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Resurrecting Tiki’s Lost Rums

Long-extinct rums critical to the genre’s classic recipes are being brought back to life.

resurrecting tiki rums

He’s blocked out the exact date from his memory, but at some point in the mid-1990s, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry­—one of the godfathers of modern tiki—had a big problem. It’s one that might seem like a minor technical issue to somebody else, but it threatened to collapse something he’d labored over: “I couldn’t find any contemporary dark Jamaican that was over 80 proof,” he laments.

Berry had come across a list of tiki recipes believed to have been lost to time, and was hoping to recreate them using close approximations of the original spirits and mixers. One key, reoccurring ingredient that wasn’t on his shelf was 97-proof Dagger dark Jamaican rum, so he got to work, scouring every liquor store in Los Angeles County in search of a bottle. After endless hours stuck in traffic, he hit pay dirt: a few loose bottles of a 97-proof Appleton Punch Rum. He got home and started testing recipes, dumping out the not-so-good ones.

“When I used up all that rum I went back for more, but the shelf was empty,” says Berry. “I asked the proprietor if he’d re-order, but he laughed, saying Appleton stopped making it back in the ’70s.”

In those pre-Google days, it was nearly impossible to know if you’d stumbled on something incredibly rare. “When I thought about the sheer amount of this extinct rum I’d quite literally poured down the drain,” he says before a contemplative pause. “I almost cried.”

As many tiki-enthusiasts have learned since, recreating the classic drinks of the genre’s post-war golden era requires very particular rums. Much like substituting lemon extract in a recipe calling for almond creates a very different outcome; you can’t replicate a Cobra’s Fang, which calls for a smoky, overproof demerara rum, by calling on an unaged, domestic silver bottling. Further complicating matters, the taste profile of many iconic rums has trended progressively lighter over the decades.

Tiki’s Holy Grail rum is Wray & Nephew 17 Year, the rum originally called for in Vic’s 1944 Mai Tai. The cocktail proved so popular in its day that the entire supply of that rum was depleted by the early 1950s. Today, only a handful of bottles exist and would command an eye-popping price if any were actually for sale. (Rumor has it that the last one sold fetched $50,000.)

Although an original 1944 Mai Tai is out of reach, an authentic 1950s-era Mai Tai isn’t. With the Wray & Nephew gone, Trader Vic switched to a blend of Martinique and Jamaica rums; for years, modern tiki-heads assumed Vic used cane-juice rhum agricole as the Martinique component. However, with some masterful sleuthing, Smuggler’s Cove owner Martin Cate reviewed Vic’s rum list, connected the dots and noted that Martinique rum was described as “heavy-bodied, medium pungency,” and that it should taste “not as dry as the Cuban nor as rummy as the Jamaican.” The description didn’t sound like rhum agricole, leading Cate to conclude that Vic had likely used molasses-based Martinique rhum. This insight influenced Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of Jamaica and Martinique grand arôme rhums, designed to replicate the flavor of Vic’s “Second Adjusted Mai Tai” recipe.

In creating Merchant’s Reserve, Denizen worked with E&A Scheer, the world’s foremost rum blender. Inside Scheer’s Amsterdam warehouse live hundreds of rums from countless distilleries around the world, and Scheer has worked with customers to craft unique blends to match desired flavor profiles. One client is Kevin Beary, beverage director at Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, who looked to E&A Scheer to craft a high-proof, aged pot still Jamaican rum specific to the bar’s needs.

“Tiki bartenders need rums we can work with,” he says, “not hundreds of variations of the same flabby 80-proof juice.” Although the bar typically has around 15 different house rum blends, working with E&A Scheer still made sense: “We rarely get the best results by making cocktails with an existing off-the-shelf rum, blended or not.”

Of the myriad rum styles, the most synonymous with tiki is Jamaican. While island stalwarts like Myers’s, Coruba and Appleton have been around for decades, they lack the primal funk—or “hogo”—essential to stand up to the fruit juices and spices of recipes found in a vintage Trader Vic’s cocktail book.

Sensing a desire by bartenders for the pungent spirits of yore, Haus Alpenz’s Eric Seed worked with cocktail historian David Wondrich to create the now beloved Smith & Cross in 2009. A 114-proof blend of rums from several distilleries, including the legendary Hampden Estate, the rum’s distinct aroma of overripe banana and leather is instantly recognizable. A bottle of Smith & Cross is now de rigueur in tiki bars across the globe.

Following that success, other affordable Jamaican expressions, like Doctor Bird and Hamilton Jamaican Black and Gold rums, have trickled into markets, but often have limited distribution. That’s why Plantation Rum master blender Alexandre Gabriel believes the market for funky, mixable rums is far from saturated. As a partial owner of Jamaica’s Clarendon and Long Pond distilleries, Gabriel has direct access to the rums comprising the recently announced Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry. Described as “rum true to its Jamaican terroir and ancestry in all its pungent and complex intensity,” he hopes Xaymaca will take its place along other “high-hogo” offerings around the globe.

Of all the efforts to revive the great rums of tiki’s hallowed past, perhaps the best known story is of Plantation’s O.F.T.D. Overproof. In mid-2015, Gabriel of Plantation convened a panel of seven tiki and rum experts, including Cate, Berry and Wondrich, with a mission to create the perfect overproof tiki rum. The result was a 138-proof blend of Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica rums that was quickly adopted by bartenders around the globe. “We created a hybrid of two rum styles used frequently in tiki—an overproof demerara with spice and smoke notes, and an aromatic, overproof dark Jamaican,” explains panelist Paul McGee of Chicago’s Lost Lake. “Bartenders needed something like this when making tropical cocktails with six or seven other ingredients.”

Another tiki staple is the dark, earthy Lemon Hart 151 from Guyana. “It throws its weight around and adds character to complicated recipes without crushing the other ingredients with its smokiness,” says Jason Alexander of Devil’s Reef in Tacoma, Washington. The rum is so important to purists that, when it disappeared in recent years, renowned rum historian and importer Ed Hamilton sourced his own version from the same distillery, yielding Hamilton 151 Overproof.

At the other end of the spectrum are bartenders, both amateur and professional, concocting their own elaborate blends from off-the-shelf rums. One longstanding obsession is replicating Kohala Bay, another mythical Jamaican rum used most notably by Ft. Lauderdale tiki mecca, the Mai Kai, in many of its signature cocktails. “Kohala Bay was an anomaly—a low-budget rum in plastic one-liter bottles that nevertheless became the perfect dark Jamaican rum for classic tiki cocktails,” explains the Atomic Grog’s Jim “Hurricane” Hayward, himself among the diehards who have put their heads together to craft rum blends that approximate Kohala’s flavor profile.

No one can say for sure how well these blends mimic the original. But, says Hayward, “quite a few come close.”

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