Tom Fabrizio, a bartender at Gunther & Co., shows how to make the 'Death of a Bachelor' cocktail. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
Until recently, tiki-cocktail culture — which began on the West Coast in the 1930s as nuanced and complex rum-based drinks — seemed redefined by sugary, plastic-bottle mixes of pre-blended Mai Tais and blue-hued hurricanes.
"When I first started bartending, someone asked, 'What's in a Mai Tai? What's in a Rum Runner?' " recalled Nick Ramey, beverage director for local restaurant group Southern Boys Concepts. "Another bartender was like, "I don't know, just make it fruity and sweet, and nobody will know the difference.' That's sort of the reputation tiki had for a long time."
These days, Baltimore bartenders are reclaiming tiki's original intentions — balancing sweet, tart, spice and herbal notes by intricately layering the flavors together — while adding the nuances that have become synonymous with the modern craft-cocktail movement. They're using small-batch spirits, house-made juices and dynamic liqueurs to change preconceived notions of what's possible with tiki cocktails.
"You have people paying more attention to the ingredients that [go] into their cocktails, and particularly finding out that fresh ingredients made a better-tasting cocktail," said Andrew Faulkner, vice president of the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization for craft distillers. "What was underappreciated for years and years was how intricate the recipes for exotic cocktails in the tiki culture were."
Look no further than the piña colada, whose origins can be traced to Puerto Rico in the 1950s. The true cocktail has only white rum, coconut cream, heavy cream and fresh pineapple juice. But as time passed, Americans aimed to recreate these vacation treats at home with little assembly, Faulkner said, and soon enough, pre-mixed versions with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors became widely available at liquor stores around the country.
There's a huge difference in taste and quality between the original and "bastardized" versions, said Sugarvale bartender Andrew Dissen.
"If you make a real piña colada the correct way, it's absolutely delicious," Dissen said.
Sales for craft rum are on the rise nationwide, Faulkner said, a trend that should continue as interest in tiki-inspired cocktails continues to revive. The imaginative minds pushing craft cocktails forward will continue to bend and stretch the genre in different ways — with rum and without it — but what will remain is the style's ability to instantly transport the imbiber, he said.
Much of the appeal "is about the adventure, the presentation of the cocktail that makes you feel like you're drinking something exotic and exciting," Faulkner said.
We asked some Baltimore bars about their reinventions of tiki cocktails. Whether it's the taste or the presentation, each drink reinterprets tiki with its own flair.
Nancy Hart wanted the patio of her Brewers Hill restaurant, Gunther & Co., to feel like its own entity, with an attitude that distinctly contrasted with the high ceilings and stainless steel of the main restaurant.
"We're serious inside — we have the draft cocktails, lots of serious spirits. We said, 'OK, let's switch gears outside. '" Hart said. "A plastic monkey and a paper umbrella [garnish], it kind of just lightens the mood."
While Gunther's tiki drink accouterments reflect the levity of the patio, the bar program maintains the craft-cocktail approach — high-quality spirits, house-made elements — the restaurant has become known for since debuting last May.
The Death of a Bachelor ($12) is Gunther's take on the Zombie, a tiki classic created by trailblazer Donn Beach. While the original is usually made by blending multiple rums, Gunther's combines Pyrat rum with Pando Fino sherry and almond-flavored orgeat syrup. Like a Zombie, the cocktail uses the sweet syrup Falernum to brighten the citrus notes, but in a modern twist, Gunther adds a bitter, herbal element with a splash of Jagermeister.
"You're getting a lot of depth of flavors, and you don't need to add a lot of sugar," Hart said. "You want the sweetness to be balanced with the sour element. … Tiki lends itself very well to updating classics."
This summer was the first full season for the tiki cocktail menu, and Hart hopes to continue serving the drinks through November on the patio with the help of outdoor heaters.
"I think tiki is here to stay on our patio. They work so well together," Hart said. "I'm hoping to get Baltimore into the scene like D.C., where people put their sweaters on and sit outside at their favorite restaurants."
Nick Ramey typically avoids repeating entries, year to year, on his cocktail menus. But the beverage director for Birroteca, Encantada and other local eateries recognizes a hit when he has one.
"The Golden Mule — it sold so well last year, and it was a huge staff favorite," Ramey said.
The cocktail's success led to Birroteca's first full tiki menu, which debuted this summer and also includes options like the passionfruit-foam-topped Nuevo-rita and the Weekend Getaway, which blends aged rum with coconut-hibiscus rum.
But Birroteca's best entry-point for the tiki-curious is the Golden Mule, he said, because of the balance it achieves, in spite of bold-flavored ingredients like the peppery St. George Spirits Green Chile vodka and ginger beer. Where others update well-worn tiki recipes, Ramey "tend[s] to take classic cocktails and put tiki spins on them," he said.
