Updated: Mar 7
Since the birth of the Modern Cocktail in 1806, no period of the cocktail timeline has since enjoyed such a kaleidoscope of feelings toward it as has the world of Tiki. The same culture of escapism which cut a wake through turquoise blue waters and also chartered boundless discovery of the Pacific Islands in all its tropical glory is the same cocktail culture that became a cut and paste snapshot of every cheesy jungle print sports bar in America.
The world of tiki has ebbed and flowed in favour. At high tide, it’s a cocktail culture of cultish proportions, propounded by two cocktail ‘Hall of Famers’ who watched as the world profited from their passionate rivalry. The covert espionage, idyllic personal connections, the flamboyant cocktails so expertly crafted, so dramatically presented with bespoke ingredients and 'conversation starting' names.
At low tide, it was a systematic drag, a procedural bore bound by a blueprint of processes hidden behind spoof decor; living proof that cocktail bars should never become franchise chains if they don't have to. The world of tiki went through its dark times for sure, overarched with a messy spout of cultural appropriation, and an even messier spout of overly sweetened juiced up Slurpees, which folded syrups together with complete disregard for balance, and went through blades in commercial blenders like a hot bar spoon through butter.
However, no matter where in time you have found the world of tiki, the culture has always seen a resurged success in one form or another with thanks largely to its pillars of success and those are Rum, Spice & Fruit.
How did Rum become so synonymous with tiki?
You’ll have to go back in history to see how and why the worlds of Rum and tiki got so richly intertwined. Yes, Rum has undeniable qualities which lend itself so beautifully to tiki culture, if not only for Rum’s own maritime connection to high hopes and high tides of Island living in the Caribbean; but in reality tiki expresses itself just as well with many other spirits like Bourbon, Gin, Whisky and Cognac.
But tiki’s love affair with Rum goes back to the 1930s when bootlegged Rum made its way up to the U.S during the time of prohibition. Rum was easier to get your hands on, and it was way cheaper than importing Whisky and Cognac from Europe. Global Brand Ambassador for the House Angostura Daniyel Jones gives us insight, as to why Rum specifically was the main protagonist in original tiki drinks:
"When combined with the islands tropical seasoning and friendly vibrancy it laid fruit for this experience to be shared through the tasty treat of your favorite tiki cocktail. On the island of Trinidad & Tobago, where the House of ANGOSTURA is located, Trader Vic purposely came to visit the Queens Park Hotel to taste the famous “Queens Park Swizzle”, which in his book:
Trader Vic Food & Drink, declared it as “The most delightful form of anesthesia given today”. This poetic finesse possesses anyone who visits as they are easily charmed by the Caribbean’s beauty, especially when served with a measure of the islands Rum."
The booming period of 'commercialised' tiki culture began when a part-time acting, ex-war veteran turned Island hopping adventurer named Donn Beach opened the Beachcomber Café in Hollywood in 1934. It followed the great depression, with a healthy dose of escapism which was the perfect antidote for the American public and everyone was booking their table for a fresh slice of the tropics and a fresh tipple of Rum.
The best thing to happen to tiki culture though was when Trader Vic Bergeron opened up Hinky Dinks in Oakland California to start a covert rivalry that would see two aspiring empires pioneer their parallel dreams, and all for the benefit of the same thing in the end. One of the most interesting things about this rivalry was their commitment to secrecy. Lest your secret recipes may fall in the hands of your rival, you had better not let anyone but a handful of people know how to mix your elicit concoctions.
Gaining intelligence into the techniques of the enemy meant calling for a little spat of spying. Decoded in secret, ingredients were batch made and indiscriminately named on purpose to foil would-be thieves. Mixes like Falernum, Donn’s Mix, Pearl Divers Mix, and Gardenia were all bespoke ingredients the proprietors used as a way of imparting massive flavors into their drinks. Many of them were laced with spices, fruits, and nuts and provided the one staple pillar of tiki drinks which was SPICE.
In fact, a story tells of Trader Vic actually inventing the Mai Tai, after sending a crew to Donn the Beachcombers playing real regular customers with intent to try the drinks out and pilfer recipes. It is said that Trader Vic's Mai Tai is a stout repost of Donn Beach’s QB Cooler Cocktail, which Vic created out of gaining intel from his staff scouts who had discerned the ingredients of the cocktail by taste after one particular recognizance mission.
