Call it a resurgence. Call it a reinvigoration. Call it the perfect escape. But whatever you do, don’t call it a trend. Tiki is here to stay, and here at Uproxx, we love a good tiki cocktail. That perfect marriage of rum, lime, sugar — with a little dash of pop-Polynesian magic — has popped up in more than a few of our stories, and for good reason: Tiki cocktails are a getaway in a glass. They’re a trip to the tropical island of our dreams — the one so perfect, so ideal, that it only exists in our imagination, and in the play of rums, spices, exotic fruits and liqueurs across our palates. Who doesn’t need an escape every once in awhile?
Before the summer’s through, these are the five tiki drinks you need to check out. New to tiki entirely? Grab your shaker. An old hand at the bar? Meet new spins on treasured classics. Don your Shriner’s-era fez, crush your ice, and harvest your mint. It’s time to say mahalo to your new favorite cocktails!
Trader Vic’s Cuba Libre — Ray Wyland, Tiki With Ray — Seattle, WA
If there’s anyone that understands the concept of the tiki bar as escape, it’s Seattleite Ray Wyland, whose passion for tiki as a lifestyle has taken him from the world famous bars that started it all, to the home tiki bars of strangers, lovingly crafted in living rooms, basements, and backyard grottos. His exploration of tiki culture — Tiki With Ray — is a labor of love, where he reminds us that, “when you’re heading out to a bar, you’re going out to have a good time and enjoy a drink or two. Maybe sometimes you want to have a little escape. With a Tiki bar, the escape is paramount. A good Tiki bar should create a relaxing mood. When you step into a Tiki bar, the outside world doesn’t exist anymore. The combination of a Tiki cocktail (which usually has two or more shots of alcohol!) with the decor and music creates a unique tone. It’s a tone and feeling that can only be achieved at a Tiki bar.”
So, what’s Ray recommend for the tiki novitiate?
If you want to turn someone on to tiki cocktails, first you have to get them to like and appreciate rum. Rum has gotten a bad reputation over the years. When most people think of rum, they are reminded of their college years back when they had a personal relationship with Sailor Jerry or they drank so much Malibu rum that they could probably own land there! College years…were the worst of times and the best of times!
For most tiki cocktails, rum is the main ingredient. When you start learning that there are many types of rum (and I’m not talking about just gold dark and silver) an entire world is opened up to you!
A good and inexpensive way to start loving rum is with Trader Vic’s. Trader Vic, aka Victor Bergeron opened up one of the first tiki bars and also invented the most popular tiki cocktail…The Mai Tai!
A Mai Tai is an awesome drink but it’s sort of strong (2 ounces of rum!) I want to take things down to an even simpler drink. A rum and Coke or actually a Cuba Libre. This is a great drink for someone just getting into rum. The Trader Vic’s Dark Rum almost has a chocolate taste and the lime gives the drink a certain tang. It’s an easy drink to make but most importantly it introduces you to a key element of tiki — Trader Vic!
- 1.5 oz Trader Vic’s Dark Rum
- Mexican Coca Cola
- 1/4 of a lime
Fill a highball glass with ice, then pour in the 1.5 oz of Trader Vic’s Dark Rum. Fill the rest of the glass with Coca Cola. Squeeze the juice of 1/4 of a lime into the glass, then toss in the spent shell. Stir it all up and enjoy!
The Zombie — by Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove — San Francisco, CA
Martin Cate knows his way around a tiki cocktail. He’s the owner and creator of the multi-award-winning Smuggler’s Cove, which took home Best American Cocktail Bar at the 10th Annual Tales of the Cocktail in 2016. He’s also the owner of False Idol in San Diego, and co-owner of Hale Pele in Portland. Like Gin? Check out his Whitechapel.
Point being, Cate has a lot on his plate (or mug?), but still finds time to travel the world spreading the good word of rum, officiating in cocktail competitions, and maintaining Smuggler’s Cove’s status as the bar with the largest rum selection in the United States. If you want to know a little something about tiki, he’s the guy to ask. And if you want to know a lot? His book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, recently garnered the James Beard Award for Beverage Book for the Year. It’s essential for the home tiki enthusiast.
