To do Tiki right, there has to be a conversation about ice.
Relax. I’m not suggesting that you are going to have to throw on a white lab coat and go all di-hydrogen monoxide thermal engineer like you are Camper English or anything. Nor do you need to establish an elaborate ice program with custom chunks from Manchester, either. But ice is a bigger issue with Tiki drinks than with most others, and for reasons that are not always the obvious.
Humuhumu wrote an excellent piece last November that I’ve kept in my browser since, in anticipation of this post during Tiki Month. Entitled An Easy Fix for Your Tiki Drinks: Tweaking Your Shake, it has some cool Tiki history and an excellent primer on what the word “blend” actually means in most historic Tiki recipes. It’s all a good read, so make sure you follow the link.
The part I want to focus on is that in order to produce the desired effect of a Tiki recipe that says “flash blend for about five seconds”, the bar tool you need is not a blender of any kind at all. The bar tool that you need… is ice.
The majority of the work done on a drink is not by the shaker itself, nor the person agitating it. The changes to the ingredients come from the ice trapped in the shaker with the liquids. Ice is perhaps the most universal element of any bar, professional or amateur. It is, of course, a refrigerant. But it is also an ingredient. And it can be a garnish. Most people comprehend these three elements of ice’s usage, if only subconsciously. It is also good to keep in mind that sometimes these effects of ice on a drink can be a little counter-intuitive.
The fourth element of what ice does to a drink is mechanical action, and it is this effect that is generally more important in Tiki drinks than in any other cocktail genre. While being shaken, ice does two things. It shatters itself, and it aerates the liquid. The more you agitate it, the more it does these. And both have similar effects on the texture and flavor of the drink. A slurry of tiny ice shards lightens a drink, and a lot of tiny bubbles does the same, in flavor and in texture. That lightness is important to most Tiki drinks. Next time you make one, have a good full sip before you introduce any ice. The flavors may be great, but the texture will be nearly undrinkable.
A Tiki shake is not a regular shake. It is longer. The ingredients will often not mix as readily as more common bar ingredients, will be able to retain a lot more air that usual, and will benefit from that air. When mixing a SideCar or a Daiquiri, I usually shake just until the tin starts to bite my hand from the chill. At that point, 90% of the chilling possible from your ice has taken place. But in a Tiki shake, you keep going and endure the pain. You need those shards and that air, and it is a case of the longer and harder it is, the better the results.
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Of course, if you use a blender of some kind, be it stick or carafe, you can get even more agitation in much less time. If you have the means and can take the noise, that’s great. But be careful about the recipe’s instructions! There are two traditional modes of employing a blender in Tiki drinks, the flash blend and blending smooth. Don’t mix them up, because a recipe balanced for one will almost never taste good if you do the other.
Blending smooth, as with a drink like the Missionary’s Downfall, can really only happen in a blender. You want a final texture like an Icee, with uniform tiny ice particles distributed evenly throughout the liquid. A smooth blend introduces a ton of dilution, a ton of air, and makes for an extremely cold drink. And the drinks that employ a smooth blend need all that. Don’t bother with these drinks unless you have a blender, or a lot of time and booze to pour out while you rejigger the ratios.
Drinks like the Jet Pilot call for that magical “flash blend for five seconds”. The result here is a frothy slurry, rather than a smooth drink. And you don’t need a blender to achieve it at all. As long as you use cracked ice (more surface area, more edges makes for more slivers/dilution), you can achieve in a thirty-plus second vigorous shake what you did in five seconds in the blender. In a professional Tiki bar, the electric blender means realistically fast service and fewer repetitive-motion injuries to your staff. At home, it is a lot of noise and a lot of extra clean up. As you gain experience making Tiki drinks, it is worth it to put a little thought into what workflow you want to employ. But the most important thing is to know what your resulting texture should be, so you can employ whatever method to get you there.