6 tiki drinks worth making this summer, with tips from a master mixologist

Published July 3 2018
Updated July 4 2018

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - Tiki culture is all about escapism, about the allure of a foreign place, a colorful drink, a carefree vibe. Dean Hurst doesn’t have to go very far to get there.

When he opens the door to his Seminole Heights home on a recent summer morning, clad in a blue-and-white Hawaiian shirt and a necklace made of kukui nut, we are just steps from his homemade tiki bar.

Hurst, a master mixologist who has helped create bar programs at Tampa’s Haven and CW’s Gin Joint, to name a few, leads me through the kitchen and out onto the screened-in porch, and there it is: a 9-foot wooden bar that Hurst built himself, decked out with tropical-hued lanterns and tiki drinking vessels, including a green one from a gift shop in New Zealand. A handful of stools are parked on one side of the bar, and there’s space on the other for a couple of people to mix drinks. On the wall is a mural of a mermaid that one of his friends’ teenage daughters painted.

Hurst hands me a postcard that reads "The Aloha Inn." I assume he collected it from one of the many tiki bars he has traveled to, like he does with coasters or cups. But on the other side is his address, and he explains: "I give these out as party invitations," he says.

We are standing in the Aloha Inn.

Tiki culture in this country began in the 1930s, when a man everyone called Don the Beachcomber opened the first tiki bar in Los Angeles, which he named after himself. Don had traveled around the world after Prohibition and came to discover a special affinity for the countries in the South Pacific and the Caribbean — specifically the chill atmosphere and the plentiful rum. He brought that back to the States, and the tiki trend took off.

"He’s the one who really started using those tropical flavors in cocktails," Hurst says about Don. "And no one had really blended spirits before, blended rums in particular."

When I learned Hurst was so deeply immersed in tiki culture, I was a tad surprised. This is the guy who worked for years at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, going on to develop the sophisticated, whisky-heavy bar program at Bern’s sister restaurant Haven. You would see him behind the bar, clad in a button-up and bowtie.

But five minutes after meeting him, it’s clear his blood runs tiki.

As Hurst prepares to show me how to make six tiki cocktails, reaching in the small fridge that houses his many homemade syrups and mixers, he talks about his recent trip to the Hukilau. Started in 2002, it’s a popular tiki-themed gathering in Fort Lauderale "billed as the world’s most authentic tiki event," he says. Soon after that was Tiki by the Sea in New Jersey, an event geared toward the cocktail industry.

"It’s always about education for me. A day where you don’t learn anything is kind of boring."

Hurst has been hired to write the bar program for Andrew Zimmern’s new Chinese concept in Minneapolis called Lucky Cricket, slated to open late this year. The restaurant will, in his words, "have a tiki-themed bar with a respectable rum list."

Just before he gets to work mixing up the drinks, his friend Roger McQueen, a bartender at CW Gin’s Joint, walks in. Roger is there to demonstrate some cocktails, but also to help Hurst remove the large wooden plank the mermaid mural is painted on. Turns out, it’s a removable cover that has been concealing all of the tiki bar’s liquors.

They remove the plank to reveal dozens of bottles of varying shapes and sizes — rare finds Hurst has collected or been gifted with over the years, more kinds of rum than I even knew existed, and more tiki-themed glasses.

"How many bottles do you have?"

"At the bar?" Hurst says, estimating there are at least 100 varieties in his home currently. "Because I have a storage unit, too."

Hurst put those bottles to good use, making six cocktails he considers tiki essentials. Here are his recipes and notes for each drink. We’ve listed the liquors Hurst used when he showed us how to make these cocktails. You can follow suit, or use another brand of your choice. All of these recipes make one cocktail.

Daiquiri

1.5 ounces Plantation 3 Star rum

0.75 ounce cane syrup

0.75 ounce lime juice

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into a glass, preferably a coupe glass.

Garnish with a slice of lime.

Not necessarily a traditional tiki drink, Hurst says this is an important recipe for any tiki bar (or regular bar) to master. The ingredients don’t get more simple: rum, sugar, lime juice. And because of that, the focus is really on the rum.

"It does present an opportunity to explore how different rums change this simple recipe," he says. "It’s also one step toward understanding how to blend rums as you grow your selection. By keeping the sugar and lime consistent, home bartenders can play with the rums and really understand the process."

It’s a bartender standard because of its blend of acidity and sweetness. The most basic version doesn’t really resemble the often very sugary, frozen blended daiquiris you order poolside at a resort.

Hurst makes two daiquiris for us, one with a white rum and another with an aged rum.

For the white rum, he uses Plantation 3 Star, a blend of rum from different islands. For the aged rum, it’s a Haitian rum that is a little drier.

"Use of the different rums will drastically change the drink," he says.

And indeed, beyond just the color difference — one is bright and the color of Baskin-Robbins’ Daiquiri Ice flavor, the other is deeply golden — you can taste a subtle flavor shift. Both are extremely (almost dangerously) sippable and immediately pleasing to the palate. This is Hurst’s go-to cocktail at home.

Mai Tai

1 ounce Appleton Estate 12-Year rum

1 ounce Clement V.S.O.P. Rhum

0.5 ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao

0.5 ounce orgeat

1 ounce lime juice

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake, then strain into an old-fashioned glass. Alternatively, blend all ingredients with some crushed ice, and pour into glass.

