Tiki is trendy again. After three decades of dominance from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, faux-tropical kitsch took a nosedive, but today it’s back on top. New tiki bars from influential mixologists are popping up everywhere from Chicago to New Orleans to Disney World, joining surviving vintage spots that are busier than ever.
But you don’t have to go out to enjoy a great tiki joint. A handful of bottles and a few other items can turn your home bar into a tropical paradise. Here’s what you’ll need.
Obviously, the most important tiki ingredient is rum. If you’re making tiki drinks, you need rum, rum and more rum (which is why the spirit’s on this list three times). A good white rum needs to be crisp and clean, providing the backbone on which the fruit juices and spiced syrups can hang. Appleton White from Jamaica and Brugal Extra Dry from the Dominican Republic both serve this purpose admirably, and both are very affordable, to boot. For the more adventurous drinker, try a white rhum agricole, whose funky notes can transform an otherwise pedestrian Mai Tai; Clement Premiere Canne is an excellent choice.
Dark rums, on the other hand, provide lots of depth for tropical tipples. They tend to retain the minerally sweetness of the molasses they’re made from, with a more noticeably thick or oily texture on the tongue. This all contrasts nicely with pineapple, lime and the other fruits you’ll find in tiki cocktails. A few quality options are the big and robust Smith & Cross from Jamaica, with its peppery and grassy notes; the pitch-dark Cruzan Black Strap from the Virgin Islands, which has complexity far beyond its dirt-cheap price; and the amazingly sweet Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva from Venezuela, a caramel-and-spice bomb that’s aged for an exceptional 12 years.
Adding a bit of high-proof rum does more for a tiki cocktail than just getting you wasted faster; higher alcohol content means the rum’s flavors are more concentrated, allowing them to shine through over the other ingredients. They’re also useful for flaming garnishes: Pour some into a juiced lime shell or a volcano bowl and (carefully) set alight. The industry standard used to be the powerful Lemon Hart 151, but it’s recently become quite scarce. Thankfully, rum expert and author Ed Hamilton stepped in to create Hamilton Demerara 151, a rich, dark and spicy substitute. For a clear option, go with the fruity Wray & Nephew White Overproof.
SYRUPS & LIQUEURS
There are several liqueurs and syrups that pop up all the time in tiki recipes. You can make most of them yourself, but you’re better off leaving that to the professionals:
• ORGEAT: When buying the almond syrup needed for Mai Tais and lots of other cocktails, go with the excellent version bottled by Small Hand Foods, which was started by top San Francisco bartender Jennifer Colliau.
• FALERNUM: A close cousin of orgeat is falernum, an almond syrup spiked with clove, ginger and lime that’s an indispensable part of the Zombie. B.G. Reynolds makes a lovely falernum, part of a full line of tropical syrups from cinnamon syrup to lime cordial.
• ALLSPICE DRAM: Also known as pimento dram, this liqueur adds a little zing of spice to your cocktail. It’s flavored with allspice berries, which taste like a combination of cinnamon, clove and black pepper (thus the name). St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram is your best bet here, with its base of funky Jamaican rum.
• OTHER LIQUEURS: There’s a whole rainbow of fruit liqueurs out there you can add to your tiki drinks, but one of the best is Giffard Banane du Bresil, the only banana liqueur I’ve ever tried that tastes like an actual banana and not an artificially flavored candy. The brand’s grapefruit, vanilla and ginger liqueurs are also very nice in tropical cocktails.
Unlike, say, the Martini or Negroni, tiki drinks don’t have simple recipes that lend themselves to memorization. So there’s no shame in consulting a high-quality cocktail book. And the top tiki author is definitely Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who’s written six volumes chronicling vintage and modern tropical recipes (and who’s the owner of that new New Orleans bar I mentioned above). Your best bet is Beachbum Berry Remixed, which updates and combines two of Berry’s earlier books into a mammoth tome with more than 100 recipes dating from the 1930s to the 2000s.
So you’ve got all the rums, syrups and such you need, but your home tiki bar still has to look the part. Vintage mugs and other kitschy decor can be found in abundance at estate sales and on eBay, of course, but for a one-stop shop, try Myriah’s Polynesian Bazaar or RetroPlanet.com. And don’t forget the soundtrack! Martin Denny created a whole genre of music for tiki bars back in the ‘50s, and his immortal albums Quiet Village and Exotica are must-owns for the tiki fan.
WHEN YOU’RE IN THE MOOD FOR SPEAKEASY INSTEAD OF A TIKI