The Great Tiki Conundrum


Who am I to argue with a guy that looks like this?

So, tiki drinks. I love them. Poorly done, excellently made, it just doesn’t matter. Tiki drinks have become increasingly important to me as Spring rolls around. I suffer from some sort of seasonal affective disorder and by the time April gets here, it begins to manifest itself as spine-crushing ennui peppered with exciting bouts of irrational anger. There are two things that help – drinking rum drinks on a Caribbean beach or drinking rum drinks and pretending I am on a Caribbean beach. Admittedly, this winter has been pretty easy, but I am starting to get the urge to wander from liquor store to liquor store searching out a rum or a liqueur that I am still missing.

Ever since the loss of one particular filthy tiki bar on Colfax (it was in the Ramada Inn and cracky as a motherfucker), I have been without a close-to-home place to imbibe. Rumor has it that there is a place out on East Colfax that is still a bastion of tiki goodness. Adrift, some sort of Polynesian themed joint is now open and I need to make a trip down there. I am also aware of a number of Asian restaurants that have small but decent lists of well-executed tiki-style drinks.

From Beachbum Berry's Grog Log

I happen to love this drink. It is the Astro Aku Aku from Beachbum Berry's Grog Log

Over the last few years, guided by the books of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, I have been trying to get a liquor collection together that can produce a workable amount of the recipes that Berry has compiled. Do-It-Yourself tiki drinks are tough for a number of reasons. They require a varied number of fresh juices, fairly easily overcome by having fruit and a decent reamer on hand at all times. (Here in Colorado, Jumex fruit nectars are easy to get and great to have on hand.) Also, there are many different, subtly flavored base liquors involved. This is a more difficult problem to remedy as some are not available in Colorado, others are not even available in the states, and yet others are no longer made. Usually, however, it is pretty easy to find similar stuff and things tend to turn out alright.

Where I run into real annoyance is with the myriad liqueurs, tinctures, and extracts that are required as flavorings. These are generally things that you need in quantities of around ⅛ of a teaspoon. While you might be inclined to say, “Ah fuck it, how much can that really be doing for the drink?” – your inclination is wrong. The real kick to a lot of these drinks is that these tiny amounts of flavor make the profile what it should be. I have taken to buying some of the required things in affordable 50ml bottles at the liquor store. Some of the stuff, like falernum, I have had to make from scratch. Falernum is a flavoring agent made from overproof rum, lime juice and zest, cloves, anise, and sugar syrup. It takes multiple days to make correctly, but it is absolutely delicious. You generally need about ¼ to ½ ounce per drink that calls for it and, once you have had it, you’ll understand that it cannot be left out. It is also hazy, sickly yellow, and rather perishable – one of those things that causes your mate to question your viability as a reproductive partner when a forgotten couple of ounces is discovered fetidly pulsating in the back of the fridge a year later.

In my opinion, these are some of the factors that make these drinks so sought after and mysterious. It is hard for the home drinker to make them, so they are generally only available at a few select bars and crafted by pros that can collect all of the necessary components and better yet, turn them over and maintain the freshness of those things. So, with that in mind, I hunted down a pro who happens to share my interest in drinks that come in skull-shaped mugs.

The pro that I found really knows his stuff. Matty Durgin was doing a guest session with Kevin Burke at Colt and Gray last week spotlighting some historical tiki drinks and a few that they interpreted themselves. The Fogcutter that he mixed up was truly a thing of beauty. Fruity and smooth. The liquor was present, but the balance was fantastic due in part to a slick mouthfeel that only orgeat syrup can provide. Finally, it was all tied nicely together with the aroma of Sweettarts and Wacky Wafers (for those of you old enough to remember them).

Matty got started with the tiki style when he visited Disneyland as a kid. I have never been to The Enchanted Tiki Room due to my very strict No Disney Parks rule, but I can see how it would have an effect. When he reached drinking-age, he began to seek out and collect rum from around the world. (Rum seems to be one of those liquors that inspires the collector in folks.) Matty’s perspective is that rum is a connection to drinking’s past. Rum was not spoiled by Prohibition and is still very close to its original state. Some of the Caribbean islands are still producing in the way that they have been since colonization.

While my rum obsession pales in comparison to Matty’s, we still feel some of the same pressures. Cuban rums and the unavailable demeraran rum, Lemon Hart Original, are always out of reach. However, Lemon Hart 151 is available and one of Matty’s favorites along with Smith & Cross. He is constantly on the hunt for a few elusive ingredients and finding new craft additions to his venerable tiki pantheon along the way.

Now, before I dive too much into the compulsion of rum, we should probably get on to what he said about the drinks themselves. He takes a really nice attitude toward these drinks. A proper tiki drink requires balance. The heavy ingredient list in some of these drinks can be thrown off by simple missteps, so care must be taken to achieve the proper flavor. It is also critical to use fresh fruit juices.

When I posed the question about whether you can do this effectively at home, he kind of laughed. It was almost as if it didn’t need asking. He feels that these drinks are actually fairly easy to put together as long as you take the care and the time to get to the spirit of the thing. Even the strangest ingredients can be made at home with a bit of Google searching and a little time. When it comes to mixing up these drinks, there are tons of classic recipes out there. Try some. But you should be creative too. Matty continued to impress: “There are no rules to tiki drinks. Just don’t lose the balance.”

I suppose if I wish hard enough and squint my eyes, Park Hill could look like this.


I am taking his advice. It is probably time to mix up some sugar syrups and some falernum. I am going to shake off my winter doldrums and shake up a few tropical drinks. If you are going to make these things at home, don’t get frustrated with the process. I think Matty would agree. We need to remember that these lovely concoctions are a treat and should make you feel relaxed regardless of your proximity to crystal azure waters.

If you want the pro treatment, go visit Matty at Z Cuisine A Cote and have him mix you up something inspired by the French colonies.

About Chris Washenberger

What is my favorite drink? Huh... That is a tough one. What do you have? That is probably it.