This summer Cate is recommending a classic; whether you visit one of his bars or tackle this one for yourself, you’re in for quite a cocktail.
The Zombie is a little bit tricky in that it has an especially large number of ingredients, so right off the bat, a careful balance is essential. There’s no way around measuring this one if you want it to work. But when the stars align, it’s perfect. Secondly, the citrus must absolutely be fresh — both the lime and grapefruit — and the grapefruit has to be really tart and slightly astringent, white or pink ideally. The recipe calls for very little grapefruit, so it’s got to pop. Syrups should be house-made or from a reputable company — all natural and no corn syrup. The rums must be top notch — bold and flavorful, and of good quality. On paper, the recipe will look like it’s not going to work, but it really does. Freshly crushed ice that’s plenty cold to make it frost, and for the best preparation, you’ll really need a drink mixer. The ingredients will also set you back a lot of time and money. It’s probably easier just to get one at a tiki bar. 🙂
The other hurdle is the sheer number of recipes out there–you could find hundreds in one Google search, and almost all of them are terrible. It wasn’t until Beachbum Berry got a 1930s notebook with the original recipe that it’s been revealed in it’s true glory.
This drink is no joke, so tread lightly! There’s a reason they used to limit people to two!
- .75 oz fresh lime juice
- .5 oz fresh white or pink grapefruit juice
- .25 oz cinnamon syrup
- .1 tsp of real grenadine
- .5 oz falernum (John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum)
- 1.5 oz blended aged rum (suggest Appleton Estate Reserve Blend)
- 1.5 oz column distilled aged rum (suggest Don Q Anejo)
- 1 oz black blended overproof rum (Hamilton 151 Demerara)
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 6 drops herbsaint
Combine all with crushed ice in a drink mixer tin and flash blend for 3 seconds. Pour contents into a zombie glass (tall collins) and garnish with a mint sprig.
The Macadamia Mai Tai — by Merriman’s and Handcrafted Restaurants — Kauai’s North Shore, HI
Made right, the Mai Tai is a perfect cocktail; a balanced symphony of sweet and sour. Rum, orgeat, curaçao, and lime combine to make a drink that is “out of this world” as the Trader Vic’s origin story would have us know. Unfortunately, a lot of us have had a Mai Tai in name only: orange juice, pineapple, and grenadine have their place, but it’s not in this tiki classic. That said, there’s still a place for riffing on a beloved recipe, and Merriman’s produces one hell of a play on the original king of the tiki cocktails.
Jason Vendrell, the Beverage Director of Handcrafted Restaurants has this to say about the mouthwatering Macadamia Mai Tai:
In my opinion, what makes the Monkeypod/Merriman’s Mai Tai so special is actually its simplicity. It’s fairly similar to the original Trader Vic’s recipe, with the crucial addition of honey-lilikoi foam to make it unique. It’s a well-balanced drink but is also extremely eye-catching! When a tray full of Mai Tais goes through the room, people always turn their heads and say ‘ooh what’s that!?’ I think it’s one of the most photographed cocktails in the world!
- .1 oz. Old Lahaina Light Rum
- .1 oz. Old Lahaina Dark Rum
- .1/2 oz. macadamia-nut orgeat
- 1/2 oz. Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao
- .3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
- Honey Liliko‘i Foam
Ingredients for Honey Liliko’i Foam:
- .1 oz. Old Lahaina Light Rum
- 1/2 oz. honey
- 1 oz. liliko‘i purée
- 1 oz. simple syrup
- 1 oz. egg whites
- 1.5 oz. cold water
Mix foam ingredients well and put in a nitrous-oxide (NO2) infuser* to half capacity. Use 4 charges for a liter-sized infuser. (Or blend ingredients on high speed till foamy.) Add lime juice, orgeat, orange curaçao and Old Lahaina Light Rum to mixing glass. Shake with 1 cup cubed ice about 30 seconds and pour into highball glass. Float dark rum. Top with honey-liliko‘i foam and garnish with pineapple half-moon.
