Tiki Experiments at Home


Tiki cocktails, when made with freshly squeezed juices, homemade syrups, and quality rums, are completely delicious–complex, stiff, and flavorful. But, with the exception of the now-closed bar at Elettaria, these classic cocktails, most invented in the ’30s and ’40s, have been neglected by the classic cocktail renaissance. Maybe it’s because their faux Polynesian trappings are so kitschy or because reliable recipes are hard to come by–the originators of tiki, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, were both notoriously secretive about what went in their drinks. Plus, tiki cocktails are not cool. They’re enthusiastic. A mai tai will never have the gravitas of, say, a Manhattan. You have to be secure in your man-or-womanhood to order a mai tai. You can’t sit and brood over a Zombie.

It’s hard to find a good tiki cocktail in New York. On Friday, I stopped by Flatiron Lounge and had a proper mai tai, made with two different rums, orgeat (more on this later), lime juice and orange Curacao. But most other bars take shortcuts, use corn-syrup-laden grenadine (which has no place in a mai tai anyway), and serve the tooth-achingly sweet concoctions that have given tiki drinks a bad name.

So why not experiment with tiki at home? Well, first you’ve got to make the orgeat.

Orgeat is an almond syrup that often includes orange flower or rose water, and is a secret ingredient in some tiki cocktails. You can buy the syrup at some Italian markets, but I’ve heard that homemade is infinitely better. I based my efforts on this recipe from Art of Drink. First, soak a pound of blanched almonds in cold water for 30 minutes, changing the water once to get rid of any dust or detritus. Drain, and grind almonds in a food processor.

Put the ground almonds back in the bowl, and cover with 3 1/3 cups of water. Allow to soak for at least three hours, or overnight.

Strain the crushed almonds out of the resulting almond milk, reserving both almonds and milk, and then combine them again, repeating the process and allowing to soak for an additional three hours. Strain through a strainer lined with cheesecloth, pressing on solids, and discard the crushed almonds, reserving almond milk.

In a saucepan, combine the almond milk with three cups sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Add 1/2 cup vodka or brandy (to preserve and stabilize the mixture) and 2 tablespoons orange flower water.

Put the resulting orgeat in a jar, and store in the refrigerator for up to a month. It’s actually very tasty, similar to horchata, and would be good in baked goods, as well. But after all that, you need a drink.

Fresh orgeat in hand, I invited some friends over and played with a few tiki recipes.

Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail contains a chapter on tropical drinks, among which is a recipe for a mai tai. It calls for 1 1/2 ounces anejo rum, 1/2 ounce orange curacao, 1/2 ounce orgeat, and 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice, shaken with ice, and strained into a glass. Float a bit of over-proof rum over the top, and garnish with a lime.

Maybe it’s because the only over-proof rum I could find was Bacardi 151, but this just didn’t have the balanced flavor I associate with a good mai tai. It was tasty, definitely, but not great. I’ll continue to experiment with the proportions, and different rums.

Coconut cream came to the rescue. Yes, it’s got enough calories to kill you dead, but it sure does taste good. Everyone loved DeGroff’s prescription for a painkiller–2 ounces Pusser’s Navy Rum, 1 ounce coconut cream, 2 ounces pineapple juice, 1 ounce orange juice, shake, strain, garnish with fresh nutmeg. It’s completely delicious.

And the Tiki Bar Shop, I found a recipe for a Test Pilot, attributed to a book called Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log by Jeff Berry. It calls for:

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Falernum
3 teaspoons Cointreau
dash Angostura bitters
1/8 teaspoon Pernod
3/4 ounce light Puerto Rican rum
1 1/2 ounces dark Jamaican rum

Those ingredients are combined, and blended with crushed ice for five seconds. The various liquors involved compliment each other in a very subtle way–you don’t really taste the bitters or the anise of the Perod, but those sharp flavors stay in the background, rounding out the rum and sweet Falernum. It’s a very good drink.

More tiki experiments to come, including an attempt at a Zombie.