Serve with fresh sprigs of mint.

This is one of the most popular tiki drinks (fun fact: "Maita’i" roughly translates to "good" in Tahitian). Hurst says that making a solid Mai Tai is what makes a tiki bar a tiki bar.

"If you can’t make a good one, you should probably go back to the drawing board," he says.

This cocktail takes things up just one more level, introducing a new technique: blending liquors. In this case, two rums, "to get the flavors just right" Hurst says.

He has spent a lot of time figuring out which rums he prefers, which blend well together and which are ideal for each particular drink. He encourages the home bartender to do that as well.

"What one rum won’t give you, two rums can," Hurst says.

For this drink, he opts for a dark Jamaican variety, a workhouse in his home bar, and a funkier kind with a "grassy" flavor. That gets mixed with curaçao, a liqueur that’s made with the dried peels of an orange found on the island of Curaçao. There’s some lime juice, and something called orgeat, a sweet syrup made from almonds and usually an orange flavor. Hurst makes his own; in a pinch, he suggests adding some sugar to almond milk.

 

Ancient Mariner

1 ounce Coruba Dark rum

1 ounce El Dorado 8-year rum

0.25 ounce Hamilton Pimento Dram

0.75 ounce lime juice

0.5 ounce grapefruit juice

0.5 ounce simple syrup

Fresh mint

1 lime cut into wedges

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake, then strain into an old-fashioned glass. Alternatively, blend all ingredients with some crushed ice, and pour into glass.

Garnish with fresh sprigs of mint and a lime wedge.

This is a simple twist on a Navy Grog, a rum-based drink that was served for many years at the Don the Beachcomber restaurants and remains a tiki bar staple.

Hurst uses something called pimento dram here, which has no relation to the pimento chili pepper you may know from the cheese. "Pimento" is another term for allspice. He considers it a very important component to the drink, ramping up the flavors of the rum.

"It adds a little mystery to the drink," Hurst says. "You should always want to leave the person drinking it wondering what’s in the drink."

And don’t skimp on the garnish on this drink or any of the drinks. How a drink looks is very important in tiki culture, Hurst says.

 

Zombie

1.5 ounces Appleton Estate Signature Blend rum

1.5 ounces DonQ Gold rum

1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 rum

0.5 ounce John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum

0.5 ounce Don’s Mix (equal parts grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup)

0.25 ounce grenadine

0.75 ounce lime juice

1 dash Angostura bitters

6 drops Pernod liqueur

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake, then strain into a collins glass. Alternatively, blend all ingredients with some crushed ice, and pour into glass.

Garnish with sprigs of fresh mint.

Donn Beach created this cocktail in 1934. It became famous for how strong it is — original menus stated that only 2 were allowed to be served per customer.

The Zombie continues the rum focus with three — count ’em, THREE — different kinds of rum. And in Hurst’s recipe, one of them is 151 proof, so this thing will get you. The 151-proofer that he uses is actually an iconic rum — Lemon Hart 151. It’s the rum that the original Zombie recipe was built around.

"It’s the magic ingredient," Hurst says.

This is a definitely a drink you work up to, both in terms of drinking it and making it at home. Aside from the rums, other important components are falernum, a sweet syrup often used in the Caribbean, and Don’s Mix, which originated with Don the Beachcomber and is an equal blend of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup.

 

Saturn

1.5 ounces gin

0.25 ounce John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum

0.25 ounce orgeat

0.5 ounce passionfruit syrup

0.75 ounce lemon juice

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake, then strain into a coupe glass.

Garnish with fresh passionfruit or a long lemon peel twisted to look like rings.

An award-winning cocktail created by J. "Popo" Galsini in 1967, the Saturn switches up the liquor, turning to gin to create a refreshing drink.

McQueen from CW Gin’s Joint demonstrates how to make this one, and begins by touting the versatility of gin, a liquor that some people write off as being only good for gin and tonics. Or, worse, as the booze they had a bad experience with after "they stole it from their parent’s liquor cabinet."

"But really, gin is one of the most complex spirits out there," McQueen says.

The juniper-based spirit can work in many different ways depending on the type. It can be "a punch in the face," or more savory like a bourbon, or light and floral. The one McQueen uses in the Saturn has a more citrusy flavor profile.

 

Port Light

1.5 ounces Four Roses Bourbon

0.5 ounce passionfruit syrup

0.25 ounce grenadine

1 ounce lemon juice

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake, then strain into an old fashioned glass.

Garnish with a cherry.

This lovely pink cocktail originated at the Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio. It switches up the liquor from rum to bourbon, which provides the punch for a delightfully fruity drink.

Hurst recommends not buying a big expensive bourbon, like Woodford Reserve, for this drink because it will overpower the other flavors. Those flavors are nice and fruity thanks to passionfruit syrup and grenadine, which provides a bit of bitterness.

The Port Light is garnished with a preserved cherry. Hurst makes his own; this particular batch was jarred with cognac, spices (cinnamon, clove, allspice) and sugar more than two years ago. You can use a maraschino cherry or another kind of cocktail cherry, or even a fresh one.

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