Matthew Kelly/Supercall

Modern Tiki Drinks That Go Way Beyond Rum


The cocktail revolution has done a lot for drinking in America. It’s given us scores of new bars across the country, from speakeasies and concept bars in metropolises like New York and San Francisco serving Negronis in lightbulbs, to whiskey-obesessed neighborhood joints in smaller towns like Oklahoma City and even Omaha, Nebraska, offering rare bottles by the ounce. But one of the most exciting side effects of the cocktail renaissance is the rebirth of one of the greatest cocktail movements of the early 20th century: tiki.

Thanks in large part to the devoted fans of tiki’s founders, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, tropical drinks from the Fog Cutter to the Zombie were rescued from the neon-hued horrors of the 1980s and ‘90s—we’re looking at you, pre-made Mai Tai mix—and have slowly but surely returned to their garden-to-glass roots. And with this renewed interest in tiki comes a new generation of creative mixologists who are embracing the Polynesian-inspired concoctions while putting their own, subtle twist on tiki. It’s the colorful, paper umbrella antidote to the mustachioed speakeasy movement.

“Around 2010 I started noticing that the craft cocktail movement was no longer turning up its nose at tiki, which was the case in the early aughts,” says Jeff Berry, prolific tiki author and owner of New Orleans’ Latitude 29, which features a menu of recipes spanning tiki’s 80-year history, many of which Berry tracked down and revitalized himself. He, along with tiki luminaries like Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, played an essential role in revitalizing tiki and making it what it is today. “Tiki drinks were considered part of the problem, not as the culinary craft cocktails that they, in fact, were—and are,” he says.

Since Berry and his Aloha shirt-wearing compatriots first began resurrecting these beachy classics, the movement has come a long way, and rather than continue on as a mere tribute to its creators, tiki's proponents are instead broadening the category and its appeal. Berry notes that in tiki’s heyday, the staple drinks “were almost exclusively rum drinks,” but today, bartenders are opening tiki up to a wider variety of spirits, from vodka and gin to whiskey and mezcal. What was already a complex and nuanced category of cocktails—as Berry notes, tiki cocktails can balance up to 14 different ingredients at a time—now has even more flavor possibilities.

“I think that complexity is what’s attracting today’s mixologists to the genre—it’s a way to stretch themselves, to flex their muscles,” Berry says.

Berry himself has experimented with spirits like Japanese whisky in the South Seas Sinner (Japanese whisky, pistachio and orchard cherry liqueurs, toasted coconut rum, Li Hing tincture) and vodka in the Mississippi Mermaid (vodka, tamarind, allspice, lemon, banana)—but he’s just one of many putting his stamp on the tiki trend.

Here, three nouveau tiki recipes from bars around the country, from a well-known sleek Chicago hotspot to a lesser known tropical den in New Jersey.

Matthew Kelly/Supercall
Three Dots and a Dash made waves when it opened in Chicago in 2013—and it’s not hard to see why. The bar not only brought tiki classics to the Windy Cindy but also its own complex creations—all served in some seriously amazing glassware.

“I really appreciate when innovative bartenders incorporate a flavor or ingredient that is outside of the classic tiki palate while still respecting the essence of the classic recipe and presentation,” says beverage director Kevin Beary. That philosophy is evident in this rhum agricole and mango brandy based swizzle. It incorporates a refreshing, yet potent blend of tropical flavors including pineapple juice and kiwi, a relatively unusual cocktail ingredient.

Beary adds that one of his favorite things about working with tiki cocktails is the tinkering involved. “Very often the ingredients of a classic tiki cocktail sound like they would taste good together but don’t often work in the proportions of the original [recipe],” he says. “It is very gratifying to recreate these recipes into cocktails that please the modern palate.”

The Essentials

Rhum Agricole
Mango Brandy
lime juice
Matthew Kelly/Supercall
Denver, surrounded by snow-topped mountains and ski trails, isn’t the first place you’d expect to find innovative tiki cocktails, but when the snow bunnies clear out for the season, sunshine and swimsuits abound—as does the need for refreshing, summery sips. Enter this frothy, tropical drink from Departure Elevated.

“Tiki cocktails are both visually appealing and refreshing coolers in the summer sun,” says Brandon Wise, director of beverage operations for Sage Restaurant Group, which operates Departure Elevated. This particularly appealing cooler is a take on a Batida, a traditional shaken or blended Brazilian drink that often includes tropical flavors like coconut and passionfruit, as well as Brazil’s national rum-like spirit cachaça. This variation puts a tiki twist on those tried-and-true ingredients, swapping out the traditional white cachaça for a banana-and-vanilla-tinged aged cachaça, and topping it all off with a garnish all tiki lovers will recognize: freshly grated nutmeg.

Wise adds that the creativity allowed within the almost nonexistent constraints of tiki are what makes it so fun: “I enjoy exploring new flavor combinations in tiki cocktails because the canvas is so broad,” he says.

The Essentials

coconut milk
lime juice
Matthew Kelly/Supercall
While tiki includes a number of simpler cocktails ripe for adaptation and reinvention, sometimes bartenders look outside the category for inspiration. Lindsey Taylor of Little Buddy Hideaway in Asbury Park, New Jersey, for example, turned a commonplace Whiskey Sour into a tropical delight with the addition of orgeat, cane syrup and tiki bitters.

“I love creating tiki cocktails because there are no limits, anything is possible and a lot of strange things work,” says Taylor. “Untraditional has always been—in my opinion—the tiki tradition. You can mix bourbon with gin, Chartreuse with pineapple, absinthe can be laced in coconut, and somehow it all works. Tiki has always been complex and odd.”

Using both bourbon and rye whiskey in this elixir is in keeping with that complex and odd tradition. Taylor notes that including non-traditional ingredients like bourbon is a great way to convince new people to dip into the tiki trend. “Modern tiki is changing how people imbibe, exposing them to different flavors, trends, spirits. It has been tremendously inspirational to people who have loved tiki for so long,” Taylor says. “I hope it's here to stay.”

The Essentials

Rye Whiskey

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