The drinks are the liquified version of an island getaway, refreshing and colorful, and garnished perhaps with an umbrella or an orchid for extra pageantry. They’re the perfect libation for chilling out in the heat of the summer, when an ordinary backyard can become a oasis if a cool tiki mug is in hand and Polynesian lounge tunes play on the stereo.
For its most devoted practitioners, tiki isn’t just a drink but a lifestyle. The zombie mugs are the portal to an alternate world of dimly lit bars, of bamboo and beach shirts, and a nod to American pop culture circa World War II. Beyond the kitschy temptations, tiki drinks have enjoyed a renaissance through the craft cocktail movement of the past decade. For the cocktail connoisseur, understanding tiki requires a thorough study of rum styles, from lightly aged spirits to black blended overproof rums that’ll give your zombie cocktail a rich kick. Creating the drinks can also be tantalizing for home chefs, given the housemade syrups and mixers that give tiki drinks their fresh, juicy lift.
Most of all, tiki is fun. So it’s no wonder that part of Sacramento Cocktail Week will be adorned with an island lei during its run from Aug. 14-19. The Red Rabbit Kitchen + Bar will host an annual “It Takes Two to Tiki” event Aug. 16. Also that day, the history of the island-inspired drinks also will be explored at the Hyatt Regency hotel by Martin Cate, the founder of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, a temple of tiki which was named “best American cocktail bar” at the recent Spirited Awards in New Orleans.
“It’s a shared appeal for desire and an environment to escape,” Cate said about the enduring appeal of tiki. “You turn off the TV and stop hearing the bad news. You go to where the music’s soft, it’s a bit dark and mysterious and there’s always that feeling of twilight to it. You’re putting up your feet and sipping slowly on a mai tai.”
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Ah yes, the mai tai, the mother of all tiki cocktails. It’s a rum-based drink created, depending on who you’re talking to, in either 1944 at Trader Vic’s or 1933 by the legendary Donn Beach a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber. Either way, the mai tai has persisted since the beginnings of tiki culture, as Polynesian cuisine and decor became a form of exotica starting in the 1940s. That fascination persisted after World War II, as servicemen returned home from stints in the South Pacific, and Polynesian eateries became commonplace in the American restaurant landscape. That included Sacramento, which was home to such as Zombie Hut, Coral Reef and The Tropics.
Learning to make a proper mai tai is also a proper gateway to a lively world of tiki drinks, many of which are detailed in Cate’s excellent book, “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki” (Ten Speed Press, $30, 352 pages). Written with his wife, Rebecca Cate, the book details the rich history of rum and tiki culture, plus dozens of drinks to create at home and bartending tips.
The tiki family of drinks encompasses a variety of ingredients, and not all are rum-based. But no matter the spirit or ingredients used, tiki drinks operate under a flavor profile that’s based on this proportion: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak.
This classic cocktail rhyme essentially figures a ratio between citrus juices, syrups/sugars, spirits and a diluting agent, such as ice or soda. From there, embellishments may be found in the form of spices, fragrant plants such as mint, and perhaps a few dashes of bitters.
“There doesn’t have to be rum, but there’s structure,” Cate said. “It’s elaborate and complex, but there’s a nice sweet and tart balance. It’s not just saying you’re putting together a bunch of ingredients that are tropical and sweet.”
The mai tai exemplifies this ethos well, which Cate likens to a “nutty rum margarita.” A blended aged rum is the star of the show, with a supporting cast that includes lime juice, a bit of dry curacao and orgeat, an almond-based syrup that’s augmented with orange water or flower water. The Smuggler’s Cove version of a mai tai includes a simple syrup enhanced with small amounts of vanilla extract and salt.
The end result should look something like a mini island in a glass – the spent lime shell floating on top becomes the land mass; a sprig of mint resembles a palm tree. A lot of ingredients are in play, especially with the components that make up the orgeat, but they should serve as complementary elements to the rich aged rum and its overtones of caramel and spice.
“It’s a simple drink that’s often misidentified as complex,” Cate said. “What’s happening is five ingredients, and the qualities are there to give a nice accent to the rum and let it speak for itself.”
From there, a world of tiki drinks await. Cate suggests investing in six or so bottles of rum that reflect different styles, from aged and blended molasses-based rums to “overproof” examples used in the more potent tiki cocktails.
Also essential for your budding home tiki bar: fresh citrus to be squeezed, spicy cordials such as falernum and allspice dram, and a bottle of bitters. (Lei and tiki torch not included.)
“It’s a welcoming community, and through my book I’m trying to share my love of the cocktail and its aesthetics,” Cate said. “In the 1940s and 1950s there was this huge shared fantasy (of tiki culture) and for us it’s appealing in the same way.”
Sacramento Cocktail Week
When: Sunday, Aug. 14 through Friday, Aug. 19
Where: At various bars and restaurants around Sacramento
Tiki events: “It Takes Two to Tiki” at Red Rabbit Kitchen + Bar on Tuesday, 6 p.m. Aug. 16; “From the High Seas to High Tiki: Rum’s Cocktail,” a presentation on rum and tiki history by Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove, 10 a.m. Aug. 16 at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento (1209 L St., Sacramento). Admission is $10.
