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.
- 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
Combine in a shaker with ice and chill thoroughly. Strain into a transparent vessel (not a Tiki mug!) filled with crushed ice. Float 3 dashes more of Angostura on top and garnish with pineapple in one or more forms.
As 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.