Saturday, January 6, 2018

Bar School: Tiki Cocktails

Jet Pilot

Tiki cocktails are an entire pool of drinks that I have barely even dipped my toe into on this blog. I think the Mai Tai and the Mari Koriko are the only ones I've made. At first, this was because I thought I wasn't a huge fan of Tiki. Like many people prior to the recent Tiki renaissance, I thought of Tiki drinks as saccharine beverages filled with fruit juices and cheap rum. After discovering that this is not at all the case, at least not anymore, I swung the other way - Tiki drinks seemed far too complicated, with multiple types of rum, exotic ingredients, and garnishes that even I find elaborate. Tiki was a bit intimidating. But as I've built up my bar, learned more about rum, and eagerly followed a number of other cocktail bloggers and Instagrammers with a healthy appreciation for all things Tiki, I've convinced myself that it's time to break into this world of beautiful, fantastical, delicious cocktails. Especially since this month is the #TikiTheSnowAway campaign on Instagram. Started by Drinkstagrammers Dani DeLuna and  Nic Titze, this opportunity to sip tropical beverages while watching the snow come down outside is hard to pass up. It's time to start learning about Tiki!

Tiki cocktails aren't just tropical drinks. In fact, some of the best known drinks that you might associate with the beach, like the Pina Colada or the Daiquiri, do not qualify. Cocktails like the Singapore Sling or Pegu Club, which actually were invented in southeast Asia, are not technically Tiki. Tiki is a very specific American cultural movement from the 1940's and 50's that involved everything from food to music to architecture. It is heavily influenced by Polynesia, but it's an Americanized homage with an endearing inauthenticity.

The word "tiki" comes from the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. According to their legends, Tiki was the first man. The word also refers to small carvings and figurines that have humanoid shapes. How it became the moniker of a major cultural movement in America is a bit of a long story, one that I'll summarize briefly here. For more details, check out Smuggler's Cove by Martin Cate, where most of the information below came from.

The father of Tiki was a man named Ernest Gantt, who would later come to be known as Donn Beach. He grew up in New Orleans and spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and the South Pacific when he was young. In 1931, at 24 years old, he found himself in Los Angeles with no money and a whole lot of Polynesian souvenirs. He started renting them out to movie sets and consulting for films. Two years later, he opened a bar in Hollywood that would become Don the Beachcomber, after a pseudonym that he used during his less-than-legal activities in the Caribbean.

Donn Beach
Don the Beachcomber

The bar was something entirely new. Tropical-themed bars and nightclubs existed, but they were quite elegant and served the same kinds of drinks as everywhere else. Donn's bar was far more rustic and eclectic, designed to look like a beach hut filled with driftwood, fishing gear, and lots of assorted Polynesian artifacts. Donn also created an entirely new kind of drink to be served in this distinctive atmosphere. Working with the base recipe for Planter's Punch, he built cocktails that had "one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak." He blended rums and citrus and spices and gave the drinks theatrical names. He also kept the recipes mysterious, using mixtures of ingredients in unmarked bottles so that no one could precisely copy his cocktails.

Don the Beachcomber became incredibly popular. Cate speculates that the Depression was the perfect time for this kind of fantastical, foreign bar experience. It gave people an escape from their troubles and provided a taste of the exotic for those who could not afford to travel. People were enchanted by the entire experience, and no one more so than a fellow named Victor Bergeron.

Trader Vic
Trader Vic

Bergeron owned a small restaurant and bar across from his parents' grocery store in Oakland. He traveled to New Orleans and the Caribbean in hopes of learning to make more exotic cocktails, but it was at Don the Beachcomber that he found his true inspiration. After visiting the bar in 1937, he went home and converted his restaurant into a Polynesian trading post and took the moniker Trader Vic. What Donn Beach had invented, Trader Vic perfected. He served his drinks in fancy mugs with elaborate garnishes. He created tropical cocktails with other spirits besides rum. He even pioneered an entirely new, Americanized twist on Chinese cuisine. The man invented both the Mai Tai and crab rangoon.

