It's all about the rum, fruit juice, and of course, the paper umbrellas, kitschy cocktail stirrers, and garish glassware.
Over its almost-century-long history, the cult of tiki has certainly had its ebbs and flows. But what began in Hollywood over 80 years ago, with Don the Beachcomber’s (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) rum-buttressed drinks and faux-Polynesian cuisine, has finally found a permanent spot in our current cocktail revolution.
That can be credited to a number of factors: the availability of pedigreed rums, an uptick of quality small-batch mixers, and bartenders putting in the legwork of exhuming ancient recipes. And don’t sleep on the flavor. Compared to 3-ingredient Prohibition-era cocktails, tiki drinks exhibit an unparalleled complexity, with some recipes calling for upwards of a dozen different components.
Related: The Best Tiki Bars on the Coast
But the fun of taking down a Zombie or Mai Tai doesn’t have to end at your local tiki hut. With a few cocktail ingredients, a handful of select rums, and an eye for some garish glassware, you can throw together a battery of tropical concoctions, right in your own home. If this seems like a lot to stock, remember to start small and build over time. Dream bars don’t happen overnight.
These sweetening agents add texture and hints of the tropics with spices like ginger, vanilla, and star anise. All can be made at home, but with so many superb pre-bottled examples available on the market, it’s now easier than ever to skip that step.
Falernum: A spicy-sweet elixir made from almonds, ginger, cloves, and lime. Variations also incorporate allspice, vanilla, and nutmeg.
Bottle to Buy: Tippleman’s Double Spiced Falernum, $17
Grenadine: Synonymous with Rose’s: that sweet, Technicolor nectar puddled at the bottom of your Tequila Sunrise. Instead, look for brands that use real pomegranate juice and cane sugar in lieu of high fructose corn syrup.
Bottle to Buy: Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Small Batch Grenadine, $16
Simple syrup: A syrup derived from equal parts sugar and water. Frequently steeped with herbs, chilies, and citrus for added flavor.
Bottle to Buy: Hudson & Lee Honey Simple Syrup, $14
Related: 3 Refreshing Tiki Drinks
Orange curacao: An orange liqueur flavored with the dry, rugged peel of the laraha fruit (or Valencia orange) found on the island of Curacao off the Venezuelan coast. Commonly dyed orange or blue in bottom-shelf examples. Spring for a better brandy-based version.
Bottle to Buy: Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, $27
Amaro: Bitter, herb-infused liqueurs, typically from France and Italy. Campari is the most famous (and an integral component in a Jungle Bird), but there are now dozens of attractive imports available stateside. Whether you’re into tiki or not, stock your bar with a couple different examples for optimal pre- and post-meal quaffing.
Bottle to Buy: Cappelletti Aperitivo, $21
Liquid extracts made from herbs, barks, roots, flowers, fruit, berries, and other aromatics. Doled out in dashes, these flavor enhancers not only temper sweetness and add complexity, they’re a culinary secret weapon. Throw into desserts, doctor up a beer, or drink some with club soda to aid digestion.
Bottle(s) to Buy: Angostura bitters, $10; Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters, $22; Woodford Reserve Barrel Aged Orange bitters, $12
Orange, lime, lemon, pineapple, grapefruit … Let’s just say you’re going to be running through a lot of fruit. Invest in a hand juicer like those from Chef’n FreshForce, which have a dual-gear mechanism that makes squeezing a cinch. For more esoteric ingredients (i.e. passion fruit), try Goya’s line of juices, typically found on your supermarket’s ethnic aisle.
Related: How to Make a Banana Dolphin Tiki Garnish
Even though you’ll see tiki drinks with Scotch, gin, and tequila, rum dominates the genre. After all, this is a category inspired by island culture. But why so many iterations of the Caribbean spirit? One of the fundamental principles behind a successful tiki drink is layering flavor. And not just with various bitters, juices, and liqueurs, but blends of two or more types of rum. Here, 5 suggested bottles that cover a variety of styles and provenances.
Dark Jamaican rum: Ground zero for anyone interested in tiki drinking. These full-bodied rums are usually pot distilled and aged for long periods of time, lending big flavors of caramel and cocoa.
Bottle to Buy: Myers Original Dark Rum, $25
Overproof rum: Rums that are not diluted after the aging process, resulting in a higher than average proof (80-100). These cask strength spirits are divided into two categories: Navy-strength (typically bottled at 114 proof) and 151-rum.
Bottle to Buy: Plantation O.F.T.D. Rum, $32—A blend of rums from Barbados, Guyana, and Jamaica which was developed in collaboration with cocktail author/historian David Wondrich and famed bartenders Paul McGee (Lost Lake), Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove), and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29).
Related: Our Best Rum-Based Cocktails
Rhum Agricole: Full-bodied rums made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses. The resulting spirit—commonly produced in the French West Indies—is heavier on grassy, vegetal notes.
Bottle to Buy: Rhum J.M. Gold, $35
White Rum: Milder, drier rums that are either un-aged or charcoal filtered to remove any color. A summer staple for mojitos and daiquiris, white rums can nonetheless display great nuance and complexity.
Bottle(s) to Buy: Brugal Especial Extra Dry, $23
Demerara rum: Made in Guyana, this rum has a signature smokiness similar to burnt sugar or charred wood.
Bottle to Buy: El Dorado 15-Year-Old Special Reserve, $42
Now comes the fun part: the flair. No tiki experience would be complete without a certain level of kitsch. We’re talking novelty cocktail stirrers, paper umbrellas, and vessels shaped like sugar skulls, carved totems, and even Ernest Hemingway’s head. Not only does it augment the island aesthetic, it helps mask muddier tiki drinks, many of which aren’t fluorescent (a common misconception).
Site to Shop: retroplanet.com
New Orleans-based cocktail legend, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, has been at the forefront of the modern tiki revival. His groundbreaking works, Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log and Intoxica! —which unearthed midcentury recipes once thought to be lost—have become required reading for any home- or pro bartender. Now those two texts have been collected into one essential anthology, Beachbum Berry’s Remixed, complete with 40 bonus recipes.