10 of the Best Classic Tiki Cocktails

Drink Lists cocktails
10 of the Best Classic Tiki Cocktails

Here’s the first thing you need to know, when we’re talking about tiki cocktails: They are delicious, but all too frequently misunderstood.

Well-made tiki drinks range from bracing, rum-heavy booze bombs topped with floats of 151-proof spirits, to delicately citrusy quaffers, to spice-driven tinctures that unfold with layer after layer of complexity. They can be consumed as potent and low-volume “up” drinks, in frozen form, or become one with the frigid slush of crushed ice. They’re endlessly adaptable, can be made to include practically any flavor profile, and can even be adapted into outrageously flavorful, booze-free mocktails. The possibilities are nearly endless. But with that said, where do you start?

Well, for one, we’d point you toward our guide to the ingredients you’ll need to acquire to really get started on home tiki cocktails. It might not hurt to read our feature on the many uses of falernum, either! And of course, you could indulge in our recent gripes about the dearth of quality canned tiki cocktails, and the many terrible canned mai tais that litter the shelves.

But when all is said and done, and you’ve acquired everything you need to acquire, what you need is a collection of essential tiki cocktail recipes to get you started. These 10 drinks are all classics of the genre, indispensable potions that are often found at various tiki bars, although some are a bit better known than others. Start mixing them up today, and you’ll be glad for the tropical, summer vibes they bring your way.

1. Mai Tai

The mai tai wasn’t the first tiki/tropical/“exotic” cocktail, but it is ultimately the most famed and essential; the building block around which the modern genre is based. Every tiki bar will have a house mai tai of some kind, but this drink has simultaneously suffered in the last 60 years from bastardization and appropriation of its original flavors. Many drinks today labeled at beachfront bars as “mai tais” today have little if anything to do with Victor Bergeron’s (Trader Vic) 1944 original, being filled with a seemingly random array of juices, flavorings (there’s no coconut in a mai tai!) and rum. Suffice to say, if you’re going to make a mai tai at home, you should learn the original way first, and then see if you want to experiment with it.

At its heart, the recipe for the mai tai is really not that complicated, especially by tiki cocktail standards. The combination of rum, curacao and lime juice evokes a rum-based margarita, but the final addition of almond orgeat transforms the drink into something new and delicious. Here’s a standard recipe:

— 2 oz Jamaican rum
— 1 oz lime juice
— .5 oz orange curaco
— .5 oz almond orgeat syrup
— .25 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake to chill, and then strain into an old fashioned glass over crushed ice. Optionally, add bitters, rum float, and garnishes of lime wedge and sprig of fresh mint.

2. Zombie

There are a lot of tiki cocktails that possess some degree of infamy for being strong or intoxicating, but Donn Beach’s original Zombie is the godfather of that particular genre. It is, suffice to say, a very spirit-forward cocktail, although you can also tailor its potency and its volume in order to make it less of a one-and-done cocktail. The most important aspects to preserve are a complex blend of rums, and the replication of the elements in the original “Donn’s Mix,” which is a combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup. You can of course create your own Donn’s Mix, but it’s really often easiest to just use some grapefruit juice and make a quick cinnamon simple syrup with a few cinnamon sticks and some sugar. Also: The absinthe is absolutely essential. Without it, this drink will be lacking the balancing bitterness and herbaceousness that balance the rum, citrus and spice.

It should probably go without saying, but this drink demands to be shaken very thoroughly, as it needs at least some level of dilution. The included recipe below is for the original Zombie, but remember that you can easily cut all these volumes in half to make a less powerful drink.

— 1.5 oz Jamaican rum
— 1.5 oz Puerto Rico rum (or any aged column still rum)
— 1 oz 151 proof demerara rum
— .75 oz lime juice
— .5 oz grapefruit juice
— .25 oz cinnamon syrup
— .5 oz falernum
— 1 teaspoon grenadine
— 1 barspoon absinthe
— 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients (yes, all of them) in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well to chill, then strain into a tall Collins glass or hurricane-style glass with more cracked or crushed ice. Drink with a straw.