Sly Augustin, Owner-Operator at Trailer Happiness in London tells of how close we are to the original recipes:
"The level of secrecy that Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic used to guard their tropical drink recipes is well documented, the recipes, not so much. This meant many modern versions were at best interpretations and at worst impersonations.
Creating historically accurate drinks can be expensive. Rum distilleries can change styles over time and if your recipe simply calls for a ‘Jamaican’ or ‘white’ rum, then your drink can go in 100 different directions. The key is understanding the originally intended flavour profile, once you know that, you can combine inexpensive rums to re-create a drink that’s much closer in spirit to the original, even if it’s not strictly true to the original recipe."
Even the actual menus were vaguely non-descriptive. For example, The Vicious Virgin Cocktail, aptly named after a World War air craft B-16 Bomber of the same name, had a drink description on Donn’s menu which read “A Blend of Virgin Island Rums, and West Indian Spiced Liqueurs”. Tiki historians like Beachbum Berry have since decoded these secret recipes into modern-day relatable renditions. So without letting the coconut spoil any more than necessary; here are 8 Tiki drinks you should’ve heard of by now, along with the closest recipes we have available today.
Opening the 'Vault' of tiki's forgotten libations.
1. The Test Pilot
The Test Pilot was one of Donn Beach’s original creations, and one of many which paid homage to his flying days as a soldier during World War II. Other drinks inspired by naval aviation include the Vicious Virgin, the Jet Pilot, and the QB Cooler, a drink named after Donn’s own flying squad. They were affectionately dubbed the ‘Quiet Birdmen’ relating to the covert nature they adopted while flying bomb raids at night.
The Test Pilot was created during the time of the Jet Age, a time when the human race was pioneering new frontiers in space and breaking all sorts of aviation records. Famously, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947.
In basic terms, it can be understood like this. The Test Pilot (1941) is, simply put, a Vicious Virgin with the addition of Pernod Pastis or an Absinthe. The Vicious Virgin (1934) can be said to be a Daiquiri with added Falernum, and most importantly made with, as the name suggests, Virgin Island Rums. The Daiquiri (1902) consists of the cocktail trinity of ingredients which are Rum, Lime, and Sugar, and provided the base for all these amazing drinks which are all later reincarnations. Then to confuse things even further, the Mai Tai (1947) can simply be referred to as a Daiquiri with added Orgeat. Herein we see the importance of the Daiquiri Cocktail, the original gangster Sour of tiki.
The Test Pilot
40ml Jamaican Rum 20ml Puerto Rican Rum 10ml Orange Curacao 10ml Falernum 15ml Lemon Juice 2 Dashes Angostura Bitters 6 Dashes Absinthe
A Dollar & Seventy Five well spent!
2. Coffee Grogg V.2 (Trader Vic)
Tiki has served up a bunch of hot cocktails over the decades. The most famous of which is the Hot Buttered Rum Cocktail which can be traced back in history to the colonial days in the U.S after they had begun importing molasses from the Americas. Of lesser fame, but of equal brilliance is Trader Vic's Coffee Grogg, of which he published two versions in his Bartenders Guide in 1965. I'm featuring version 2 mainly because of its coffee and cream of coconut combination, which is a delicious match made in Caribbean heaven, but also because it comes in a Head Hunters Mug, rumored to be the only female tiki mug ever.
Coffee Grogg V.2
20ml Jamaican Rum
20ml Flaming Overproof Rum
180ml Hot Coffee (Kona)
2 Barspoons Coco Real
1 Orange Peel Rind
1 Lemon Peel Rind
I think for this drink, I would stick to plunged coffee rather than to use espresso coffee.
I saw this technique for the first time during the Bacardi Legacia competition a while ago. The winner of Bacardi Legacia SA, Nick Koumbarakis used a French press to amalgamate the flavours of the coffee in a flash on stage. It was also the first time I had seen lemon and coffee mixed together in that way (other than a Bahama Mama).
