Going Tiki! An Introduction to Rum and Exotic Cocktails

I have been passionate for mixology, the art of preparing cocktails, for over a decade. My go-to spirits are gin and rye; rum never really interested me, maybe because my first introduction was the classic Malibu and pineapple juice served at French discothèques.

As my enthusiasm for craft cocktails grew, from mixing them at home, visiting inventive bars to attending events like Tales of the Cocktail, I was introduced to delightful rum and Tiki cocktails in places like the Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, or Latitude 29 in New Orleans.

Falling in Love with Tiki Drinks

Yet, anything I attempted to fix at home was disappointing, lacking the luster of the exotic cocktails I had enjoyed in those venues. A couple years ago, a friend and Tiki connoisseur recommended the book “Smuggler’s Cove, Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki” by Martin and Rebecca Cate, that had recently won a James Beard award: it was a revelation!

After diving into the recipes listed in the book, I had to upgrade the rum section of my bar, a sad trio of Bacardi staples which probably explained some of my mediocre results, and went on a shopping spree, looking for different varieties of rum to build the elaborate layers of the Tiki flavors.

My pathetic early rum selection

I also started to make all sorts of syrups: my fridge, which only stored homemade simple syrup (1:1) and grenadine, is now also preserving demerara, cinnamon, molasses, and honey syrups, all playing an important role in the Tiki aromas.

This book was truly a game changer for me as I learned the basics of successful Tiki cocktails, allowing me to concoct elixirs as exquisite as the ones I had been enjoying in craft cocktail bars. The key is to use quality ingredients and balance the sour (citrus), sweet (sugar), strong (rum, but sometimes gin or vodka), weak (fruit juices), and spices.

My current rum collection

A little rum education

As rum is the star ingredient of Tiki cocktails, it is essential to understand the diversity of rums available on the market and how that variety will affect the cocktails you create.

Rum is the spirit distilled from sugarcane. The sugarcane is mixed with water and fermented with yeast to create ethanol, producing a wash of ideally 7% to 9% ABV (alcohol by volume).

The wash is then distilled, resulting in the concentration of alcohol and congeners.

The obtained clear spirit (alcohol comes out of the still clear) is then aged, proofed to its final ABV and bottled.

Because of the terroir where the sugarcane is grown, the form chosen and yeast used for fermentation, the distillation method selected, the length and vessel of choice for the aging process and final blending, there is a wide array of rums available, with various personalities. Some may bloom when mixed with the perfect ingredients in delightful cocktails while others are better savored alone, neat or on ice, like you would a Bourbon or Cognac.

The many forms of sugarcane, the raw material

  • Fresh juice, highly perishable and only available during harvest season, typical of Rhum Agricole
  • Evaporated juice
  • Syrups
  • Crystallized sugar, produced by boiling sugar cane juice
  • Molasses, byproduct of the crystallized sugar process, and the most common ingredient used in rum production

Fresh sugar cane

Main distillation methods

  • Column still, most widely used because of its efficiency and higher output: in the Coffey 2-column design, the wash can be fed continuously, and the resulting spirit is lighter bodied with higher proof
  • Pot still, a method using a large copper vessel, is less efficient, usually involving double distillation (the first that concentrates the wash to about 30% ABV, the second, that concentrates the obtained "high wines" to about 70% ABV), but also delivers bolder flavors

Various aging methods

Some rum are simply aged a few months in stainless steel vats, others several years in charred oak barrels, new or previously used (bourbon, sherry).

The region where the aging occurs also impacts the final product, as it will age faster in warmer climates. Some rums may also be charcoal-filtered, resulting in a lighter color and flavor.

A brief history of the Tiki cocktail

The pioneers

  • Ernest Raymond Beaumont Grant opened Don’s Beachcomber café in 1933 in Hollywood, considered the first Tiki bar. Inspired by his Caribbean travels in his youth, he introduced the Planter’s Punch cocktail.
  • Victor Jules Bergeron, who had opened a joint called Hinky Dinks in Oakland, California, transformed it into Trader Vic’s, being inspired after visiting Don’s Beachcomber in 1937. One of his most famous creation is the Mai Tai, now a classic cocktail.
    His nickname and the bar's namesake came from his habit of exchanging drinks and food for any decorative artifacts that would enhance the venue.

Rise and fall of the Tiki bar

  • During the depression, most Americans could not afford to travel, so sipping on Tiki cocktails with mysterious names, amazing presentation, and seductive flavors, was an easy way to escape to exotic territories and forget about everyday routine, especially when the venues were adorned by artifacts from the sea and tropical islands.
  • The word Tiki comes from the Maori culture in New Zealand and refers to a carving that represents the first man. It became the icon of exotic drinks as the Polynesian Pop movement developed post World War II.
  • The movement grew popular, reaching its golden era int he 1950’s. By the 1970’s, the Polynesian pop was a thing of the past, considered kitsch and has-been.

Tiki revival

Tiki started to come back in the 1990’s, revitalized with the publication of "The Book of Tiki" by Sven Kirsten. Now, Tiki bars are resurging in the cocktail scene, offering the classics and and new creations, and giving a second life to the Polynesian Pop movement.

Recipe for the classic Hurricane cocktail

Forget the store-bought mixes to prepare this iconic cocktail made famous by Pat O'Brian on Bourbon Street. The real deal is easier to achieve than you think, and much tastier. Even the props (hurricane glasses and paper umbrellas) are quite inexpensive and easy to procure.

  • 2 oz lemon juice
  • 2 oz passion fruit syrup (I use Giffard's passion fruit liqueur)
  • 4 oz black blended rum (I use Goslings Black Seal)

Mix with ice in a cocktail shaker, pour in a hurricane glass three-quartered filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a "hurricane-damaged" cocktail umbrella.

Hurricane cocktails

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