As both of these bars grew in popularity and expanded to multiple locations, Tiki exploded. The craze spread across the country, with thatched-roof restaurants filled with Polynesian carvings popping up left and right. But it wouldn't last. By the end of the 1960's, its popularity began to rapidly fade. Cate attributes this to the baby boomers and a growing sense of reality about what was going on in the world. Tiki suddenly seemed inauthentic or even offensive. As bars closed down, their signature recipes were lost. Those establishments that did stick around tried to clumsily reproduce them with the same sugary mixes and synthetic flavors that were popular during that dark age of cocktails. So Tiki got a reputation for being all about tacky decor and bad drinks.

Jeff Beachbum Berry
Jeff "Beachbum" Berry (photo from Liquor.com)

Until recently, that is, when the "Tiki Revivalists" began scouring antique stores for Tiki mugs and piecing together the old recipes in an effort to resurrect the true spirit of Tiki - not just the drinks, but the entire culture of Polynesian Pop that was born alongside them. Modern Tiki legend Jeff "Beachbum" Berry was responsible for rediscovering and distributing many of the classic Tiki cocktail recipes. Slowly but surely, the cocktail world got Tiki fever once again, and it seems like it might be here to stay. You can once again escape to a Polynesian paradise at San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove, Chicago's Three Dots and a Dash, Berry's own Latitude 29 in New Orleans, or countless others across the country. And home bartenders like me can learn to recreate these little pieces of the tropics at home.

So how do you make a Tiki cocktail? While Tiki culture is inspired by Polynesia, the drinks tend to be heavily influenced by Caribbean flavors and liqueurs. As developed by Donn Beach, they usually balance sour (lemon, lime, grapefruit), sweet (syrups, orgeat, grenadine), weak (pineapple juice, seltzer), spirit (traditionally rum), and spice (falernum, allspice liqueur, bitters). In modern Tiki, there has been a lot more experimentation and alteration of this formula, but the general idea is still there.

Jet Pilot

The Jet Pilot is a great starter Tiki cocktail. Invented in the 1950's at the Luau in Beverly Hills (another famous Tiki bar that's worth reading up about), it's a variation on a Zombie. It really shows how complex the flavors in these cocktails can be. Cinnamon, grapefruit, and three different rums offer a deceptively strong and incredibly tasty libation that will instantly transport you into the world of Tiki.

If, like me, you have a limited selection of rums in your home bar, that doesn't mean you can't still make and enjoy these drinks. It's helpful to learn a bit more about rum so that you can decide what the best substitutions will be. I have a little guide here, but I've learned a lot since I wrote it. There's lots of excellent information in Smuggler's Cove, which handily breaks down the rum into categories so you know what the best substitutions are. Other useful guides include this article on Beachbum Berry's six recommended rums and Inu a Kena's Rum 101. For my Jet Pilot, I didn't have a black blended overproof rum, so I subbed in a dark rum. If you're new to Tiki and to rum, it's unlikely that you'll notice too much of a difference!

Jet Pilot

Jet Pilot

1 oz. black blended rum (like Gosling's Black Seal)
3/4 oz. blended aged rum (like Diplomatico Reserva or Appleton Estate Reserve Blend)
3/4 oz. black blended overproof rum (like Lemon Hart 151)
1/2 oz. Velvet Falernum
1/2 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. cinnamon syrup*
1 dash Herbstura (1:1 Angostura bitters and Herbsaint)

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with crushed ice and a few large cubes. Shake until well chilled and pour into a double Old Fashioned glass or Tiki mug. No garnish is recommended, but feel free to go nuts!

*For cinnamon syrup, combine 1/2 cup water and 2 cinnamon sticks in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add 1 cup sugar and stir to dissolve. Remove from heat and let sit for 12 hours. Then strain out the cinnamon sticks.

Recipe adapted from Smuggler's Cove.

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