Twenty to thirty years ago, a cocktail was either tiki or it wasn’t. The Scorpion Bowl, the Mai Tai, the Fog Cutter—the canon of tiki drinks that are still pervasive today, whether old or improved, adhere to a very specific set of ingredients and aesthetics. In other words, you know one when you see one.
But over the last several years, there’s been a diffusion of bits and pieces of the tiki palette to bars and bartenders who don’t self-identify as “tiki,” resulting in a new breed of quasi-tropical drinks, and bars, that are wholly unique.
“Tiki flavors, styles and templates aren’t off limits to people working in classic-oriented cocktail bars,” explains Matthew Belanger of Death & Co., “and we’re reaching for those drinks and those flavors in order to expand our palettes (and palates).” Though his style could be described as everything from nouveau tropical to Brooklyn tiki, Belanger says his drinks were never designed to evoke tiki. “I’d probably call them ‘vacation drinks’ before I’d call them ‘tiki,’” he explains.
At Brooklyn’s Donna, bartender Jeremy Oertel and Belanger (who has since moved on) created a set of genre-bending drinks—from the Bitter Mai Tai to the Brancolada to the Fay Wray—that still manage to maintain the element of escapism so crucial to tiki. Belanger’s Dr. Strangelove, for example, calls on a base of rum, but pulls in ingredients—kiwi, aloe vera liqueur—that are vaguely tropical, but hardly classic. While Oertel’s Artichoke Hold (itself a riff on his already unorthodox Bitter Mai Tai) builds on a classic base of Smith & Cross rum, lime juice and orgeat, it takes sharp left with the addition of both Cynar and St-Germain, which play surprisingly well with the warm funk of Smith & Cross.
Down in New Orleans, Nick Detrich has gone back to the foundation of tiki—the early tropical blueprints that you might find in the scribblings of Charles H. Baker et al.—to build a new breed of tropical drink that he hopes is evocative of a time in NOLA’s history when it was “the gateway to the tropics.” In going back to the proto-tiki era and building on top of it, he’s created a menu that feels entirely modern.
The result is drinks like the Eastern Cottonwood (two types of rum, lemon sherbet, nutmeg, Pierre Ferrand Curaçao and yellow Chartreuse), or his Absent Stars, an addicting combination of Campari, rhum agricole, lemon juice, passionfruit syrup, apricot brandy, saline and grapefruit bitters, which, says Detrich, “takes the tropical notes of a classic tiki drink, but significantly dries them out.”
At San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club and Louie’s Gen Gen Room (located underneath the restaurant), Yanni Kehariagias uses the restaurant’s Hawaiian roots as inspiration for drinks that are undeniably escapist, but take a minimalist approach that is counter to the rococo stylings of tiki. His Castaway, for one, mixes manzanilla sherry with green Chartreuse and salted Falernum, for a drink that manages to extract a whole lot of complexity from just three ingredients. Likewise, in his Endless Summer, or a “Negroni on vacation,” as he calls it, he combines the big three—Campari, gin, sweet vermouth—with an ounce of pineapple and shakes the drink, pours it over ice and, tellingly, goes garnish-less.
Back in New York, at Mother of Pearl—which dubs itself a “post-modern Polynesian restaurant and cocktail bar”—head bartender Jane Danger has managed to contort tiki to match the bar’s tagline, calling on many of the outlandish theatrics and presentation of tiki but applying it to drinks that fall outside the canon. In her French Connection, she calls on a combination of bianco vermouth, Luxardo Bitter, lime juice, rum, grapes and cane syrup, and serves it with a orange peel-wrapped grape that’s dipped in 151 rum and set on fire.
By taking the best of both tiki and non-tiki worlds, bartenders are able to play while still creating serious drinks. The end result: cocktails with bold new flavor combinations that still hold tight to the transporting nature of tiki.