If there is one defining characteristic of tiki, surely it’s excess; in both construction and presentation, these baroque drinks tend to take a “more is more” approach. Typically garnished like an avant-garde fruit stand, a tiki drink can be built on upwards of ten ingredients. Amid a growing interest in low-proof drinks, however, a number of bartenders have sought to capture the essence of tiki and all its trappings at a lower octane.
A particularly adaptable template has proven to be the Mai Tai—traditionally composed of lime juice, orgeat, Curaçao and two types of rum—which is already a relatively reserved drink, by tiki standards. Unsurprisingly, Martin Cate, of tiki-havens Smuggler’s Cove and False Idol, is among those to turn the formula on its head. In his Mai Tai Spritz, he looks to the spritz for inspiration, swapping out one of the two rums for a brut Champagne topper. Jeremy Oertel, on the other hand, takes a bitter approach: While his Bitter Mai Tai, made with Campari, plays off an Angostura-driven riff on the Trader Vic original, his Artichoke Hold adds flavor by way of Cynar and St-Germain to a three-quarter ounce base of Jamaican rum.
In an especially low-proof rendition, bartender Will Peet omits strong spirit altogether. His drink, The Mauser, is based on another tiki icon, the Zombie, and offers a split-sherry base. Complementing the Zombie’s traditional flavors of grapefruit, lime, grenadine and Angostura, the result is a lighter, intensely savory cocktail that maintains the essence of tiki.
Sherry (in this case, amontillado) also forms the base of Jeff Beachbum Berry’s U.S.S. Wondrich, a low-proof “intermissions drink” intended to act as a refresher between the first and third cocktail of the night. A modern tiki legend, Berry adds in a measure of pineapple juice, plus red vermouth and Sabra liqueur (a chocolate-orange liqueur) for a dead-simple drink, fittingly garnished with a pineapple wedge. Likewise, the Tiki Tak builds on a base of fortified wine—in this case, dry vermouth—before getting a tropical lift from additions of pineapple juice, banana liqueur and Velvet Falernum.
Sometimes, even with tiki, less is more.