The Most Interesting Tiki Trend Right Now Involves Whiskey in Place of Rum

How bourbons and single malts can work in your tropical drinks

July 28, 2021 7:03 am
"The Taste of Things Recovered" cocktail, a tiki riff made with Irish whiskey
Whisk(e)y is making its way into tropical/tiki cocktails
Courtesy of Megan Coyle

Olivia Griffin had a vision for her tiki bar.

Some of that vision involved music and burlesque (Titty Tuesdays and Bamboo & Bondage are theme nights at The Limbo). But she also wanted her tropical drink oasis in Louisville to stick out in a different way — through bourbon.

But using whiskey in some of her drinks wasn’t meant to disrespect rum. It was meant to celebrate it, particularly among a crowd that might have otherwise stuck with their hometown hooch. “The bar is for people who enjoy whiskey. I thought this could be a gateway for people to get into aged rums,” as Griffin tells us. “Basically, I wanted to introduce Kentuckians to rum, and there was no starting-off point.”

So you’ll find both rum and bourbon drinks on the menu at The Limbo. And you’ll sometimes find bourbon in place of rum in some classic tiki cocktails. “I’ve always had one featured cocktail that has a bourbon-and-rum split base, or just bourbon swapped in for rum, be it a Painkiller or a Hurricane,” she says. “Maybe some people are scared of rum? There’s an illusion that it’s too sugar-y. Not to gender it too much, but bourbon is also branded as a ‘man’s drink,’ even though it’s enjoyed by everyone. So, hey, maybe I’ll get you to try it in a Mai Tai.”

A drinks menu and cocktail from The Limbo, a tiki bar in Louisville
A drinks menu and cocktail from The Limbo, a tiki bar in Louisville
The Limbo Bar

There isn’t a huge precedent for whiskey in what would be considered a tiki cocktail, at least as a bar’s main theme (“I don’t know of anyone else doing it,” admits Griffin.) Other bartenders and drinks pros have certainly played with the idea. Depending on your historical time frame, the Suffering Bastard utilizes either whiskey or rum as a base. Tiki godfathers Trader Vic’s used whiskey in a sour. And some whisk(e)y brands are now doing additional maturations in rum barrels, which certainly opens up brown spirits to the world of tropical drinks. 

In Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s Sippin’ Safari — a 2007 tome credited with the Tiki revival — the author defines a tiki drink loosely as a “retro term by 21st century cocktail categorizers … they are faux-Polyneian, post-Prohibition riffs on pre-Prohibition Caribbean drinks” and mentions the key ingredients of lime, sugar and rum. So he’s aware of the history of the tiki drink and acknowledging its very loose definition. In other words, it’s open to interpretation … and yet, I could only find one cocktail in that book that used whiskey as an ingredient (and not a main ingredient, either).

“Tiki recipes have always been shrouded in mystery,” argues Megan Coyle, a longtime hospitality vet. “From the earliest days of tiki, the ingredients used were hidden in mysterious bottles, often with such descriptive labels as ‘blend #3.’ Really, how can we be sure some of those original rum blends didn’t have a hit of the grain in them? Also, I would argue that retraining our brains to think of Tiki drinks as a thing independent of a specific spirit category will lead to greater freedom of movement for some underused players.”

As Griffin notes, it’s easy enough to swap bourbon or whiskey in for rum — depending on the cocktail, the bourbon may make these reconfigured drinks more boozy and less sweet, and the whiskey will certainly be more noticeable in your cocktail than an unaged rum (which might get lost). 

That said, “Be thoughtful about your builds,” Coyle suggests. “I often work by allowing the flavor profile of the whiskey to guide me. Where would you like to be sipping it neat? In front of a campfire fire? Maybe you do want to go rich and smokey. On a beach at night? Try tropical and a little salty, perhaps. While I would argue there are no hard and fast rules (i.e. never use a smokey Scotch in a Mai Tai), it really all depends on where you hope the drink will take you emotionally. Remember, this is Tiki. A world of fantasy made real and attainable impossibility is the whole point.”

A couple of whiskey/tiki (or tropical whiskey) cocktails to try:

Three Dots and a Dash drink at The Limbo
Virginia Miller

Three Dots & A Dash

Courtesy of The Limbo, Louisville 

2 oz. Coopers’ Craft Bourbon 
.25 oz. St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram 
.25 oz. The Bitter Truth Golden Falernum 
1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice 
1 oz. Fresh Orange Juice 
.5 oz. Honey 

Add all ingredients into a blender with ice and flash-blend; pour into a Tiki mug over crushed ice; garnish with three blueberries and a candied ginger slice, skewered and a pineapple wedge; serve with a straw. 

And Palm Trees Lined the Street cocktail
Courtesy of Megan Coyle

And Palm Trees Lined The Street

By Megan Coyle

1 oz Rampur Double Cask Single Malt Whisky 
1 oz Capitoline Tiber Aperitivo
1 oz Regal Rogue Wild Rosé Vermouth
1 oz fresh pineapple juice
1 oz passionfruit juice

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake hard to combine and pour into a Tiki over crushed ice. Top with black lemon bitters.

Ardbeg Islay Birdie

By Cameron George, Ardbeg National Brand Ambassador

1.5 oz Ardbeg Wee Beastie
1.5 oz Pineapple Juice
.5 oz Campari
.5 oz lime juice
.5 oz maple syrup
Splash soda water (if needed)

Add all liquid ingredients to a shaker tin (except for soda water), shake for dilution. Strain into glass over ice. Garnish with pineapple, pineapple leaves, cherry. 


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