Nick gives his train of thought as to how he came to the idea of using a French Press like this:
"I wanted to highlight the simplicity and to a degree the theatrical element of such a technique not only behind the bar but more so towards the home consumer, that they too can make a great tasting cocktail"
The Tourist Revival. Serves 2
5 grams of Single Origin Coffee (Whole Beans)
2 grams of Green Cardamon (in a Mortar and Pestle crush the Green Cardamon)
90 ml Bacardi Ocho (8) Rum
40 ml Martini Rubino Vermouth
15 ml Maraschino Liqueur
3. The Sharks Tooth
Supposedly one of the very first cocktails Trader Vic ever penned. Its basic construction would suggest this to be true, but the Sharks Tooth shouldn't be taken lightly. It is basically a Rum Rickey with Grenadine at first glance but I included the drink because of its heavy dependence on Overproof Rum. Many bartenders are fearful to use Overproof Rums because of their high alcohol content, but the battle belongs to the brave, and favour follows!
The truth is, any high octane spirit will come with huge flavour benefits off the back of its high alcohol content. Higher alcohols obviously still contain loads of esters, and congeners which in themselves help carry flavours in spirits. So for cocktails such as this one, the big flavours of Overproof are the secret to this drink.
I suggest making the pomegranate syrup from scratch. This way you'll be able to impart more flavours as well. Try adding pineapple pulp, star anise and a touch of balsamic to your pomegranates when cooking your grenadine down.
Don't be scared of the Overproof, the addition of Soda water balances the alcohol and what you have left after kicks mad flava in yo ear; thank you Craig Mac!
The Sharks Tooth
20ml Overproof Rum
25ml Lime Juice
10ml Sugar Syrup
Top with Soda Water
4. Don's Pearl
The mere fact that his name is still spelt with only one 'n' suggests that this recipe was created during the time of Beachcomber cafe - Don's original restaurant from which the mega-chain was spawned. Don had to change his name to continue his legacy through a chain that would still retain his name. Changing his name from Don to Donn, with two 'n's meant that he could do so.
The description of this drink reads as follows:
"White Rums, with tropical syrups and Mexican limes."
This is the first hint to a notion that perhaps the godfathers of Tiki used limes sourced from different parts of the Americas in order to achieve certain flavour profiles in drinks.
However, there is nothing to suggest that the Polynesian Pearl Diver came from the Don's Pearl cocktail. The Pearl Diver gets its name from one of Don's spicy Syrup mixes called Gardenia aka Pearl Divers mix (A sort of honeyed up vanilla syrup with butter and spices folded in). Whereas the Don's Pearl got its name from a pretty cool selling technique Don introduced to try and encourage purchases of the drink in what we can say was probably one of the first examples of consumer marketing known in the bar. He would give away a genuine pearl with every 5th drink ordered. Not knowing which one would be yours, it encouraged you to take a chance and see if your night would be 'made' by getting one in a twist of fortune designed to encourage purchase.
5. The Shingle Stain
Trader Vic was well known for his penchant for changing the recipes for his drinks over time. The Shingle Stain is one of those unfortunate cocktails and if you have seen a recipe for this drink, the chances are that you have seen a really timid version of the original.
Unlike Trader Vic’s Honi Honi, which I believe had a change for the better, the Shingle Stain’s revamp pales in comparison to the original which appeared in his 1946 Book of Food & Drink. It isn’t clear how he came up with the name, and the commentary accompanying the drink reads ‘Now don’t take the shingle off the roof. This is really good’.
So we can safely rule out the other type of shingle which he may be referring too, and put our thoughts toward the name making reference to the colour of the actual cocktail in appearance. The grenadine tainted rum colour resembles something that you could easily use as a stainer for wooden shingles you would find on the roof.
However you slice it, this is still an incredible drink. The spice of the pimento dram (A brandy-based mix with allspice and Demeraran sugar), the deep red flavours of the pomegranate, Dark Jamaican Rum and Rhum Agricole pack this drink with flavour.
The original serving suggestion is to strain over fresh cracked ice in a tall glass, I would just as quickly serve it strain up ice cold in a daisy glass myself.
