Tiki’s Boom And Bust

Despite many ups and down over the years, tiki cocktails have become a bar fixture.

The Yellow Cloud from the Papaya Club in Florida features Probitas rum.
The Yellow Cloud from the Papaya Club in Florida features Probitas rum.

Liam Odien, bar manager at Playa Provisions in Playa Del Rey, California, points out that the tiki craze has been in a “boom-and-bust” cycle since the 1930s. “Five or six years ago I think we hit a saturation point in terms of the quantity of tropical bars and drinks, and now we’re on a bit of a downswing in terms of the voracious appetite that people had,” he says. “This time around, though, I think the presence is such that they’re going to remain on menus in a more thoughtful, focused way. Complexity doesn’t necessarily mean more ingredients in unlimited measure; we’re seeing more economy of ingredients. It feels like a good trend to me. Not every menu needs to have something tropical, but it’s great when they appear and feel like they’re supposed to be there.” 

Tiki cocktails may have evolved and refined in the decades since Don the Beachcomber—also known as Donn Beach— founded the genre, but the appeal of these tropical concoctions with lavish garnishes remains the same. “The first tiki bars were explicitly opened to imbue a sense of escapism and to take guests to exotic locales and places—a level of kitsch and irony developed in the middle of the century, but I think it’s important to remember that the post-war tiki fad helped people escape the stresses of the Cold War and of day-to-day life,” Odien says. “I think everyone can probably agree that we live in a world that feels tense—what better time for a little bit of good, old-fashioned escapism? And what better way to escape than with a drink in a coconut with a little umbrella?” 

Indeed, whether with a classic Mai Tai or a tropical twist on a Negroni, tiki cocktails offer something a bit more than other drinks styles. “I like to think of them as a vacation in a glass,” says Todd Thrasher, owner of Tiki TNT and Potomac Distilling Co. in Washington, D.C. “One sip and you’re instantly transported to a tropical island.” 

But tiki drinks aren’t without complexity, points out Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of Latitude 29 at the Bienville House Hotel in New Orleans. “A classic pre-Prohibition cocktail usually maxes out at three ingredients—it’s like a song, while a classic Tiki drink is more like a symphony, a polyphonic composition balancing up to 14 different ingredients,” he says. “I think that complexity is what’s attracting today’s public to the genre—it’s a way to stretch their palates.” 

Tiki establishments are not letting modern trends pass them by. At Tiki TNT in Washington, D.C., the tiki bar managed by the owners of Potomac Distilling Co., the CoCoGroni (pictured) is a Tiki version of the massively popular Negroni, subbing Potomac Distilling’s Thrasher’s Coconut rum for the usual gin.
Tiki establishments are not letting modern trends pass them by. At Tiki TNT in Washington, D.C., the tiki bar managed by the owners of Potomac Distilling Co., the CoCoGroni (pictured) is a Tiki version of the massively popular Negroni, subbing Potomac Distilling’s Thrasher’s Coconut rum for the usual gin.

Layers Of Flavor

Tiki cocktails are indeed unique from other drink genres in the sheer number of different ingredients that are married together in the glass—but it’s not just a random mix of tropical flavors. “A well-crafted tiki drink juggles sweet and sour, strong and light, fruity and dry, providing new layers of taste that keep the flavor evolving from the opening notes to the mid-palate to the finish,” Berry says. “In the 1950s, Don the Beachcomber had at least four drinks on his menu that combined Jamaican rum with lime, grapefruit, and honey—it’s a spectacular mix. I’ve also found that passion fruit and vanilla work beautifully with Puerto Rican rum. Finally, you simply cannot go wrong by mixing any rum with lime, coconut, and pineapple.” At Latitude 29, Berry’s Deep Six ($35 for two servings) features Coruba Dark Jamaican rum, Hamilton 151 Overproof Demerara rum, Orgeat Works Latitude 29 Formula falernum, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, and lime and pineapple juices, topped with fresh mint. 