Information on all events: sacramentococktailweek.com
Created by Martin Cate
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 1⁄2 ounces Smuggler’s Cove (SC) passion fruit honey (recipe follows)
1⁄2 ounce SC cinnamon syrup (recipe follows)
1⁄2 ounce hibiscus liqueur (e.g. Jack from Brooklyn Sorel or hum liqueur)
2 ounces pot still unaged rum (e.g. Privateer Silver Reserve or Owney’s New York Rum or Sergeant Classick White)
6 drops Bittermans ‘Elemakule Tiki bitters
Edible orchid, for garnish
Multiply the ingredient quantities by the number of guests. Combine all the ingredients except the ice in a beverage dispenser or other sealable container and whisk together. Chill for 1 to 2 hours before serving. Add large blocks of ice to the dispenser or serve over a large block or smaller blocks of ice in a punch bowl. Garnish individual servings with an edible orchid.
SC passion fruit honey
Makes 3 cups (24 ounces)
1 1⁄2 cups honey
1 1⁄2 cups Funkin passion fruit puree
Heat the honey in a saucepan over medium heat until runny and not viscous – nearly to a boil but not quite. Remove from the heat and whisk in the passion fruit purée. Let cool. Pour into a lidded bottle or other sealable container and store in the refrigerator. The syrup will keep, refrigerated, for up to 10 days.
SC cinnamon syrup
Makes 4 cups (32 ounces)
2 cups water
Three 6-inch cinnamon sticks, halved
4 cups granulated sugar
Put the water in a saucepan. Add the pieces of cinnamon stick to the water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the sugar and stir with a whisk (or an immersion blender) until dissolved, about 1 minute (the liquid should become clear such that you can see the bottom of the pot). Immediately remove from the heat. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 12 hours. Strain through cheesecloth into a bowl and then use a funnel to pour into a lidded bottle or other sealable container. The syrup will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.
Within the pantheon of exotic cocktails, one stands above the rest as the most iconic of the era. An elegant and simple concoction, really just a nutty rum margarita, it eschews the conventional structure established by Donn in favor of a more nuanced approach.
Origin: Trader Vic, 1944, adapted by Smuggler’s Cove
3⁄4 ounce fresh lime juice
1⁄4 ounce SC Mai Tai rich simple syrup (recipe follows)
1⁄4 ounce SC orgeat syrup (recipe follows; if opting for a store brand, use one made from real almonds)
1⁄2 ounce Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao
2 ounces blended aged rum (e.g. Denizen Merchant’s Reserve)
Spent lime shell and mint sprig, for garnish
Combine all ingredients with 12 ounces of crushed ice and a few cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake until a frost forms on the shaker and pour the entire contents into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a spent lime shell and mint sprig.
SC Mai Tai rich simple syrup
Makes 4 cups (32 ounces)
2 cups water
4 cups demerara sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Add the demerara sugar and stir vigorously with a whisk (or use an immersion blender) until the sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute (the water should become clear such that you can see the bottom of the pot). Immediately remove from heat and let cool. Add the vanilla extract and salt and stir to combine. Pour into a lidded bottle or other sealable container and store in the refrigerator. The syrup will keep, refrigerated for several weeks.
Smuggler’s Cove orgeat
Makes 5 to 6 cups (40 to 48 ounces)
1 pound blanched almonds (3 1⁄2 to 4 cups)
4 cups water
5 cups white granulated sugar (depends on yield of almonds; see method)
1⁄4 teaspoon rose water
1⁄4 teaspoon orange flower water
2 teaspoon column still lightly aged rum (adds shelf life)
Add the almonds and water to a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Strain the almonds and set aside in a large bowl, while also reserving the remaining “almond water” in a separate bowl.
In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, grind 2 cups of the boiled almonds into small, rice-size pieces, about 10 seconds. Slowly add about 11 ounces of the “almond water” to the food processor and blend until the water and almonds combine to an “almond paste,” about 10 seconds. This “paste” will be the consistency of Cream of Wheat or watery oatmeal. Pour contents into a gallon pitcher. Repeat with the remaining almonds and “almond water,” and add this second batch of “almond paste” to the first batch.
Let the almond paste cool about 1 hour. Set a fine-mesh wire strainer lined with cheesecloth over a 4-quart pot. In batches, ladle some of the “almond paste” into a square of cheesecloth in your hand and squeeze out the liquid (“almond milk”) from the paste over the cheesecloth-lined strainer and into the pot. Discard the dry almond remains. Repeat until all paste has been strained. At the end, you may want to also squeeze the cheesecloth that lined the strainer to get the last of any remaining liquid.
Set a fine-mesh wire strainer lined with cheesecloth over a 4-cup glass measuring cup. Pour the almond milk through the cheesecloth-lined strainer into the measuring cup and make note of the yield (you should have about 2 ½ cups of almond milk). Set a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth over a clean 4-quart pot and pour the almond milk through the cheesecloth-lined strainer into the pot.
Measure twice as much sugar as the almond milk yield (about 5 cups) and add to pot of almond milk. Whisk over low heat until the sugar is fully incorporated into the milk, creating a thick syrup, about 15 minutes. Taste it – it is ready when there is no grittiness. Remove pot from heat. When the syrup begins to cool, add the rose and orange flower waters and rum. Stir periodically as it cools. It may separate so a thick skin forms on the surface. Stir vigorously to reincorporate the skin as best as possible into the rest of syrup.
Once completely cool, stir vigorously, then strain through a metal-screened or cheesecloth-lined funnel (to remove any residual undissolved matter) into a sealable storage container. The orgeat will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.