The Starter Guide to Home Tiki CocktailsPhotos via Liber & Co., Monin, Dashfire Bitters Drink Features cocktails
Fact #1 about tiki cocktails: They are delicious. 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 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.
Fact #2 about tiki cocktails: There’s definitely a bit of a barrier to entry. The thing about these drinks is that they often include quite a few ingredients, and few of them (besides perhaps fruit juices) are ones that the average home cook has laying around their kitchen, unless they’ve acquired them for the express purpose of making tiki drinks. As a result, you’re likely to come across recipes for tiki drinks online, think “oh, that looks good” and then realize “wait, I don’t have orgeat and dragonfruit syrup,” etc. It’s the barrier that keeps people ordering tiki drinks in restaurants, rather than making them at home.
With all that said, though, once you put together a basic lineup of core ingredients, the world of tiki cocktails opens up to you in all its splendor. Soon you’ll be whipping together your own mai tais, exotically flavored daiquiris or modern tiki classics, wondering how you ever got along without the ability to expand upon the Prohibition-focused whiskey and gin drinks that are so much more common for the home bartender.
Allow this basic guide, then, to be your checklist when it comes to acquiring everything you’ll need to start making an array of outstanding tiki drinks at home. We’ll walk you all the way from rum to ice, with no stone left unturned.
It really seems like it should go without saying, but your tiki drinks are really only going to be as good as the rum you’re putting into them as a base. And you’re going to want a few different basic families of rum in order to make a wide variety of drinks.
Certainly, you’re going to need some good, standard white rum for mixing—we wrote last year about how aged white rum is one of the best categories that most drinkers are totally unaware of, and the extra flavor and smoothness they bring to the category make aged white rums my go-to for basic rum drinks like the classic daiquiri, which is merely rum, simple syrup and lime juice. You should expect to spend $15-25 for a good bottle of something like Denizen Aged White Rum, and they make a BIG difference, compared with the likes of unaged Bacardi.
You’ll then need some quality aged rum, which will be the backbone of many tiki cocktails. Strength doesn’t matter all that much, but get something that at least has some kind of age statement on it if possible. Many “gold rums” have simply been rested in oak for a brief period or are otherwise artificially colored, whereas bottles labeled as “dark rum” are often artificially sweetened and colored—what you want are genuinely aged rums that have seen at least a few years in oak. Value plays include the likes of Appleton Estate Signature, Plantation Grande Reserve, Angostura 5 Year, Mount Gay Eclipse Gold or Bacardi Ocho, and they’ll all treat you just fine in a tiki drink.
Those two are the basics, but the next level would be to get some stronger overproof rums such as Wray & Nephew or Lemon Hart, or some funkier, earthier, grassier rhum agricoles such as Rhum JM or Rhum Clement to explore new flavor profiles. For starters, though, you can stick to simply good white and aged rums.
Simple Syrup/Gum Syrup
Tiki drinks have a reputation for being on the sticky-sweet side, and although this is a misconception that by no means is true of all of the entire category, some degree of sweetness is present in the vast majority of recipes. As such, you’re going to need a ready supply of ways to add that sweetness, and simple syrup mixes far better than trying to add sugar by other means.
Classic simple syrup is simply a mixture of water and sugar, at a 1/1 ratio. That works just fine in most recipes, but most bartenders you meet will instead prefer what is known as rich syrup, which is just simple syrup made with a 2/1 ratio of sugar to water. That results in a thicker syrup, which means you can use less of it by volume in a drink, resulting in a less watered-down texture. Simple syrup is of course very easy to make at home (simply heat water with sugar in it till simmering, then cool and bottle), and having a bottle of ready-made rich syrup in the fridge is a great way to be prepared to make tiki drinks.
You can take things a step further, though, by upgrading to gum/gomme syrup, which is rich syrup with the addition of gum arabic, a natural emulsifier made from the resin of the Acacia tree. A staple of tiki traditions, gum syrup works just like regular simple in terms of adding sweetness to drinks, but the gum arabic also helps to contribute a subtly fuller and more silky mouthfeel. It’s one of those little upgrades that can make a big difference in simple cocktails such as the daiquiri, giving them the desirably full mouthfeel you’re likely to get if you order one at the bar. Gum syrup is widely available from retailers, and bottles last quite a while, so I think this is a no-brainer to pick up.
Another no-brainer for tiki cocktails; you’re definitely going to need some fruit juices, as practically every recipe incorporates them. The most common by far is lime juice, followed by others such as pineapple juice, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, orange juice and rarer juices.
If you read cocktail guides online, you’ll see a lot of noise insisting that these juices MUST be fresh squeezed. Is that nice, to have fresh-squeezed lime juice available every day? Certainly, but let’s be honest, we don’t always have the limes, lemons, oranges, etc. in our fridges. As such, you’ll often be falling back on commercial bottles of something like lime juice, and frankly, they’ll work just fine for most of your purposes. Get the fresh fruit when you’re planning your drinks/cocktail parties in advance, as the fresh juice will definitely impress people, but otherwise stock your fridge with bottles lime/lemon juice for daily use. Just make sure you get the ones that label themselves as 100% juice, rather than the more artificial alternative. For a weeknight daiquiri, they’ll do just fine. Pineapple juice, meanwhile, is often available in small cans of only a few ounces, and these are ideal for whipping up a pair of classic pineapple-forward cocktails such as the much-loved Jungle Bird.