3. Three Dots and a Dash

Another Donn Beach original, although not as well known to the average drinker today as the zombie, the Three Dots and Dash is a WWII-era drink that signifies the Morse code designation for “V,” or “victory.” Unlike many of the cocktails in this list, which are often based around molasses rums from the likes of Jamaica or Guyana (demerara rum), this one is instead based around aged rhum agricole from Martinique, which is instead made from fresh sugar cane juice, rather than molasses. This typically gives rhum agricole more of a funky, grassy, herbaceous flavor, which combines nicely with the big spice profile of the Three Dots and a Dash. Traditionally, this one is garnished with cocktail cherries (which form the dots) and either a pineapple frond or rectangular strip of pineapple (for the dash). Compared with some of the other, fruity drinks on this list, this one really highlights the spice elements.

— 1.5 oz aged Martinique rhum agricole
— .5 oz aged rum (any molasses based rum)
— .25 oz falernum
— .25 oz allspice dram/pimento dram
— .5 oz honey syrup
— .5 oz lime juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well to chill, and strain into an old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with the “dots” and “dashes” if desired.

three-dots-chicago.jpgThis drink is also the namesake of popular Chicago tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash.

4. Halekulani

Tiki cocktails are a far more diverse and interesting collection of drinks than they’re often given credit for, but you can understand why people are likely to think they’re all similar, when so many include ingredients such as rum and citrus. Guess what, though? Practically every other spirit is also welcome under the “tiki” banner, from bourbon and rye to gin, brandy and beyond. In fact, we wrote a list not too long ago that focused exclusively on tiki cocktails made with whiskey, instead of rum, and the Halekulani is the most celebrated historic example.

The drink supposedly hails from the House Without a Key, the famous bar/lounge of the Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii, having been created at some point in the 1930s. It swaps the rum out for bourbon, and other ingredients for ones that classically play well with bourbon—lemon juice instead of lime, and the addition of pineapple, which has long been one of bourbon’s best complementary flavors. Most Halekulani recipes call for strong bourbon of 100 proof or more, which gives this drink the punchy presence of a whiskey-based daiquiri, with a pineapple twist.

— 1.5 oz overpoof bourbon
— .5 oz pineapple juice
— .5 oz lemon juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— 1 barspoon grenadine or pomegranate molasses
— .5 oz demerara syrup or brown sugar syrup
— 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Shake hard, and strain. The Halekulani can be served as either an “up drink,” or over a glass of fresh ice. Served “up” in a cocktail glass or coupe, it’s a fairly potent tropical drink, akin to a stronger, whiskey-based daiquiri. Served in a rocks glass over ice, it’s somewhat more friendly and easygoing, like a tropically influenced whiskey sour.

5. Jungle Bird


Very few good things came to the world of tiki cocktails in the 1970s, but the Jungle Bird is one of them. It was an era when tropical drinks and tiki classics were being bastardized and watered down at an alarming rate in the U.S., as bartenders and drinkers pivoted toward “lighter” spirits and classic recipes were lost and forgotten. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Jungle Bird didn’t come from the U.S.—instead, it was invented at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton hotel, where bartender Jeffrey Ong first combined aged rum, pineapple and Campari at the Aviary Bar, giving the drink its name. The drink would go on to become a modern classic, inspiring many imitators that use a bitter liqueur such as Campari to balance out a large amount of sweet ingredient, such as pineapple juice.

— 1.5 oz Jamaican rum
— .75 oz Campari
— 1.5 oz pineapple juice
— .5 oz lime juice
— .5 oz demerara simple syrup

Combine all the above ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well to chill and strain into a large glass filled with crushed ice. Optionally, add a few dashes of the bitters of your choice. You can also adjust the volume of Campari to dial in the precise bitterness you prefer for this drink.

6. Cobra’s Fang

One cocktail often included in the honorary tiki canon is the Hurricane, the famed mind-obliterator of New Orleans origin. It may exist on the edge of the tiki spectrum, but the Hurricane is also not quite center of the bullseye for the style. Instead, you can try this Donn Beach original, the Cobra’s Fang, which actually has many of the same elements—rum, passionfruit, orange, etc, along with some of Donn’s signatures, such as a dash of absinthe for complexity.

One of the keys here is fassionola, often described as a “lost” tiki syrup of old, although commercial examples are now pretty easy to find online. This is essentially a “fruit punch” syrup with many different fruit flavors involved, although the passionfruit in particular is a must. Combine all these ingredients together, and you get something that is simultaneously rummy, spicy, fruity and delicious.

