There may be no cocktail trend that leans so head first into its kitsch factor than that of the tiki bar, boasting drinks that are beautiful, approachable and (dangerously) quaffable.
“I think that tiki drinks are awesome,” says Forest Collins, cocktail expert and creator of 52 Martinis, who spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Hawaii. “They really elevate the idea of drinking rum and blending rum and doing all these really cool, fun things.”
Fun — especially in a food and beverage world that has been intellectualized to the point of quashing it — is truly the operative word here. Indeed, for Eric Syed, beverage director at the Colombian restaurant Parche, part of tiki’s appeal is indeed its inborn openness to riffs and reinterpretation.
“Tiki doesn’t have a ton of rules,” he says, “but usually incorporates at least one exotic ingredient paired with unique or elaborate garnishes.” Emphasis on the elaborate.
“More is more with tiki!” says Serena Harkey, Left Bank Brasserie’s wine and spirits director. And that goes double when it comes to the rum. Indeed, sugar, umbrellas and massive skewers of exotic fruit aside, Oakland’s own Victor Bergeron’s creation of the mai tai in 1944 was above all meant to be a showcase for a top-shelf spirit — specifically, 17-year J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum, which he jazzed up with lime, orgeat and orange curaçao.
For Syed, loving rum goes hand in hand with loving tiki. “I’ve always enjoyed the balance of sweetness combined with complex, exotic flavors,” he says. “Generally, tiki and rum feature a lot of tropical and funky fruit flavors and exotic spices, both attributes that I love.”
And despite current pushes to rename tiki bars and cocktails, no matter what we ultimately dub the category, at its core, tiki is all about escapism and showcasing the best in a simple, top-quality spirit.
“When it comes to tiki cocktails,” says Harkey, “I think you have to really avoid taking something that’s meant to be fun, refreshing and sneakily boozy and muting it by oversimplifying the ingredients list and using safe glassware.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t toy with the classics. If you’re looking for tiki stalwarts, the Bay Area is still home to spots like the Kon-Tiki, Smuggler’s Cove and Trader Vic’s, home of the original mai tai. But if you’re looking for fun plays on the cocktail category that manage to harness the escapism innate to tiki and infuse it with new flavors and flourishes, here are the ones not to miss.
Banshee at Curio
At Curio, Hawaiian bar manager Kylie Durrett has suffused the tiki cocktail with Southeast Asian vibes: The Banshee marries both light and dark rums with pineapple, coconut, makrut lime, turmeric and angostura bitters. The resulting drink is akin to a piña colada, albeit in a more sessionable form.
“It is lighter and more refreshing with the use of mint leaves and freshly grated nutmeg,” explains Durrett, “and fulfills your immediate vacation needs.”
Most importantly, it stays true to what she believes is the mission of a tiki cocktail.
“I think it is important to keep the core ingredients and not lose the basic structure of the drink,” she says. “Added flavors should elevate and complement the drink and still pay homage to its origin.”
Chia at Parche
Tiki travels to South America at Colombian Parche, where Syed took advantage of his experience at Kon-Tiki in downtown Oakland to create his Chia cocktail. The drink boasts a base of Guasca feijoa, a unique distilled spirit made from the feijoa fruit, which is somewhat similar to a pineapple guava. In a nod to the gin-based Saturn, a tiki classic, the spirit is paired with Alkkemist gin, Lewis and Clark gin, passion fruit and orgeat sourced from San Francisco’s own Small Hand Foods.
“Their products are fantastic,” says Syed. “Their orgeat has a strong rosewater component that plays into the floral nature of our Chia.”
Despite being quite similar to the classic Saturn build, the use of two types of gin — as well as the Colombian brandy — is “enough to make the final flavors very different from a Saturn that utilizes a standard gin,” according to Syed. Indeed, the heart of the cocktail — and its name — is inspired by the full moon distillation that gives rise to the Spanish Alkkemist gin: Chia, after all, is the Colombian moon goddess of music.
A Comprehensive Guide to the Bay Area’s Best MocktailsThese 12 spots are light years beyond fake gin and tonics
Oakland’s Own at Acre
At Acre, the team explored toning down the sugar in a classic tiki build to bring out the best in the rum.
“Our intention was a more spirit-forward cocktail that brought balance to the often overly sugar-drenched tiki cocktails,” says chef and co-owner Dirk Tolsma. “I think this is a cocktail you could drink a few of and still feel good, not like you just finished dessert.”
Oakland’s Own is made with white rum, dark rum, orange curaçao, lime and that same Small Hands orgeat.
“It is always tough balancing wanting to do everything in house with bringing in a product that we stand behind,” Tolsma says. “The Small Hand orgeat is an awesome local producer and at the end of the day is as good as what we could make in house.”
Naked Mai Tai at Pacific Cocktail Haven
Rendering the classic more spirit-forward is also what inspired Kevin Diedrich of Pacific Cocktail Haven, who notes that seeing as he’s “not a huge fan of citrus in cocktails,” he downplayed this element as well.
“I use a lime disc — a slice of the lime about a quarter in size cut with no juice on the inside — squeezed and rubbed on the inside of the rocks glass,” he says. “This gives the cocktail all the lime oil and lime taste to it.”
The orgeat is dialed down to just a bar spoon and supplemented with two dashes of Cointreau and 1.5 ounces of Appleton Estate Reserve Rum. The key to the drink, for Diedrich, is the dilution. Stirred about 40 times, it’s finished with a float of a half ounce of Coruba Dark Rum and garnished with a lime wheel and mint. The resulting cocktail manages at once to be headier and more demure than the classic.
True Laurel Hurricane at True Laurel
True Laurel has revisited tiki cocktails more than once, as with the Mai O Mai, a milk-washed combo of blended rum, lime, pistachio orgeat and curaçao finished with a coffee-rum float. And one seasonal offering, the True Laurel Hurricane, was inspired specifically by a unique opportunity to source fresh passion fruit locally.
“No passion-fruit syrup can come close,” says Bar Director Nicolas Torres. “It provides an acidity that allows us to use little to no lime or lemon.”
And while the short season and expense of such a venture could make some balk, for Torres, it was the prime opportunity to revisit tiki with a truly local bent, pairing the passion fruit with gorgeous local blood oranges and house grenadine made from local pomegranate.
“Three rums and this old drink from New Orleans becomes the freshest, most delicious punch in the world,” he says.
Tropical at Left Bank Brasserie
The alcohol-averse need not be sidelined when it comes to tiki: At Left Bank Brasserie, Harkey has imagined a zero-ABV tropical mocktail made with orange, lime, orgeat and cinnamon.
The goal of the drink, she says, is to tap into the token tiki escapism and “provide that moment and vibe without the buzz.”
“I think we all want to be transported to a beachside resort in the hustle of our everyday lives,” she says. “Tiki cocktails are a great way to bring that flavor and feeling to a restaurant in the city.”
Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.