It's hard to remember now, but tiki bars, those kitschy, luau-themed lounges pervasive in lower-latitude beach towns, were the Umami Burger of their day. By the 1960s, the two rival California bars that started the hoopla — Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber — had outposts all over the world, from Minnesota to Munich. And the drinks were good. Damn good. The mainly rum-based cocktails had evocative names like the Scorpion Bowl and the Zombie. They were defined by the exotic mugs that bartenders served them in, as well as by their over-the-top garnishes: flowers, umbrellas, pineapple leaves, even fire. "They were a little escape, a mini-vacation," says Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, author of Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari and Potions of the Caribbean, who has become the world's foremost tiki archaeologist. "They were places where you could shut out the world and just drift for a few hours."
Today, a wave of new high-profile tiki bars such as Chicago's Three Dots and a Dash, San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove, and Berry's Latitude 29, in New Orleans, are breathing new life into the once-forgotten drinks. And the new concoctions are a far cry from the sickly sweet cocktails that took over in the Seventies and gave the style a bad rap. When made properly, tiki drinks are delicious, as the recipes below demonstrate. All you'll need to add is some ukulele music and a giant straw, and you can close your eyes and just drift.
The Original Mai Tai
- 1 oz light Jamaican rum (such as Appleton Estate Reserve)
- 1 oz dark Martinique rum (such as Rhum Clément VSOP)
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
- ½ oz curaçao
- ¼ oz orgeat (almond syrup)
- ¼ oz simple syrup
Shake together all ingredients with ice, then strain into an ice-filled old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a lime wedge and mint sprig.
- 2 oz gin (preferably Cadenhead's Old Raj)
- 3 cardamom pods
- 1 oz fresh pineapple juice
- ¾ oz fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz simple syrup
- Q tonic
Muddle gin and cardamom pods in a shaker. Add juices and simple syrup, shake over ice, and strain into a mug filled with ice. Top with tonic; garnish with a few pineapple leaves.
- 2 oz dark rum (such as Cruzan Black Strap)
- 4 oz pineapple juice
- ¾ oz Campari
- ½ oz lime juice
- ½ oz simple syrup
Shake ingredients; pour unstrained into a tall tiki mug. Garnish with an orange wheel, a pineapple leaf, and a cocktail umbrella.