— 1.5 oz aged Jamaican rum
— .5 oz 151 proof demerara rum
— .5 oz falernum
— .5 oz lime juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— .5 oz fassionola syrup
— 1 dash absinthe
— 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of cracked ice. Shake well to chill, then strain into a tall Collins glass or tiki mug with fresh crushed ice. Garnish with lime wheel or mint sprig.

7. Painkiller

The Painkiller is technically another “tiki adjacent” drink, but one that has become so massively popular and widespread in recent years that it feels like it’s truly been adopted into the classic tiki canon, despite the fact that it hails from the 1970s. Looking at the ingredients list, it’s obvious that it has a lot in common with the ubiquitous tropical staple of the pina colada, but where the former is very focused on the coconut, the Painkiller instead dials up the rum and pineapple influences, and leaves coconut as more of a supporting player that also lends creaminess to the texture of the drink. Both rich and boozy, and topped off with a requisite dusting of nutmeg, it’s a delightful change of pace.

— 2 oz demerara rum blend (traditionally Pusser’s Rum)
— 4 oz pineapple juice
— 1 oz orange juice
— 1 oz cream of coconut (not coconut milk)
— Grated or powdered nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of cracked ice. Shake well to chill, then strain into a tall glass over crushed ice. Garnish with a wedge of pineapple, and the all-important dusting of nutmeg. Drink with a straw.

8. Navy Grog

Yet another Donn Beach original, and another very strong drink. The concept of “navy grog” has always been a bit of a nebulous one, as these drinks have little if anything to do with the historic consumption of rum as “grog” (essentially rum and water, maybe with a little lime) on navy vessels. Instead, the navy grog is more of a reimagining of that concept, as a strong rum punch with some spice elements. Three different styles of rum appear.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this drink is quite strong, and has always had a reputation as a result. It’s even been involved in some scandalous incidents—music producer Phil Spector was under the influence of multiple navy grogs on the night he murdered actress Lana Clarkson, which we know because a bartender from the Beverly Hilton Trader Vic’s literally testified as much during the murder trial. Which is all to say: You’ve been warned.

— 1 oz aged Jamaican rum
— 1 oz demerara rum
— 1 oz Puerto Rican (column still) rum
— .75 oz lime juice
— .75 oz grapefruit juice
— .25 oz demerara simple syrup
— .25 oz allspice/pimento dram

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice, or in the jar of a blender. Shake well to chill, or blend for several seconds if using the blender. Strain into a rocks glass on fresh crushed ice, or if blended transfer the entirety of the blender’s contents to a rocks glass.

9. Fog Cutter

The mai tai is understandably remembered as Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron’s most enduring contribution to the world of tiki cocktail recipes, but the Fog Cutter has to be a close second. It’s one of the most unique cocktails of the classic tiki era, for the way it plays with other spirits and combines them with rum. Notably, though, many different variations on the Fog Cutter recipe abound. They all tend to contain at least some degree of gin, however, and at least one spirit distilled from grapes, be that brandy or pisco, and typically some form of sherry as well. The recipe below is a synthesis of several—beware, as this is another very strong drink.

— 1.5 oz lightly aged rum (column still, or blended)
— 1 oz brandy
— .5 oz gin
— 1.5 oz lemon juice
— 1.5 oz orange juice
— .5 oz orgeat syrup
— .5 oz sherry (traditionally oloroso)

Combine all ingredients except the sherry in a cocktail shaker filled with plenty of ice. Shake well to chill, and then strain into a tall glass or tiki mug filled with crushed ice. Gently float the sherry on top. Garnish with mint sprig.

10. Lost Lake

A thoroughly modern tiki cocktail, the Lost Lake was the eponymous flagship drink of the well-loved and recently departed Chicago tiki bar of the same name, and it’s a drink that I’m determined to keep alive. It may be my favorite overall tiki cocktail, for the way it combines so many elements of the other classics into a fruity and rummy drink that also has a modicum of bitter balance. It has the passion fruit of a Hurricane/Cobra’s Fang, combined with the pineapple and Campari of a Jungle Bird, and the maraschino of a Hemingway daiquiri. Truly, you can’t go wrong, and I urge you to make one of these for yourself tonight.

— 2 oz aged Jamaican rum
— .75 oz lime juice
— .75 oz passionfruit syrup
— .5 oz pineapple juice
— .25 oz maraschino liqueur
— .25 oz Campari

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well to chill, and then strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Optionally add a dash or two of your favorite bitters.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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