The Jet Pilot — Kern Mattei, Manager of Mai-Kai — Fort Lauderdale, FL
The Mai-Kai stands as tiki royalty; a bar that has been operating continuously since it opened in the 1950s, during tiki’s heydays. With eight dining rooms, tropical walk-through gardens, multiple waterfalls, a 90-minute Polynesian floor show, and of course, incredible drinks, it’s no wonder that enthusiasts consider this bar — which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 — a bucket list experience. Forget everything you’ve heard about tiki being “kitsch” — this is an experience that is as inviting as it is mysterious, as genuine as it is fantastical. The drinks at The Mai-Kai legendary; here, manager Kern Mattei shares with us a lovingly crafted Mai-Kai Jet Pilot tribute.
The Jet Pilot has kind of flown under the radar. It has always been overshadowed by the more well-known cocktails, like the Mai-Tai and Planters Punch that guests tend to gravitate towards, but it has always held its ground as one of the great cocktails that we serve. The recent cocktail resurgence has given the Jet Pilot a boost to its popularity, and has created its own loyal following.
The Mai Kai’s Jet Pilot was created in 1956 by mixologist Mariano Licudine. It was inspired by Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot, but as with most of Mariano’s creations, it strayed from Don’s recipe to become its own unique cocktai
To make a really good Jet Pilot, you have to have some really good rums and the right kind of rums. That would be the first tip and secondly, you have to have the proper ingredients to make the rest of the drink. It’s kind of an investment to make good cocktails. You will spend a little bit to stock your bar with the rums and other ingredients, but once it’s there, you will be able to mix up some really good drinks at any time. The Jet Pilot is more of an advanced cocktail, that requires a well stocked bar and some preparation making your own syrups. But definitely worth the effort.
Fresh squeezed lime juice is like magic. It makes all the difference in the world. The more effort you put into making your cocktails, the better the end result is going to be. You have to create balance in your cocktail. The way we balance cocktails at the Mai-Kai is by regulating the sweet versus the sour. They are the yin and yang of your cocktail. The Jet Pilot has equal parts sweet to equal parts sour. It is a very basic theory in cocktail making, but one that many overlook.
Once again, make sure you buy some good rums to mix with. There are many different rums available, but getting the right combination of rums in this cocktail is a must. When you are making a cocktail with only one rum, you could theoretically use just about any rum you have on hand. But, when you start mixing 4 different rums like we have in the Jet Pilot, you have to get the right combination of rums to give the drink balance.
While we don’t share our recipes, and haven’t since we opened in 1956, I do have a recipe that I can share with you. It is a tribute recipe to the Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot and was created by Jim Hayward of the Atomic Grog. He was kind enough to let me share it with you.
- .1 oz. fresh lime juice
- 3/4 oz. rich honey mix (2:1 honey, water)
- 1/8 oz. falernum (Fee Brothers)
- 1/8 oz. fassionola
- 3/4 oz. white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
- 3/4 oz. gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
- 3/4 oz. dark Jamaican rum (Kohala Bay or equivalent)
- 3/4 oz. dark 151 rum (Hamilton 151 from Guyana or Goslings Black Seal 151
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
- 3 drops Pernod
Ingredients for Fassionola:
- 1/4 cup Smucker’s raspberry syrup (or raspberry puree)
- 1/4 cup grenadine or cherry syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon orange extract
Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary.
Kiki Bird — by Kelly Merrell of Trader Sam’s — Anaheim, CA
As tiki drinks go, the original Jungle Bird is a simple cocktail — comprised of just five ingredients — that plays out a sophisticated dance on the palate. It’s a go-to counter argument for folks passing on tiki drinks for fear that they might be “too sickly sweet, too syrupy, too fruity.” Don’t let the vibrant hue fool you; the jungle bird comes with a bite! It’s also a really enjoyable drink to riff on, as tiki expert Kelly Merrell shares with us today.
This drink has been my jam for the past couple of months. It’s my modification on the Jungle Bird and I’m digging it like nobody’s business! It’s named after my fiance’s nickname…
- 1.5oz Jamaican Pot Stilled Rum
- 1 oz Proof Demerara Rum
- 1 oz Pineapple juice
- .5 oz Fresh Lime Juice
- .5 oz 1:1 Simple Syrup
- .75 oz Campari
- 1 dash Orange Bitters
Shake and roll into a Double Old Fashioned or Snifter glass. Garnish with Pineapple wedge…or whatever makes you happy!