with other things, like oh…opening Whitechapel, a shrine to gin akin to what San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove is to rum.
Even among the cocktail enthusiast population, the Tiki crowd is particularly passionate and eager for fresh material. I’ve witnessed firsthand the insane demand and interest for the Smuggler’s Cove book, scheduled to be generally available in early June 2016. As the fortunate recipient of one of the first books off the press, I’ve taken on the task of reading the entire opus–which clocks in at a solid 350 pages from cover to cover. As a teaser before jumping into my thoughts about the volume overall, here are ten of my favorite factoids you’ll encounter:
The Tiki revival movement is clearly having its moment these days, having been heralded in dozens of articles to that effect. Even an old standby like The Washington Post has gotten into the act, running stories about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and how to make your own orgeat. This is indisputably a good thing for people like yours truly who enjoy a balanced, expertly crafted tropical libation rather than a quart of fruit punch with cheap white rum thrown in. The elaborately constructed rum rhapsodies of the 1940 and 1950s took a serious dive downward for the following fifty years, picking up bad habits like flavored vodka and powdered drink mixes. By the start of the 21st century, Tiki was just about left for dead, consumed ironically if at all. Fortunately, the rise of the craft cocktail movement swept Tiki into its whirlwind of vintage recipes and ingredients. A decade or so later, dedicated Tiki-centric bars are popping up all over the world and modern Tiki recipes are just as easy to find as the classic Donn Beach, Trader Vic, and Steve Crane recipes from the 1930s through1950s.
Inevitably, tons of “Best Tiki Bars” lists have popped up online. Of the current “modern era” Tiki bars, these lists inevitably cite Smuggler’s Cove, Hale Pele, Latitude 29, Three Dots and a Dash, and Lost Lake, among others—all worthy of your drinking time. At the same time, a set of celebrity Tiki bartenders has become the face of the Tiki revival – people like Jeff Berry, Martin Cate, Blair Reynolds, and Paul McGee. You’ll find quotes from these fine folks all over the coverage of Tiki these days. They’ve all contributed significantly to Tiki’s new modern era, embracing the classics but not being bound by them either. A lot of attention is lavished on these revivalists, and deservedly so.
Yes, there’s much for a craft cocktail connoisseur to shake their head at in New Orleans. There are plenty of world-class bars in NOLA though– a cocktail wonk just needs to be more diligent in seeking out bars worthy of time and attention. What follows is in no way a complete list of every worthy bar in NOLA – that would take months. But as an obsessive bar hound who’s always looking for the next great “score,” what follows are a few you should put on your A-list.