I thought it would be interesting to put up a list of what I view as the single best value out there in each of the six great cocktail spirit categories. To be clear, these are hardly the best exemplars of Whiskey (North American), Rum, Gin, Brandy, Tequila, and Vodka, nor are they the cheapest. Far from it in both instances. These hit the sweet spot where the price and quality curves intersect. Prices, of course, will vary wherever you are, and in what mood the bottlers, distributors, and Chet behind the counter are in... These bottles also are Swiss Army Knife products, in that they aren't just good, they work well pretty much across the spectrum of drinks you might make with each. There might be a better gin, price to quality, if you only make Dry Martinis with it, but that gin might not be so great a value in an Alexander or a Pegu. So let's begin.
The Lazy Bear is a six year old original by Jacob Grier, the only Barista/Street Magician/Blogger/Bartender/Think Tank Fellow either you or I know. He created this drink, not as a Tiki drink, but as an accompaniment for taco truck food at a wedding reception. (San Francisco, right?) I took a look at it for Tiki Month this year due to a tip from DJ Hawaiian Shirt, who blogged about it three years ago and firmly declared it a Tiki drink. Frankly, I had my doubts about this categorization when I looked at the recipe. Rye is really not a traditional Tiki ingredient, after all. But DJ is right. The Lazy Bear is quite spiritous for a Tiki Drink, but the vibe is there, especially with the tiny change The Shirt makes to Jacob's original recipe. To make sure it works as part of a Tiki presentation, you do need to amp the garnish, but the flavors are there, and pair very will with lots of traditional Tiki food flavors.
LAZY BEARIt really is quite good. It also can be presented as a non-Tiki drink just as easily, which is nice. It also is a great way to get someone to try rye if they have been shy of that before. All in all, another great example of modern Tiki invention.abc
- 3/4 oz. dark Jamaican rum, e.g. Smith & Cross
- 3/4 oz. American rye whiskey
- 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
- 3/4 oz. honey syrup
- 3 dashes "Spiced Bitters"*
Over the years of doing Tiki Month, I've tended to focus most of my drinking evaluation on the older Tiki drinks, mostly those from the 30's and 40's. There's a couple of reasons for that. First, I'm an historian at heart. I like old stuff. It is why I love Beachbum Berry so much. His ability to uncover so much about this interesting little slice of American culture is amazing. Mmore importantly, the Tiki drinks from the decades of the Tiki era tend to be sweet, boring, and insipid, in keeping with American tastes in drinking at that time. (There are exceptions, but this is a pretty good rule of thumb.) I was asked Wednesday night by a visiting Cincinnati bartender who is just getting into Tiki exploration why the delicious Mai Tai I'd just served her had devolved in modern days to the sweet, fruity mess most everyone thinks of now. The reason is those changing tastes of American drinking. To an experienced cocktail palate, one used to multiple spirits and the profound ways that sometimes just a change in ratios can alter flavors, a Vic Bergeron Mai Tai is a fantastic drinking adventure. The strong, discordant yet somehow perfectly harmonious flavors demand the attention of the serious drinker. Well, they demand the attention of the casual Vodka and Soda or Cosmopolitan drinker, too.... but not in the same way. To them, the reaction is more like, "Whoa! What the Hell? This is tasty, I guess, but really... what the Hell?" The food world equivalent would be just wanting a quick, good hamburger, but being asked instead to sit down for a four-course meal featuring Osso Buco. In the 70's, as you needed to medicate yourself to tamp down the knowledge that your President was named Nixon or Carter, you were stressed enough at being thought square for drinking cocktails at all, instead of doing lines of coke like all the cool people. You did not need or want to be challenged by your damn drink. In today's world, where even self-medication isn't enough, people are moving back to food and drink that they want to pay attention to. And thus, the older style of thought- and palate-provoking tropical drinks are rising once again. So recently I've been looking more and more at truly modern Tiki drinks, those invented during the current revival of the genre. A lot have been inventions of A Mountain of Crushed Ice or Rated-R Cocktails, two of the best full-time Tiki blogs out there. You should visit and subscribe to both. Go on. I'll wait. More encouragingly to the likes of me is that there are also a lot of excellent modern Tiki-style drinks being concocted in non-Tiki bars today as well. In olden days, when Don and Vic rode their triceratopses to work every day, really good Tiki drinks were restricted to specialty bars. The overhead of fresh juices and exotic syrups was too much for normal pubs. But in today's Craft environment, arrays of juices and syrups (and cocktails with lots of ingredients in small amounts) are par for the course. There is no reason that Tiki drinks should not nestle in among the other marvelous offerings in any top flight bar. To illustrate my point, here's a delicious concoction by the hardest working blogger in the cocktail business, Fred Yarm of Cocktail
Virgin Slut and the current Guardian of Mixology Monday™. (Scheduled for release as a major motion picture by Marvel in 2023.) For his sins, Fred works a bit at the Russell House Tavern in Boston. His Tiki drink, the Mytoi Gardens sits proudly on the Russell's extensive Craft menu, among Algonquins and modern bitter bombs like something called a Sottobosco. Here's my take on it. Read Fred's post for his slightly more price-friendly version.
MYTOI GARDENSAs I told Fred as soon as I tried my first shot at the Mytoi Gardens, this is one big-time, old school Tiki drink. Sweet though it may be, the undeniably exotic notes of the vanilla and the allspice, along with the redolent... demeraraness... of the El Dorado combine to provide that uniquely Tiki experience: a slightly disorienting, slightly transporting melange of flavors that provides a unique escape hatch all its own. abc
- 1 1/2 El Dorado 12
- 1 fresh pineapple juice
- 3/4 fresh lime juice
- 1/2 Allspice dram
- 1/4 simple syrup
- 5 drops vanilla extract
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Tropical Morn comes from a drink called simply the Coffee-Pineapple Daiquiri by Tiare of A Mountain of Crushed Ice, and modified to fit my available ingredients and my wife's tastes. Tiare dashed this little ditty off as part of her review of St. Aubin rums, which I (of course) can't get here, in this case their coffee-flavored rum. But since I have managed to acquire a bottle of Brinely Gold's Shipwreck Coffee, which is the only such rum currently available in the US, I thought this would be a good starting spot for experimenting. Taking her recipe and simply substituting the Shipwreck and my very strong demerara syrup resulted in a drink with a great profile, but one that was a bit too sweet for my tastes. I personally don't like coffee, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not a coffee bomb. In fact, it is not immediately obvious it is a coffee drink at all. The java and the pineapple sorta merge together to result in the elusively undefinable flavors of a good Tiki drink, in this case a sort of soft, novel spice. It is similar in character but not flavor to vanilla. But the sweetness detracted from the concoction, so I backed off the quarter ounce of syrup still further, and punched up the lime just a bit to make the citrus element a little more identifiable. Then I gave it a name, since Tiare neglected to do so. The result is a difficult balancing act to make, but a worthwhile drink that is distinct from the crowd while still undeniably Tiki.
TROPICAL MORN(This post was edited after publication because it had the wrong frigging picture!) abc
- 2 oz. Shipwreck Coffee Rum
- 1 oz. fresh pressed pineapple juice, unstrained
- 3.4 oz. fresh lime juice
- splash of 2:1 demerara syrup
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