When most people think of tiki drinks, they often think of rum, rum and more rum. But that’s not everything on the menu: an overlooked genre of tiki classics are made with a wide range of other spirits, too.
“Tiki is not just rum, it’s a blend of spirits,” says St. Louis bartender Matt Seiter, who regularly hosts a “Gin in Tiki” seminar. In fact, a significant number of tiki cocktails showcase gin, bourbon, vodka or brandy—and not a drop of rum.
The majority of these drinks, however, feature gin (the Singapore Sling, the Rangoon Gimlet) or whiskey (The Port Light, the Eastern Sour)—which makes sense given that most midcentury drinkers were quaffing Martinis and Manhattans as the tiki craze started to take hold.
“You’ll always find whiskey and gin drinks on midcentury Polynesian restaurant cocktail menus because bourbon and gin were still the preferred pours for most customers back then,” explains Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a tiki expert and proprietor of New Orleans’ Latitude 29. “For every 1940s [and] ’50s patron who adventurously ordered an exotic rum drink, there would be another who’d stick to tried-and-true bourbon.”
To be fair, rum is still the number-one spirit found in tropical drinks by a wide margin. A glance at the index of Berry’s 2010 book, Beachbum Berry Remixed, one of the first modern-day tiki cocktail compilations, tells the story: compared to more than 160 rum drinks, a paltry 15 recipes in the book feature gin, 11 whiskey, seven tequila and/or mezcal, six vodka, three cognac and just two for pisco.
Where did these non-rum outliers come from? Most tiki experts credit Trader Vic Bergeron. While tiki godfather Donn Beach is credited with blending rums to create complexity in tropical drinks, Trader Vic is noted for applying the same technique with a broader brush, blending in a variety of spirits.
“Vic experimented with bourbon, gin and tequila in exotic cocktails—all to great success,” says Martin Cate, the owner of San Francisco’s preeminent tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove. “He found that gin was agreeable with a lot of his favorite ingredients, like lemon juice and orgeat.”
As a result of this experimentation by Vic and others, we have enduring (if overlooked) classics from the 1940s and ’50s, like the Chi-Chi, a cousin of the Piña Colada, made with vodka; the El Diablo, a mix of tequila with a spicy ginger beer base, kicked up with crème de cassis; and the Suffering Bastard, a blend of both gin and brandy with ginger beer and lime, which Cate describes as “a welcome guest in the house of tiki.”
A relatively new, less widely-known drink has also become something of a tiki modern classic: The Saturn. This gin drink, which was discovered by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, dates to 1967, when California bartender J. “Popo” Galsini won the International Bartender’s Association World Championship with it. Though it doesn’t include rum, it has all the traditional markings of a great tiki drink: passion fruit juice, the sweet spice of orgeat and falernum and a whimsical garnish that’s meant to evoke the ringed planet for which the cocktail is named.
Decades after Trader Vic broadened the tiki canon beyond just rum, now almost all tiki menus include non-rum drinks—particularly at bars with a more non-traditional bent. Yet, they still include tropical flavors or nod to exotic regions. For example, at Pittsburgh’s Hidden Harbor, the Leaf & Bean features rye whiskey alongside cacao, Kona coffee, allspice and tobacco bitters; Chicago’s Lost Lake offers a Jungle Bird variation that replaces rum with a split base of reposado tequila and mezcal; and New York’s Polynesian-themed Mother of Pearl offers non-rum drinks with aquavit, pisco and even smoky Islay Scotch.
Yet, gin seems to be particularly ripe for tiki experimentation. According to Seiter, that’s because the current gin boom has yielded an enormous palette of botanicals well-suited to mixing and matching. Seiter, for example, combines three gins for a Ti’ Punch-style gin cocktail: a classic juniper-bomb London dry; creamy, rose-accented Nolet’s; and a spicy, higher-proof local craft gin.
“The flavors, textures and aromas of gin now rival what Donn had to play with in rum back in the ’30s,” Seiter concludes. “The gin out there now screams blend me and mix me and put me in a tiki mug.”