When Don the Beachcomber began slinging Zombies and Grog in the 1930s, sparking a decadeslong tiki craze, “bitter” had not yet entered the tiki lexicon. Sour, sweet and spice were the typical trappings of Don’s so-called “Rhum Rhapsodies.” Today, however, thanks to the bittering of the tropical backbar, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tiki bar that couldn’t double as an aperitivo bar.
Indeed, bitter and herbal liqueurs are a perfect match for the layered fruit and spiced notes of tiki, and their eventual pairing was an inevitability. Perhaps the earliest example of their complementary qualities is the Jungle Bird, a late entry into the tiki canon, composed of rum, Campari, lime and pineapple juice. Created in the late 1970s, the drink has become a Trojan horse for the introduction of bitter Italian ingredients into the tiki style, a trend that has only ballooned in recent years.
The Jungle Bird played no small role in the spread of this hybrid approach, better known as aperitiki, but it’s the Mai Tai that has proved to be the blueprint to which bartenders turn time and again to expand tiki’s bitter palate. Jeremy Oertel’s aptly named Bitter Mai Tai, for example, follows in the footsteps of the Jungle Bird by leaning on Campari as the bracing backbone of his crowd-pleasing spin, while Dan Sabo’s Kentucky Mai Tai brings the Mr. Potato Head approach to new heights, retaining only the citrus and orgeat of the original, and introducing Cynar for a welcome note of bittersweet earthiness. (Cynar also stars alongside Jamaican rum in Oertel’s other spin on the template, the Artichoke Hold.) The Disgruntled Mai Tai, meanwhile, builds on the expected combination of ingredients with an ounce of Aperol and an upturned bottle of Underberg for a final bitter touch.
As the amaro market continues to expand, tiki’s bittersweet side will only continue to evolve. As Anthony Schmidt, partner at San Diego’s False Idol, declares: “I have yet to meet an amaro I didn’t want to make work.”
Bitter Mai Tai
Perhaps the most riffed-upon cocktail in the tiki canon, the Mai Tai serves as the inspiration for Jeremy Oertel’s decidedly bitter spin. Intrigued by a version he encountered that used Angostura bitters in place of rum, Oertel takes his bitter iteration in a different direction, incorporating vibrant red Campari. A measure of funky Jamaican rum provides extra fortification in this version, a staple of the now-closed Brooklyn bar Dram, where Oertel first created it.
Kentucky Mai Tai
The name of this Mai Tai riff nods to the source of its bourbon base, but that’s not the only update Dan Sabo makes to the original. Mezcal, peach liqueur and Cynar, a bittersweet Italian artichoke liqueur, make an appearance alongside the expected lemon and orgeat.
Disgruntled Mai Tai
The Disgruntled Mai Tai takes a cue from European drinking traditions in this playful spin on the tiki classic. To the familiar combination of Jamaican rum, lime, orgeat and Curaçao, Attaboy’s Sam Ross adds an ounce of Aperol as well as an upturned bottle of Underberg for a bitter, bracing final touch.