From New York to California, tiki fever is sweeping America. It seems like every week, a new tiki-themed cocktail bar, offering patrons a cool drink with a side of tropical escapism, is opening somewhere in the country. But even if that’s the impression, we realize that not every Tom, Dick, and Harry is fortunate enough to have a tiki bar in the neighborhood. And even if you are one of the lucky souls who does live a stone’s throw from a Mai Tai-slinging bartender, that doesn’t mean you always want to brave the inevitable crowds to get your hands on a Three Dots and a Dash or Zombie Punch.
If you fall into either of these categories, stocking your home bar with an eye toward tiki will allow you to partake in the craze from the comfort of your own living room. But where to start? The long list of ingredients that many tiki cocktail recipes call for can be intimidating. But if you have a handful of tiki cocktail ingredients, some kitschy tiki mugs, and a few garnishes on hand, you’ll find you can make many of the classics.
Rum is the most essential component of your tiki bar. It is closely associated with tropical cocktails because it is distilled from sugarcane, which grows prolifically in the Caribbean, southeast Asia, and other hot, humid climes. When Westerners developed a major sweet tooth in the colonial era, Caribbean islands began churning out refined sugar in unprecedented amounts to fuel the seemingly insatiable demand. A byproduct of that refining process, molasses, was considered industrial waste and a major logistical problem—that is, until someone in the 17th century figured out that it could be fermented.
Rum quickly became a favorite spirit among colonials. For hundreds of years, British trading and military vessels across the globe were well-stocked with the stuff. In time, rum’s affiliation with island culture and adventure on the high seas led to its romanticization—so much so that, today, daiquiris and piña coladas are practically synonymous with vacation and easy living.
The novice tiki enthusiast looking to set up a home bar might be tempted to buy a bottle of Bacardi and call it a day, but most tiki cocktails aren’t limited to one kind of rum; it is generally the layering of different styles of rum and rum of various provenances that characterize the classic tiki cocktail. If you are just starting out, it isn’t necessary to load up on dozens of types and brands (though you certainly can), but you should get your hands on a bottle of oaky, cocoa- and coffee-inflected dark Jamaican rum, plus a bottle of at least one of the following:
- Demerara rum, which is rich like Jamaican rum but smokier, with a burnt sugar taste not unlike the crackly top of your favorite crème brûlée. This stuff hails from Guyana, a country along the north coast of South America that shares a border with Venezuela.
- Rhum agricole, which is the French term for rum distilled from pure sugarcane juice, the most famous of which come from Martinique. The resultant spirits are fresh and complex, and generally more vegetal and earthy than their caramel- and vanilla-laden molasses-distilled counterparts. Considering sugarcane is actually a tall grass, that makes sense.
- White rum, which is charcoal filtered after aging, rendering it clear. It is generally milder than darker rums, but that is not always the case. Depending on how many years a white rum spent in the barrel before filtering, it can boast significant richness and complexity. In any case, it tends to be the rum of choice for cocktails like daiquiris and mojitos.
- Overproof rum, which is any rum that runs higher than the standard 80 to 100 proof. These rums are not diluted after the aging process but bottled at full cask strength. In the United States, you often see rum with “151” right in the name, which is indicative of its higher alcohol content. In tiki culture, these high-octane spirits are used to give much needed punch to fruit-forward cocktails. Overproof rum can also be employed for theatrical purposes, since it easily lights on fire.
If you find yourself getting more and more into the tiki craze, consider taking your game a step further with oddball spirits. One option is rum’s distant relative, Batavia arrack–a sugarcane and fermented red rice distillate of Southeast Asian origin. It was popular in the colonial period and then fell into obscurity. It has since been revived, and now it can be found on the shelves at many cocktail-focused commercial bars. You might also consider a domestic option like the spirit produced by Buffalo-based Black Squirrel Distillery. It’s made from New York State maple syrup rather than sugarcane-derived molasses, so it can’t technically be called rum. But since it’s made in the same spirit as rum, you could consider it fair game.
