Iconic cocktails like the mai tai, scorpion, and zombie were born in American tiki bars in the mid-20th century. These drinks became so popular that they grew into a separate class of cocktails and inspired many other recipes over the years. While there is no real definition of a tiki cocktail, there are a number of common characteristics: two or three styles of rum, loads of tropical fruits, layers of flavor that often include spices, and elaborate garnishes.
As you explore these now-classic tropical cocktails, you'll find that there are many ways to make each drink. The original recipes were often well-kept secrets so bartenders had to interpret what went into them when they wanted to recreate the drinks. That's not an easy task considering the often lengthy ingredient lists. While the bartending community may not always agree on the "original" recipes, it leaves us with some fascinating variations to try. Exploring the options to discover which you enjoy most is not a painful task, either!
These cocktails are fun, delicious, and very well-crafted mixed drinks, and their history (as well as that of the bar personalities who created them) is fascinating. However, the "tiki" label does not fully respect the Polynesian and South Pacific cultures that inspired them. For that reason, we want to be part of the conversation that retires that word, preferring instead to use "tropical" for the cocktails as well as party themes.
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The mai tai embodies this style of cocktail perfectly. It is the creation of Victor Bergeron, one of the founders of the tropic-themed bars that first brought these drinks to the American public. His famous establishment, Trader Vic's, is home to the original mai tai and it is a very fine drink.
Over the years, the mai tai has taken on a much fruitier taste than Bergeron intended. The original recipe uses two rums, lime juice, orange curaçao, and orgeat and simple syrups. It is actually quite dry compared to many of the modern interpretations.
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Donn Beach of the famous Donn the Beachcomber bar was Bergeron's rival and the zombie is one of his original recipes. It is also among the most complex recipes you will come across.
This particular recipe is Dale DeGroff's interpretation. It includes light and dark rums, orange curaçao, a trio of citrus juices, passion fruit puree, grenadine, and bitters. There is also an option of floating 151-proof rum on top of the finished drink.
The zombie may also win the prize for the most recipe variations and you have to be careful because a few are simply too strong to enjoy. It may be that some people took the name too literally and created monstrosities out of what is a very tasty cocktail.
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The hurricane remains the signature cocktail of Pat O'Brien's bar in New Orleans. It was first created around 1940 and you can still get the same great taste at any of the bar's locations in the U.S.
For this cocktail, you'll mix light and dark rums, passion fruit juice, orange juice, lime juice, simple syrup, and grenadine. It is one of the tastiest tropical cocktails and the fruity combination is hard to resist.
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It was not uncommon for both Bergeron and Beach to take credit for the same cocktails and that is the case for this modernized navy grog recipe. Yet, neither can claim to have invented the navy grog because it was the name given to the daily rum ration of British sailors in the 1700s.
Rum and lime juice are the only ingredients that everyone can seem to agree on when it comes to the navy grog. Grapefruit juice is also common, and at least one recipe adds soda. No matter which you choose, you will need to have a good supply of rum to mix up any of these recipes.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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An enjoyable throwback drink from the 1950s, the rum runner is another example of a great drink with many recipes. In general, a rum runner should have rum, banana, and blackberry, but this is not always the case.
One of the best rum runner recipes includes light and dark rums, banana and blackberry liqueurs, orange and pineapple juices, and grenadine. Others prefer the spices of falernum instead of grenadine's sweetness or skip either of the juices. No matter how you make it, it is a fun drink.
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Tropical cocktails are known for extravagant fruit garnishes, though few are as well-designed as the one found on the jungle bird. Themed appropriately, this more recent recipe comes from the Aviary Bar in Kuala Lumpur where it was created in the '70s.
This great-tasting rum cocktail is adorned with a pineapple wedge and cherry garnish skewered with pineapple leaves to represent a tropical bird's long tail. The drink itself is a fusion of classic and tropical drink styles, mixing rum, lime, and pineapple with Campari. Though the bitter aperitif is not typically found in tropical drinks, it works surprisingly well.
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Painkiller recipes do not vary as much as the other cocktails. You're pretty safe in stocking from this recipe's ingredient list because any variations are just a matter of changing proportions.
