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What is a Tiki Drink?

What is a Tiki Drink? It turns out the answer is not so straightforward.

The premise behind our very existence at Tiki Tolteca pushes the envelope on what a tiki drink actually is. We are a Latin American tiki bar, and while we use rum (a lot), we’ve had our fair share of tikiphiles tell us that what we do isn’t tiki because it’s not all rum. We normally respond with “What about the Suffering Bastard, or the Singapore Sling, or the Eastern Sour?” Of course tiki drinks are usually made with rum, but there are notable examples made with other spirits. For that matter, we often think of tiki drinks as being served in wacky mugs with over-the-top garnishes, but what about the two quintessential tiki drinks, the Mai Tai and the Zombie? A simple rocks glass and a collins glass.

So in order to open Tiki Tolteca, we had to have a few philosophical meetings about what, in our opinion, makes a tiki drink a tiki drink. It was clear to us early on that there is no cold hard definition that every drink fits into, but there certainly seemed to be guidelines.

In the end, we narrowed it down to five guidelines that would influence all our drink decisions at Tiki Tolteca. In looking at the classic tiki drink repertoire, we figured if a drink meets any 4 of these, it sits firmly in the realm of tiki. If it meets 3, there’s a strong argument for it. 2, and you’re really pushing it. 1, and are you sure you aren’t just drinking a glass of milk with a mint sprig?

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1) Tiki drinks contain rum

While we contend that this is not a hard fast rule, it’s certainly an important one. The vast majority of tiki drinks are made with rum, and to deny that would be to bury our heads in the sand. Even though we bill ourselves as a Latin American tiki bar, the majority of our cocktails and the majority of our liquor selection is still rum. There’s no getting away from it, and why would we want to? Rum is the nectar of the gods!

2) The drink contains exotic fruit juices and spices

When we say exotic juices, we mean exotic for the 1800s and early 1900s. In the age of the classic cocktail, lemon juice was the main juice being used in America, with lime being used to a lesser extent in the states but to a much larger extent in the Caribbean and Latin America. Tiki went outside the box and started using a lot of grapefruit juice, passion fruit juice, pineapple juice, and orange juice (fresh please!).

As for the spices, tiki drinks from the beginning have been big on syrups made with cinnamon, allspice, clove, anise, and nutmeg. In our minds, even though they aren’t spices, we lump almonds and ginger into this category as well.

3) The flavor profile of the drink is deceptive

In other words, you can’t quite put your finger on the ingredients of a tiki drink. Part of this is probably because tiki ingredients are uncommon in other types of drinks, but it’s also because the flavors of a good tiki drink intermingle in a way that is different from the sum of its parts. Perhaps another reason for this is that tiki bartenders aren’t afraid of drinks with “too many” ingredients. When your drink has two teaspoon of 5 different ingredients, it makes sense that your palate would start getting confused.

Whatever the reason, this is an important rule for making a tiki drink. It’s why rum-and-ginger ale isn’t really a tiki drink in our opinion, even if you put it in a mug that looks like it wants to eat your face.

4) The presentation is over-the-top

As I mentioned above, the two most classic tiki drinks are served in regular glasses. But certainly tiki mugs have become essential in a tiki bar, people expect them, and we love the hell out of them.

Side note: We’re actually waiting on our own personalized mugs from Tiki Farm right now. They should be in by February and we plan on having a party if we don’t die from giddiness before then.

Beyond the mugs, however, tiki presentation still tends to be a little extravagant. You might find mermaids hanging out of your rim, fog or fire billowing out of your drink, and Chinese lanterns and paper peacocks hiding amongst a forest of mint. We serve one drink with an airplane squeeze toy so you can squirt the cocktail into each other’s mouth.

5) The drink is well balanced

Sure, this rule really applies to any good cocktail, but we included it in our list because so many people have forgotten this extremely important point when it comes to tiki. Over the years, tiki drinks have gone from tasty, well-balanced wonders to syrupy messes made with chemicals and cheap rum. Some of the flavors used in tiki drinks are so big that great care must be taken to ensure they are balanced out. Taking this a step further, great tiki bartenders are legendary for using specific rum flavors to balance out their drinks. The flavors of rum are so varied that it’s hard to imagine that some of them are from the same category of spirits. Blind taste a Mount Gay Eclipse, a Jack Daniels, and an El Dorado 15 year and tell me which spirit doesn’t fit! Many, if not most, tiki drinks blend different rums to get the exact flavor that will balance the drink out the rest of the drink.

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So those are the guidelines we wrote for ourselves. Since we often look beyond rum when creating new drinks, we really try to hold true to the other rules. Sometimes we just hit three of them.

Case in point: the Petit Café contains no rum, nor is its presentation very elaborate (although it is black, which I think rocks). So we’d consider that drink that’s on the line but close enough.

In the end, the phrase “tiki drink” is an idea, and like any idea, its definition depends completely on people’s collective opinion.

After being open for 2.5 years, making thousands of drinks and talking to a ton of people, we are convinced that these tiki drink rules hold water with the general public and with bartenders. We get the occasional tikiphile who tries to negate our entire existence because some of our tiki decorations are more South American than Polynesian. We could bring up the Kon Tiki argument or say that Easter Island is owned by Chile. We could explain everything I just wrote in this post. In fact we’ve tried, and some don’t want to hear it. Well, we’re always more than happy to make a great Mai Tai (hell, it’s one of the drinks I recommend the most).

But for the people who want to get philosophical and push the tiki boundaries a little bit, let’s get crazy.

Nathan Dalton
Bar Director, Tiki Tolteca and Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria

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