A few months ago, we made an investment in our cocktailian education by attending the Beverage Academy Tiki class at Bourbon & Branch. The good professor Martin Cate, formerly of Forbidden Island, waxed eloquent on the rise and fall of tiki culture in America.
Beginning with Don the Beachcomber’s 1934 Hollywood début and the advent of Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron’s empire of restaurants, tiki joints held the promise of something exotic and fun, a dose of escapism in a novelty mug. After World War II, soldiers came back with stories from the south seas, and tiki bars blossomed like island hibiscus all over the country. We were held rapt as Martin stepped through slides with images from the original haunts, decorated with palm fronds and fishermen’s nets.
Martin’s Power Point-fu was complemented by more practical learnings: Hands-on instruction on making classic tiki cocktails.
At their most basic, tiki drinks are punches and can trace their roots to the classic Planter’s Punch. According to Wikipedia, the first known print reference was in the August 8, 1908 edition of The New York Times:
This recipe I give to thee,
Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong —
I know whereof I speak.
This was distilled to a simpler formula: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak. So, were you to mix up these proportions just of lime juice, simple syrup, rum and water, you’d technically get punch. But tiki drinks are famously complex, utilizing not just juices and boozes, but more esoteric ingredients that infuse the drinks with tropical flavors of almond, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and allspice. The drinks were as much of the transportive and transformative experience of the tiki bar as the over-the-top décors.
We got to try our hands at making some of these concoctions. Pulling from a myriad of bottles and pitchers at our table, we made Zombies, Scorpions and Navy Grogs. We sniffed and sampled unfamiliar ingredients such as nutty-sweet Falernum, almond-perfumed orgeat syrup and the sharp allspice kick of pimento dram. And then of course there was rum. Light rum, dark rum, spiced rum, aged rum, high-octane rum. Each had its own character and made a unique contribution to each drink. By blending different rums, Martin showed us, you can coax amazing diversity of flavors out of them. That is, for as long as you can taste it. Some of the cocktails clock in at some five ounces of liquor, and while tasty though they are, it doesn’t take long before your palate is overwhelmed.
Earlier this month Martin opened his new project, Smuggler’s Cove, in Hayes Valley. We had the opportunity to check it out just prior to opening. It’s a tiki dream come true, adorned in palm thatch and skipwreck-esque wood panels; there’s even a burbling waterfall trickling down the lava-like wall. Every detail has been attended to, right down to chunky, custom swizzle sticks bearing the bar’s logo and name, fashioned to look like a switch of driftwood.
The menu reads like a graduate thesis in tiki, a testament to the depth of Martin’s prowess. With over 70 cocktails, it can be a tetch overwhelming at first pale. All the more reason, then, to take up their punch card (get it, heh?) and track your tastings. And for the serious rum runner, join the Rumbustion Society for a more formal education in what is surely the world’s most diverse liquor.
It’s maybe a bit dangerous having this temple to tiki so close to our home. But as we slog through the winter months, I can think of no better tonic than to take a momentary trip to the tropics in the form of a stiff rum-based drink.
Steve Crane’s Luau Scorpion
From The Luau, Beverly Hills, 1958; courtesy of Martin Cate
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz fresh orange juice
1 oz silver rum
1 oz gin
1/2 oz brandy
1/4 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz orgeat syrup
1/4 oz water
Combine ingredients in a highball glass. Add ice. Stir with a chunky swizzlestick fashioned to look like driftwood. Garnish with a mint sprig.
If making as a punch, eliminate the water and scale up all other ingredients equally for the number of servings.