“Rum is of course the go-to base spirit for tiki cocktails, but the options and variations are endless, which is why it works,” notes Stefan Was, owner of Porco Lounge & Tiki Room in Cleveland. “When a guest thinks ‘island, tropical, vacation,’ a Painkiller checks off most boxes with its mixture of coconut, orange, pineapple, and rum. With our version we take it a step further with house-made coconut cream, which dials back the sugar significantly and lets the rum blend take the front seat.” His Porco Painkiller ($18) comprises Bounty Light and Dark rums, Hamilton 86 Demerara rum, Hamilton Pimento dram, orange and pineapple juices, and house-made coconut cream, topped with fresh grated cinnamon and nutmeg plus an orange peel, cherry, and pineapple fronds. “Guests also love our take on the Zombie, which employs both our house-made orgeat and falernum syrups,” Was adds. “Flavor-wise it’s hands down my personal favorite, and if it weren’t for the outrageous abv, it would easily be our No.-1 seller.” The drink ($18) blends Bounty Strong 151, Chairman’s Reserve Original, and Chairman’s Reserve Legacy rums with house-made Donn’s Mix syrup, passion fruit syrup, falernum, and grenadine, lime juice, Angostura bitters, and a spritz of Pernod absinthe, topped with mint, an edible flower, a lime wheel, and fresh grated nutmeg. Another guest favorite is Was’ Martinique Mai Tai ($18), mixing Bounty Dark and Clément VSOP rums, Clément Creole Shrubb orange liqueur, house-made orgeat, and lime juice, topped with mint, an edible flower, and a spent lime hull.

Aviram Turgeman, beverage director at The Friki Tiki in New York City, notes a preference for using rum of all varieties, but especially aged, and fruit liqueurs in his tiki drinks along with pineapple for texture and froth and lime juice for acidity. His Ronnie’s Calmer Brother ($16) is a lower abv take on the classic Jungle Bird, mixing Aperol aperitif, Diplomático Planas rum, Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur, pineapple and lime juices, and demerara syrup, topped with a dehydrated pineapple wedge and cocktail umbrella. “I love the fact that I can mix several different liqueurs and mixers to enhance flavors and create a multi-layered cocktail that would appeal to almost anyone,” Turgeman adds. 

At Papaya Club at the Conrad Hotel in Orlando, Florida, the Yellow Cloud ($18) comprises Probitas rum, Chinola passion fruit liqueur, John D. Taylor’s velvet falernum, and lime juice, topped with a pineapple slice and edible flower, while the Jet Pilot ($55 for three to four servings) features Cruzan Single Barrel and Planteray OFTD rums, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, house-made orgeat, and lime juice, topped with mint and an edible flower. “A tiki drink must be layered in order to discover every flavor,” says Miguel Sanchez Borrego, Papaya Club’s director of beverage. “I love that tiki drinks allow me to play with the balance of those layers and take the guest on a journey.”

The word “layer” comes up frequently when mixologists discuss tiki drinks. “Layering might be the most important thing about tropical cocktails,” Playa Provisions’ Odien says. “The world of tropical drinks thrives on the exotic and unexpected, so I generally try to use uncommon ingredients or combinations and layer them on top of one another.” His Pelé ($18) blends Avua Amburana Cachaça, house-made brown sugar orgeat, lime juice, muddled raspberries, and Peychaud’s bitters, topped with raspberries and a dehydrated lime wheel, while his Poblano Colada ($17) mixes Ancho Reyes Verde Poblano liqueur, pineapple and lime juices, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, plus Vieux Pontarlier absinthe, topped with mint and an orange wheel. “The mixology police might take me away for this, but I think that tropical drinks are unique in that the base spirit is on more equal ground with the other components than it is in other cocktails,” Odien adds. “That’s not to say that the base spirit isn’t important, or that there aren’t spirit-forward tropical drinks, or anything like that. It’s only to say that it is but one of many layers of a well-executed drink, as opposed to the star of the show. I think of it like a croissant: everyone likes a nice looking, golden brown, flaky one, but it’s the folds of the thing that really make it what it is.”

Tiki drinks with whisk(e)y are on the rise. The Lions in Wardrobes (pictured) from Market Table in New York City features Scotch.
Tiki drinks with whisk(e)y are on the rise. The Lions in Wardrobes (pictured) from Market Table in New York City features Scotch.

Broadening The Genre

Although there are certain ingredients and flavors that immediately come to mind when thinking of a tiki drink, there are no strict rules for creating one—in fact, it’s a genre that encourages experimentation and playfulness. “There are common misconceptions about tiki drinks being too sugary and sweet, so it’s been amazing to open people up to the different possibilities within tiki,” Tiki TNT’s Thrasher says. “The genre has evolved a lot since its inception—there are tiki Martinis and Negronis now.” His Dirty Coco “Nuts” ($15) is the former, blending Thrasher’s Coconut rum, coconut-infused Dolin Blanc vermouth, coconut water, and Remedy Cocktail Co. Toasted Coconut bitters, topped with toasted coconut flakes, while his CoCoGroni ($15) is the latter, mixing Thrasher’s Coconut rum, Dolin Rouge vermouth, and Aperol. Similarly, a tiki-inspired take on a classic build, Turgeman’s Friki Old Fashioned ($16) at The Friki Tiki comprises Flor de Caña 12-year-old rum, demerara syrup, Angostura bitters, Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters, and Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters.