Once you have your rum lined up, you’ll need cocktail ingredients that add nuanced flavor. Many tiki recipes feature liqueurs to this end. Rum-based allspice dram is popular (St. Elizabeth is a well-regarded brand), as are ginger and coconut liqueurs. But if you are only going to spring for one kind, make it orange curaçao, which was first produced on the Caribbean island of the same name. Historically speaking, curaçao is a base of brandy infused with botanicals and the peels of a wild citrus fruit that evolved from the Valencia oranges Spanish settlers tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce to Curaçao’s ecosystem. Today, not all curaçaos are made according to that tradition, but any decent version of the liqueur will impart a slightly sweet, slightly bitter citrus element to your tiki cocktail.
Syrups and Sweeteners
Sweetening agents like syrups are your next consideration. In the case of tiki, those components are generally flavored with paradise-evoking spices (think vanilla, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, and clove) and/or tropical fruits and flowers. One syrup you’ll see a lot of in tiki recipes is falernum—a simple syrup redolent of clove, lime zest, and almond. Falernum is also produced as a low-proof liqueur, which can be interchanged in cocktail recipes with the non-alcoholic variety. Whichever option you choose, falernum imparts an intriguing element that is unique to tiki. Orgeat, a French almond syrup, is another favorite. Passion fruit syrup and pineapple syrup are two good fruit-forward options. You should also consider fruit-infused gum syrups, which add a richer mouthfeel to cocktails thanks to the addition of gum arabic, a resin from the Acacia tree.
Of course, no tiki bar is complete without fruit juice. Since fresh is best, you will generally want to buy and juice your citrus and other fruits as needed. A simple hand juicer is all most cocktail enthusiasts need to get the job done, but if you plan on crafting tiki cocktails in high volumes, a commercial juicer might be for you. Of course, in a pinch, bottled juices will work. Many major grocery stores carry high-quality organic brands in glass bottles that come close to approximating the fresh stuff.
To help balance the fruitiness of your tiki cocktail and add complexity, it’s not a bad idea to have some tropical-leaning bitters on hand. Pimento bitters, with strong notes of allspice and anise, are a good starting point, as are classic Angostura bitters, which hail originally from the Venezuelan town by the same name. Lime, orange, and lemon are other good options, and some bitters manufacturers even make proprietary tiki blends.
Garnishes and Accessories
If you have gotten to this point in your tiki bar setup, you are ready to start thinking about flair. Half the fun of tiki culture is the appeal of its visual elements—from carved idols and human skulls to orchids and hula girls. Tiki mugs are a must if you’re thinking of showing off your island cocktails to friends. Not only are they fabulously kitschy, but they do the double duty of masking the color of tiki drinks, which can run a bit ruddy or murky when you use good, all-natural tiki ingredients (i.e., products devoid of artificial dyes). Beyond tiki mugs are accessories like drink umbrellas and novelty cocktail stirrers and picks (I’m partial to the giraffe swizzle sticks, even if there are no giraffes on any island that I know of). You can also spice things up with cocktail garnishes like gourmet cherries and hibiscus flowers. And if you are thinking of making a classic Navy Grog—a drink Frank Sinatra called “the king of tiki cocktails”—you’ll definitely need one of these.
Want some background on the tiki cocktail craze? Check out our primer on the history of tiki in the United States.
Up next in the tiki blog series? A few classic tiki cocktail recipes you’ll want to master.
- Tiki Cocktails: Then and Now
- Four Tiki Cocktail Recipes to Help You Will Away Winter
- Tiki Cocktail Recipe: The Saturn
- Tiki Cocktail Recipe: Pasión’s Mai Tai
- Tiki Cocktail Recipe: Scorpion Bowl
- How to Make a Simple Hurricane Cocktail for Mardi Gras