Tropical and tiki cocktails — known for their escapist, engaging, and enigmatic flavors — have made a major comeback in the cocktail scene over the last decade. Known for using ingredients and products that have, until recently, been difficult to obtain or prepare, the means to craft these drinks have long been accessible only to professionals working behind the bar and a niche group of consumers who had the resources (and enthusiasm verging on cultish fanaticism) to track down the bottles and ingredients required to craft quality renditions of the classics.
Thankfully, things have changed for the better, as a substantial — and growing — selection of spirits, liqueurs, and ingredients are now relatively easy to obtain, be it at your local bottle shop, grocer, online, or from a specialty purveyor. Following is my list of back bar essentials that make the task of mixing up tropical libations at home a breeze.
Spirits: Bringing the Experience to Life
Any conversation around cocktails must involve spirits, and while rum is generally the default where tropical cocktails are concerned, it is important to note that all spirit categories, including vodka, are represented in the tropical and tiki cocktail canon. That said, if you would like to take your tropical cocktails down a road less traveled, I suggest bringing spirits such as tequila, pisco, and cachaça into the fold; over the past five years, a growing selection of bottles from these categories have become easier to find in the U.S., some at budget-friendly prices.
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For a crowd-pleasing option, try mixing an El Diablo, a tequila buck from the 1940s. Its original recipe calls for grenadine; I suggest trying it with a hibiscus (also called sorrel) syrup for a brighter, punchier result. Meanwhile, swapping pisco for a Cuban-style rum in a Mojito can make for a slightly floral take on the classic. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try funking up your Daiquiri with a cachaça.
Meanwhile, no escapist cocktail would be complete without modifiers that boast flavors evocative of far-flung locales. While pineapple and coconut tend to dominate the list of go-to ingredients, the recent explosion of new products based on tropical ingredients, which can be found at your spirits shop or even your local grocer, make it possible to introduce complex flavor profiles that were once the sole province of bar programs into your home bartending routine.
The Holy Trinity of Tropical Cocktail Modifiers
No tropical back bar would be complete without three cornerstone modifiers — orange Curaçao, pimento liqueur, a.k.a. allspice dram, and falernum — and I urge you to stock these before picking up anything else. The first is similar to triple sec but is typically based on brandy or rum as opposed to a neutral spirit, resulting in an orange liqueur that has a softer, creamier texture. Meanwhile, the liqueur has punchy, aromatic notes courtesy of orange peels from the island of the same name. The best examples of allspice liqueur are rum-based and impart earthen notes backed by warm baking spices to a cocktail. Occupying the middle ground is falernum, a liqueur infused with both citrus peels and spices. Hailing from Barbados, falernum can be thought of as a sort of spiced rum, albeit of a significantly lower proof. It is a key ingredient in the Corn and Oil, the Caribbean’s answer to the Old Fashioned, and also makes a turn in one of my favorite Daiquiri riffs, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Special.
As they draw inspiration from traditional spiced rums, falernum and allspice drams can also be made at home, providing you are willing to wait a few weeks for the maceration process to bring about the desired result. Tropical fruits predominate, but stone fruits can be put to use here as well — the former for its ability to lengthen and tie various ingredients together; the latter for its ability to tease out the more obscure elements in a simpler build, as hinted at by the use of Maraschino in the Hemingway Daiquiri.
The Long Game: Extend the Flavor of Your Cocktail With Fruit
Next, onto the most ubiquitous element in tropical cocktails: fruit. In the early stages of the emergence of the tropical cocktail, the primary vehicle for imparting fruit to a drink was in the form of juice or syrup. Currently, options abound beyond these in a variety of formats to suit your needs.
First, let’s start with passionfruit: Punchy, tart, and acidic, the ingredient shows up repeatedly in tiki classics. For drinks shaken and served up, I reach for syrups by Reàl or B.G. Reynolds, which comes in handy-to-make, pre-bottled cocktails and punches. For frozen or blended cocktails, there are numerous chef-grade purées to choose from; I am personally a fan of Boiron. Where liqueurs are concerned, Chinola, which is made from estate-grown fruit in the Dominican Republic and combines the best attributes of all the aforementioned products; it is bright, juicy, and, as it has been distilled, can be enjoyed in virtually any tropical drinks as well as in spritzes and highballs.
Among my favorite applications is in the Batida, Brazil’s answer to the Piña Colada, consisting of cachaça, condensed milk, and a fruit modifier of your choice, blended and served over chipped ice.
Less ubiquitous but certainly worth seeking out are soursop and guava. If you live in an area with Caribbean or Latin grocery stores, your chances of finding these are good; otherwise, you can search online or prevail upon a friend to bring some back from their travels. Soursop, which is a relative of the prickly pear, is surprisingly floral and has a dry finish. I like to use it as an alternative to pineapple for a more subtle experience; it also pairs well with fresh cane juice rums and even pisco. If you are feeling especially bold, consider using it in a White Jungle Bird riff, a popular variation on the classic that takes cues from the White Negroni by swapping out Campari for a vermouth blanc, gentian liqueur, or a combination of the two.
Guava, the funkier and earthier of all of these, pairs especially with clairin and overproof Jamaican rums in punches or frozen cocktails. My first encounter with the fruit was in Haiti, where it is ubiquitous in the local rum punch, the Planteur.
The moral of the story here is that there is more than one way to set yourself up for tropical cocktail success: Start with the fundamentals and build out by adding flourishes via the addition of more offbeat and obscure ingredients. Simple cocktail templates are a wonderful point of departure; to make the most of your efforts to craft one, it is worth putting in the effort to find and use the best quality modifier to bring your signature style to the proceedings. Whatever you do, make it easy and fun — the way tiki is meant to be.