Shingle Stain – 1946 Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink
40ml Jamaican Rum 20ml Rhum Agricole 15ml Pimento Dram Juice of a full lime 10ml Grenadine Syrup
6. Gun Club Punch
Like many tiki drinks at the time, the recipe methods called for the ingredients to be flash blended. I’m not a huge fan of that preparation method and I’ve always thought that the invention of the blender made bartenders of the time go crazy and want to blend everything, not even the Martini was safe!
Sort of like in today’s example of the Jerry Thomas roll or throw technique, which has seen bartenders now want to throw every drink they make, just for show even though perhaps another drink method would better suit.
What I love about this drink is that it was served in a Trader Vic’s bespoke bullet cartridge. Even though it is called a Punch, it is a singular served drink, which would probably mean that the reference to it being Punch was more about the elements in the drink resembling a traditional punch (Spirit, Sweet, Sour, Weak & Spice) more so of it being of group serving size. I’d say shake this drink, but you might have to amend the recipe.
The Gun Club Punch
25ml White Rum 25ml Jamaican Dark Rum 10ml Curacao Liqueur 25ml Pressed Lime Juice 40ml Pineapple Juice 5ml Sugar Syrup 5ml Grenadine Syrup
7. Never Say Die
The Never Say Die comprises the very popular articulation of Rum varieties Donn applied to his drinks. His signature trio of Rums were complimented with a trio of citrus juices and then laced with honey-mix sweetener.
When using honey it’s always a great idea to boil it down with water to make it the right texture to be added easily to liquids, and for added depth of flavour you should add some orange blossom water into the honey-mix as well.
Many of Donn’s drinks make reference to the war, probably because of his involvement in the 2nd World War. Many think that Donn’s love affair with the Pacific started while he was in the war with suggestions that he was stationed in the South Pacific for a period of his drafting. However, more than likely, he was stationed in Europe and probably only gained his affections for the South Pacific after he was doing odd jobs on sets of popular Hollywood movies of the time which were then shot in the South Pacific Islands.
Never Say Die
25ml Gold Rum 15ml White Rum 15ml Dark Jamaican Rum 15ml Orange Juice 15ml Grapefruit Juice 15ml Lime Juice 15ml Honey Water (Honey with water and Orange Blossom)
8. The Missionary’s Downfall
If you have ever had even the littlest of glances at the world of tiki, then you would’ve undoubtedly come across this drink, one of the pin-up poster drinks of tiki; the Missionary’s Downfall.
A venerable classic which invariably contains a boozy headset of multiple Rums, like most of the names of these drinks which came from that period they were named after vengent protagonists which come back to bite you in the morning when you wake up. It’s supposed to tell a story of drink from which even the purist imbiber of temperance would not be able to resist, to their own downfall.
Originally intended to be served in a stemmed glass as it appears on the menu from Don the Beachcomber’s, just after its first move to a space across the road from the original around 1941, although there is little doubt it graced the very first menu as well.
More popular renditions of this drink see it being served over ice in a tall Collins glass, a version which I fully support. Not to be confused the Aku Aku cocktail, which is basically the same drink but blended. The Missionary’s Downfall won’t give you that vibrant green colour if you shake it, but what you will get when you shake it is a nice fluffy head, courtesty of the Pineapple juice. One of the best tiki drinks of all in my opinion, a great combination of rum, tropical flavours, and fresh mint.
40ml Rum Blend (Dark Jamaican, White Cuban, and Aged Golden Rums) 15ml Peach Schnapps 10ml Honey-Mix 40ml Fresh Pressed Pineapple 20ml Fresh Lime Juice Angostura Float 5 Fresh Mint Leaves
So if you are in the liquor industry, or just a part-time lover of cocktails the allure of tiki drinks has a spell on us all.
In a lot of ways, people don’t take tiki seriously. Overly garnished drinks served in goofy vessels made poorly over the years have detracted from the fact that the original institutors of this cocktail craze were fanatical mixologists way ahead of their time.
Tiki is fun and non-pretentious, unlike some stiff bartending styles of late, but it must at all costs not be mistaken as anything other than expertly made drinks, mixed by extremely knowledgeable bartenders who have the utmost appreciation for ingredients and how to push the boundaries between them.
If you want to connect with me, leave a comment and I'll get back to you. Tchau!