As for the more obscure juices, it can be impractical to stock them when you don’t know if you’ll be mixing tiki drinks. In this case, fruit syrups and cordials can be a much more attractive options than actual juice, and I’ll discuss them more below. When it comes to juice, just make sure you keep your lime, lemon and pineapple in stock.
Orgeat and velvet falernum are two closely related syrups that are both made in large part from sweet almonds, and are meant to contribute richness, nuttiness and complexity in a variety of tiki drinks. They are completely ubiquitous in the tiki world, and you’ll end up needing them in order to make classic drinks such as the mai tai. There are few investments that one can make in terms of cocktails better than a good bottle of orgeat, although there are also plenty of recipes for making your own at home.
Orgeat itself is traditionally made with blanched and roasted, whole sweet almonds, along with cane sugar, rose water and orange flower water, and possibly some spices. There’s a variety of commercial versions—I tend to get mine from Liber & Co., sells a wide array of cocktail syrups.
Velvet Falernum, or just “falernum,” on the other hand, has some aspects in common with orgeat, also being made with almonds, but it instead defines itself through the additional presence of a lot of spices and other flavors, including ginger, lime, allspice and cloves. Cocktail purists and tiki buffs will tell you that you absolutely cannot swap orgeat and falernum for each other if a recipe calls for one or the other, but once again this is more a matter of taste than anything. Orgeat will sub in just fine, but you’ll be lacking the spice notes, and vice versa. Eventually, you’ll probably want to acquire some of each, but you’ll probably start with orgeat.
There are also other related but rarer syrups, like the passionfruit-infused Fassionola, which is considered an integral part of the classic Hurricane cocktail, but you’ll see far fewer recipes that call for them. Plus, they can be replicated through the use of other fruit cordials, as we’ll discuss below.
If you’ve already been making whiskey cocktails, etc. in the past, then you probably know the value of a good array of bitters. These are one of the easiest ways to jazz up various drinks and modify recipes. Bitters bottles are small, they don’t need to be refrigerated, and they can last a very long time. Moreover, once you acquire a new bottle of bitters, you can then start looking up brand new recipes to use it, and it will send you down wild avenues of exploration.
To start out, though, you’ll need a bottle of Angostura bitters at the very least, which you probably already have if you’ve been making Old Fashioneds or Manhattans at home. Made by the House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago, these are the best-known bitters in the world, and their uses are nearly limitless. Sharp, warm, spicy and yes, bitter, they help to balance out the sweetness in many cocktails, including tiki drinks, while adding subtle spiciness. I use them in many places; even atop a basic daiquiri, which doesn’t classically call for them. Many imitators also exist, usually labeled as some version of “aromatic bitters” or the like. Shop around and find the one you like best! Try tasting a few dashes of them in warm water as well, which is like a strong, spicy tea that is also known to help with an upset stomach.
In addition to the ubiquitous Angostura, you’re definitely going to want some general orange bitters, and then whichever additional varieties you enjoy—my fiance is way into Dashfire Sichuan Bitters. There are even specific “tiki bitters” from companies like Bittermans, which are meant to emulate some of the same spicy flavors as Falernum.
Fruit Syrups/Cordials/Additional Liqueurs
This is a bit of a catch-all category for the many, many flavorings you can also use to take various tiki cocktails to the next level, or change the basic profile of what you think of as “tiki” in the first place.
First, there are the traditional cocktail liqueurs, some of which you may already possess. You can think of some of these as “unlocking” new recipes that you can create once you have a bottle. For instance, some Campari will allow you to add a uniquely bitter edge to tiki drinks, and create classics such as the Jungle Bird and the Lost Lake Cocktail. Some Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, on the other hand, is a necessity to make one of the most famous daiquiri variations, the Hemingway Daiquiri, and it shows up in a number of others as well (in addition to every version of The Last Word cocktail). These are the types of bottles you can slowly acquire over time, and they’ll last in your liquor cabinet for quite a long while.
Fruit syrups and cordials, on the other hand, are perhaps the easiest way to straight-up personalize or modify an existing drink. Many types of them are available, and they keep for a surprisingly long time once opened, especially in the refrigerator. Some passionfruit syrup or blood orange syrup, for instance, can be used to make cocktails that require it (like the Hurricane), but it can also be added to so many other drinks. Passionfruit daiquiri? Done. Passionfruit mai tai? Why not? And naturally, they can be used in every other family of cocktail. Blood orange margarita, anyone? They can even be used to make delicious mocktails, if you’re trying to cut down on your consumption.
You can absolutely consider this last category to be optional, as crushed ice is in no way a necessity, although ice itself certainly is. There are, however, many tiki drinks such as the mai tai that are arguably most at home poured over a big pile of crushed ice, and if you can make it at home it can really complete the look. A variety of molds and crushed ice makers are available online—of course you could also just pour ice in a bag and take a big mallet or rolling pin to it. We won’t judge you.
Ultimately, this is just a nice garnish. Focus on the other entries above, and your tiki cocktail game will be on point in no time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.