“The openness of it is the best part—if you can dream it, you can do it, as long as you make it taste good,” Odien says. “I personally love using Angostura bitters, grapefruit, and absinthe in my tropical drinks—Donn Beach tended to rely heavily on these ingredients to provide aroma and integrate layers of flavor. Tropical drinks exist to surprise people and to provide the illusion that they’re strangers in paradise, so give them something weird.” His Kelly’s Gambit ($18) features Angostura bitters as the base spirit, plus grapefruit and lime juices, honey syrup, and a spritz of Pernod absinthe, topped with mint.

“The best tiki cocktails throw your palate a curve-ball with unexpected, unidentifiable layers of taste, usually accomplished through the sly use of syrups that non-tropical bars tend to ignore, like orgeat, passion fruit, falernum, and cinnamon,” Latitude 29’s Berry says. “Tiki drinks from the first golden age—the 1930s to 1970s—were almost exclusively rum drinks, but contemporary recipes in today’s neo-tiki bars use different base spirits. I see a lot more gin, whisk(e)y, Cachaça, Tequila, and mezcal in these drinks.” His Outcast Of The Islands ($13) comprises Tanqueray gin, Domain de Canton ginger liqueur, house-made cinnamon syrup, lime juice, Herbsaint liqueur, and a Fentimans ginger beer float.

Kelsey Owens, mixologist at Market Table in New York City, notes that whisk(e)y-based tiki riffs have been growing more popular. Her Lions in Wardrobes ($18) blends Duncan Taylor Politician Blended Scotch, Giffard triple sec and Banane du Brésil liqueur, John D. Taylor’s velvet falernum, house-made pistachio orgeat and saffron tincture, acid-adjusted pineapple juice, and Fee Brothers Turkish Tobacco bitters, topped with fresh grated nutmeg. “I wanted to use Scotch in this drink because it provides a roundness and smoky element that allows for these other non-traditional flavors to shine,” Owens says. “Using exotic flavors like saffron, tobacco, and pistachios next to a vibrant acid-adjusted pineapple juice allows for the drinker to be transported to new worlds all in the comfort of something seemingly familiar.” At Fringe Bar in Philadelphia, meanwhile, co-owner Liz Boleslavsky’s Scottish Holiday ($14) is a cross between a Penicillin and a Mai Tai, mixing The Famous Grouse blended Scotch, house-made pineapple, honey, and ginger syrup, house-made orgeat, lime juice, and a spritz of Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch. 

Today’s modern “neo-tiki” cocktails certainly don’t shy away from experimentation and innovation. “When I ask today’s bartenders for their takes on tiki for my Total Tiki Online recipe website, they submit recipes that call for homemade sage liqueur, sandalwood syrup, prickly pear purée, chocolate-infused rum, caramelized honey cream, sumac-infused Pisco, banana flambé mix, orgeat foam—not even the original tiki bartenders got this into it!” Berry says. “So, what I see for the future of tiki is increased complexity, including incorporating modern, 21st-century techniques, plus the use of exotic ingredients that weren’t available back in the first golden age of tiki; specifically, East Asian spices plus herbs and fruit purées from the Amazon River basin.”

Tiki Cocktail Recipes

Deep Six

By Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

4 ounces Coruba Dark Jamaican rum;

1 ounce Hamilton 151 Overproof Demerara rum;

1½ ounces Orgeat Works Latitude 29 Formula falernum;

1¼ ounces St. Elizabeth allspice dram;

2 ounces lime juice;

2 ounces pineapple juice;

Mint bouquet.


In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, combine rums, falernum, allspice dram, and juices. Shake and pour into a tiki bowl (or other suitable vessel) and add more ice to fill. Add two straws and garnish with a mint bouquet.

Ronnie’s Calmer Brother

By Aviram Turgeman

¾ ounce Aperol aperitif;

½ ounce Diplomático Planas rum;

½ ounce Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur;

1 ounce pineapple juice;

¾ ounce lime juice;

½ ounce demerara syrup;

Dehydrated pineapple wedge.


In an ice-filled cocktail shaker build syrup, lime, pineapple, banana liqueur, Aperol, and rum in that order. Add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a fish-shaped glass (or other suitable vessel) and top with pebble ice. Garnish with a dehydrated pineapple and cocktail umbrella.

Kelly’s Gambit

By Liam Odien

1½ ounces Angostura bitters;

1 ounce honey syrup (2:1);

¾ ounce lime juice;

¾ ounce grapefruit juice;

Spritz Pernod absinthe;

Mint bouquet.


In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, combine bitters, syrup, and juices. Shake and strain into a crushed ice-filled Collins glass. Spritz with absinthe and garnish with a mint bouquet. (If possible, use a spindle mixer in lieu of shaking.)