I am so pleased because there is finally a great place for tiki drinks (and seafood) in San Diego (and I am no talking about my house!). Ironside Fish & Oyster opened in April in Little Italy, and it checks all the boxes for me.
Tiki Oasis, the annual festival of all things tiki, begins tonight in San Diego. It is the 14th edition of the largest tiki gathering, and an occasion to meet fellow tiki lovers from all over the world, in an environment that includes live music, exotic cocktails, seminars, and art shows.
Before embarking on a falernum-making adventure, I did a bit of reading and ended up compiling a list of falernum recipes. Falernum is an ingredient that pop ups every now and then in tiki cocktails, with one of the most famous examples being the Zombie.
For the holidays, I was invited to a Norwegian-themed party and was challenged to come up with an aquavit-based drink. I decided to bring a bottle of Jeff Berry’s Peg Leg punch. Punches are always a good idea for parties. You can pre-batch them, so you have something you can serve quickly to your guests while you enjoy the party.
It’s winter, but that’s not a reason to not enjoy tiki cocktails. When the weather is colder, spice-forward cocktails are especially appropriate.
Here are a couple of tiki drinks that I have enjoyed recently. The first one is the Winter Diamonback that was created at the El Dorado lounge in San Diego. It is based on the template of Harry Craddock’s Rattlesnake, one of my favorite cocktails that combines rye with lemon, simple syrup, egg white, and a rinse of absinthe. Changing the sweetener from simple syrup to a combination of cinnamon syrup and orgeat is the basis for the Winter Diamondback. With its cinnamon and absinthe flavor, it is unmistakably a tiki drink in the vein of Don the Beachcomber’s best creations, even though it’s rye-based. The blanket of egg white softens the flavors and helps blend everything harmoniously.
After attending Martin Cate’s fascinating seminar at Tiki Oasis about tiki restaurateur extraordinaire Stephen Crane (Intrigue! Adventure! Hollywood! Tiki!), it is not difficult finding inspiration for new tiki drinks. The other night I made Don the Beachcomber’s Volcano Bowl, a flaming tiki drink which has the particularity of using maple syrup as a sweetening agent. I was looking for drinks from Stephen Crane’s restaurants, the Luau and the Kon Tiki, but ended up finding a swizzle recipe by Martin Cate that looked interesting and also used maple syrup. He named it the Kaieteur Swizzle, after the waterfalls in Guyana.
What is great about swizzles is that they are built directly in the glass. You just add all of your ingredients, then the crushed ice, you swizzle preferably with a swizzle stick made of bois-lélé or a bar spoon, top with crushed ice, add your garnish and a straw, and you are done. Easy and very refreshing in the summer.
This weekend was Tiki Oasis in San Diego, the 13th edition of an annual gathering that brings together tiki fans from all over the world. Four days of tiki music, creative tiki outfits, a super relaxed atmosphere, and of course fabulous tiki drinks. These included a couple of cocktails at the Bali Hai opening night party with a classic Navy Grog and their take on the Zombie. We had a few drinks at the vendors’ booths: an excellent ti punch riff at the rhum Clement booth, as well as a refreshing punch at the Denizen booth with grapefruit and Aperol. We also sampled three delicious drinks featuring Boy Drinks World cocktail bitters at a preview of the BDW room party (disclaimer – he is a friend). Lastly, we had a chance to attend a seminar by Martin Cate during which he served several cocktails by Stephen Crane, who was not only one of Lana Turner’s many husbands (he actually married her not once but twice!), but also the owner of Polynesian-theme restaurant the Luau in Beverly Hills, and the Kon Tiki chain of restaurants.
After attending Martin Cate’s lively seminar about this unsung hero of tikiness, I could not wait to dust off my Kon Tiki bowl and prepare something for this month’s MxMo theme, Fire. Sometimes a solid classic is best, and I selected Don the Beachcomber’s Volcano Bowl. Four different rums, with a refreshing mix of grapefruit juice and lime juice, and maple syrup as the sweetener. For my rum mix I went with El Dorado 5 for the Demerara rum, Appleton 12 for the gold Jamaican rum, and Plantation 5 Barbados as a substitute for the gold Puerto Rican rum. I also used a touch of Lemon Hart 151 for my fire element, which I extinguished after the photo to enjoy the rum with the rest of the drink. A wonderful way to conclude a fun weekend.
Tiki cocktails are usually thought as complicated drinks with a lot hard-to-find exotic ingredients, various syrups, and esoteric rum mixes. While this is often true, many of them have a more accessible structure. Take Trader Vic’s Mai Tai for example, his signature drink created in 1944 and composed of six ingredients: aged Jamaican and agricole rums, lime juice, simple syrup, curaçao and orgeat. At the core it’s a daiquiri variation (rum | lime juice | simple syrup), with orgeat and curaçao added as modifiers.
It’s fascinating to see how Don the Beachcomber comes up with something completely different based on a similar structure. When I think of Don the Beachcomber I immediately think of his characteristic use of spice syrups. In his Donga Punch (1937), another Daiquiri variation, he uses lime and grapefruit juice for the citrus, similar to a Hemingway Daiquiri (~1935). This time, though, the sweetening agent, which also acts as a modifier, is the highly aromatic cinnamon syrup, an ingredient that we immediately associate with tiki drinks.
Trying to find an idea for last night’s cocktail was like solving a riddle. I wanted something tiki – I’ve been blogging for a few days already but there has not been a single tiki or tartine in sight! Clearly, this sad situation could not last any longer. I had just received my CSA with a generous amount of fresh fruit and vegetable including plenty of citrus: grapefruit, oranges, and lemons. It looked like I was all set for a nice tiki cocktail when I realized that I only had half a lime left. Of course all my favorite tiki recipes include generous amounts of fresh lime juice, so I was stumped for a few minutes.
Looking through the various books by Jeff Berry and his very handy Tiki+ app, I soon realized that there are only very few tiki recipes that don’t require lime juice. The Halekulani cocktail caught my eye because it uses okolehao as the base spirit. Okolehao is a traditional Hawaiian spirit that is made from the root of the ti plant. It is more or less the local moonshine. After being almost impossible to find for a very long time, it was re-created by Jim Sargent at Haleakala Distillers. The taste is funky, earthy and vegetal. You can detect tropical notes but it’s not for the faint of heart – it is quite powerful.
From an article in Honolulu Magazine (June 2010):
To make the Maui Okolehao, Haleakala Distillers takes the starch of East Maui-grown ti root, converts it into sugar, ferments it with evaporated cane juice and then distills it. What results tastes like a cross between rum and tequila, with hints of honey and a coconut finish, which, Sargent says, “is a distinctly Hawaiian flavor [that] doesn’t taste like any other spirit.”
The recipe for the Halekulani cocktail does not have a lot of sweetener (just a little bit of grenadine). But that was fine because the okolehao liqueur is a little sweet on its own. The final cocktail ended up being daiquiri-like, slightly tart with a complex exotic flavor.