A mix of navy or dark rum, pineapple, orange, and coconut, the signature ingredient of any painkiller is nutmeg. Without it, you're looking at something similar to a piña colada, which is a great drink in its own right. Yet, if you're looking to properly mix up this retro cocktail, that pinch of spice is essential.
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The scorpion is a potent mixed drink in which brandy makes an appearance. It should not be too surprising because brandy had been mixed with tropical and citrus fruits long before the tiki bars were even a dream.
This scorpion recipe comes from Bergeron and is a fruity rum punch that's almost like a tropical sangria. It makes about 20 drinks and combines a lot of rum with gin, brandy, and white wine. Add lemon and orange juices, orgeat for sweetness, then fresh mint and you have a party-worthy scorpion.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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One look at the recipe and you'll notice that it looks a lot like a piña colada. It includes that irresistible combination of rum, pineapple, and coconut, but adds blue curaçao for that captivating color, and a hint of citrus. Just like the colada, you can blend this beauty up as well.
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The beachcomber is the lightest of these tropical cocktails and it is the only one not served in a tall glass. It is much more like a rum sour, made of light rum, triple sec, lime juice, and maraschino liqueur. It's fun and easy, and there are a few versions you'll want to try for yourself.
By the name, you might think that Donn Beach created this one, but the recipe is actually attributed to Trader Vic's. It's an odd twist that might not be entirely true, but it's always fun to have some bar trivia to debate over drinks!
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One of the most complex flavors you will experience, the jet pilot is simply captivating. It takes all of the signature elements found in this style of cocktail and tosses them into a blender for an unforgettable drink.
This frozen cocktail starts out rather ordinary with three styles of rum and grapefruit and lime juices. Things get interesting as you spice it up with cinnamon syrup, falernum, bitters, and Pernod. That anise kick really is the finishing touch that makes it something special.
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Possibly one of the original recipes of this style, this zombie punch dates to 1934 and is credited to Don Beach. It's made by the glass and is a well-balanced drink that outshines all the modern Halloween punches that have also taken the name.
What's interesting here is that Beach's zombie punch is nearly identical to the jet pilot. It is also blended and includes the same ingredients but in slightly different proportions. The key difference is that grenadine is added for a hint of sweetness and color. Since you'll have everything you need, comparing the two cocktails is easy.
How Did the Tiki Bar Begin?
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Grant (aka Donn Beach) opened the first tiki bar in 1934 on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The now-famous Don the Beachcomber bar and decorated with items reminiscent of islands in the South Pacific. Beach developed a cocktail menu that celebrated the many styles of rum he had tasted over the years in elaborate, very secret recipes.
Around that same time, Victor Bergeron transformed his Oakland, California, saloon Hinky Dinks into Trader Vic's after touring the South Pacific islands. At his new tropical-themed bar, Bergeron created rum drinks in the same fashion and with the same prestige (and secrecy) as Beach. The two became rivals as well as the pioneers of the tiki bar. Both establishments expanded into chains and continue to operate today.
Post World War II, the interest in Polynesian culture blossomed and tiki cocktails took off. Soon, tiki bars popped up all over the United States, each attempting to outshine one another with lavish decor, mammoth bowls of cocktails, and, of course, tiny umbrellas and lots of rum in every drink.
The golden era of the tiki bar took place in the 1950s but interest dwindled significantly within the next couple of decades. In the 1990s, tiki saw a revival as a decor style and party theme. More recently, tiki bars have once again become popular.
The Problem With "Tiki"
Much of the tiki culture's (as it became known) downslide is attributed to people realizing that the appropriation of Polynesian and South Pacific symbols and style did not recognize the impact of colonialism on the indigenous people of the islands. This consciousness started in the '60s and '70s and reemerged in the 2010s as an ongoing discussion of how "tiki" (a word referring to sacred imagery of gods) can and should be used by others.
Tiki cocktails are a style of mixed drinks that were inspired by the flavors of tropical islands, both in the Caribbean and Pacific. It is important to remember that they are purely an American invention that came about when people were first introduced to and fascinated by those cultures. Much liberty was taken in interpreting the island style, particularly in decor, though it also produced a separate category of amazingly well-designed drinks. There is a fine line between cultural commodification and respect, and this is sure to be a conversation that will continue.