Tiki is, effectively, the LARP of the cocktail world—a sub-genre wherein pirates are commonplace and the drinks are as dressed up as their hosts. Drawing on Caribbean, Hawaiian and Polynesian influences, these cocktails, and the otherworldly culture that surrounds them, have come to represent a very welcome suspension of disbelief—and an imminent hangover. The classics in the canon—from the Zombie to the Scorpion Bowl to the demure, but no-less-lethal Planter’s Punch—all have one thing in common: rum, rum and more rum. But what of their modern counterparts? What new worlds has tiki cracked open in the post-Beachcomber era?
For one, modernization in tiki welcomes alternative ingredients. At New York’s Donostia, Will Peet combines three different types of sherry in the The Mauser, a tiki drink born in a restaurant with no liquor license. Jeremy Oertel of Donna adds Campari to the usual Mai Tai formula in his Bitter Mai Tai, and Branca Menta to the Piña Colada in his Brancolada, effectively rejiggering these classics for a bitter-loving 21st century. And if two bitter tiki drinks isn’t enough (it isn’t), Oertel’s kid brother to the Bitter Mai Tai, the Artichoke Hold, plays off of a lower-proof base (a la Peet) and turns up the volume by way of the classic Italian artichoke amaro, Cynar, and the unorthodox addition of St. Germain.
Matthew Belanger, Oertel’s partner-in-crime at Donna, sticks closer to the classic tiki playbook (rum, squared) but deftly integrates the often-polarizing flavor of banana in his Fay Wray. While up the block at Maison Premiere, Maxwell Britten combines his love for tiki with absinthe, rhum agricole and créme de menthe to create the bar’s dangerous staple, the Absinthe Colada.
However far these cocktails might stray from the core repertoire of tiki drinks, they remain true to the most important ingredient in tiki: escape.