The Golden Mule ($11) is his take on a Moscow Mule, with Ramey infusing tiki-associated tastes through bright flavors like pineapple and lime juice, along with Falernum syrup, a hallmark of tiki cocktails. The cucumber juice isn't a flavor seen in early tiki cocktails but is rather Ramey's way of bringing the style up to date.
"With using fresh ingredients, using fresh-squeezed juices, using housemade mixers with good, real ingredients, I think really, that's where tiki shines," Ramey said. "Some people see 'tiki' and think 'sweet and syrupy,' but for me, it's all about freshness."
While Birroteca makes the Golden Mule in large batches, Ramey provided a single-serving recipe.
The Golden Mule
1.5 ounces St. George Spirits Green Chile Vodka
¼ ounce Fee Brothers Falernum syrup
¼ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce fresh pineapple juice
½ ounce cucumber juice
2 ounces Fever Tree ginger beer
Juice the pineapple and cucumber and strain through a fine mesh chinois. In a mixing glass, add vodka, Falernum syrup, lime juice, cucumber juice and pineapple juice with ice and shake well. Strain over fresh ice in a glass or Mule mug and top with ginger beer.
Corey Polyoka isn't surprised to see tiki-inspired cocktails finding their way onto more Baltimore bar menus. It reflects the idea that the self-seriousness of the cocktail scene, locally and beyond, is finally relaxing a bit.
"The industry has spent years focusing on its technique, and its seriousness and invention, and I think is now applying a lot of that same mindset to tiki because people also just want to have a great time with great cocktails," said Polyoka, developer of the Sandlot. "Tiki just brings that element of fun and lightheartedness to a menu that's really enjoyable."
Three Sheets ($9), a highball-style cocktail, uses gin and vermouth — a double-nod to tiki's past, he said. Injecting a bright fruit flavor like cantaloupe was imperative to achieving the finish product's tiki vibe, too.
"When you drink it, it has almost a pineapple-y kind of taste to it," Polyoka said.
The Sandlot also nods to what it calls "boat drinks" — frozen blended options like the Vortex and Twisterella that hit sweet notes by using ingredients like apple butter, maple syrup and strawberry jam.
Like tiki cocktails of the past, they use blended rums, but Polyoka is quick to point out that boat drinks — popularized in the 1970s through '90s for the mass market with frozen blends for piña coladas and bushwackers — are different from tiki drinks. Boat drinks were born out of tiki's popularity, but the concoctions often lack the nuance and history of tiki culture, he said.
But at the Sandlot, there's room for updated versions of both for a simple reason: They feel right at an outdoor beach bar, Polyoka said.
"I think they have a craft aspect to them, but they're really fun," he said. "They fit the season."
1 ounce Green Hat gin
½ ounce Don Ciccio & Figli Finocchietto fennel liqueur
¼ ounce Capitoline white vermouth
3 ounces cantaloupe-basil sparkler
2 dashes orange bitters
For the cantaloupe-basil sparkler: Top off cold-pressed cantaloupe juice with soda water.
To complete the drink: Fill a Collins glass with ice, add all ingredients, stir and top with a basil garnish and a drop of saline solution for additional salt dimension. Drink with a straw.
Mondays are typically slower nights for Sugarvale bartender Andrew Dissen, so it's a good time to experiment. He created Tiki Mondays, a weekly celebration of tiki-inspired cocktails not normally found on the Mount Vernon bar's menu.
"I get to bring out my two notebooks of all these ideas I've had and just see what I can make," Dissen said. "It's really neat to have a day where I can just tiki-out with some other nerds."
For Dissen, tiki cocktails begin with rum — he relies heavily on the Highlandtown brand Old Line Spirits on Mondays — but can spin off in different directions while still paying homage. If he spots an opportunity to infuse a flavor he doesn't normally work with — clarified beet juice, for example — that's in the spirit of "tiki" to Dissen.
"Even though beets are not a tropical thing at all, it's still an exotic, slightly different ingredient you can use in a drink," he said. "It's not limited to the base spirits."
One of his favorite drinks from the tiki menu is the 8 Call ($12), which reimagines the classic gin cocktail the Last Word through a tiki lens, Dissen said. Made with equal parts, the 8 Call swaps the gin for Old Line Navy Strength Aged Caribbean rum, and replaces Luxardo maraschino liqueur and green Chartreuse with house-made orgeat and a healthy dose of Angostura bitters.
Introducing unfamiliar ingredients like orgeat and the 114-proof rum to customers is his favorite part of the job.
"I use it just to get people excited about new things," Dissen said of his tiki-cocktails "obsession." "It seemed like a very creative way to explore the crazy amount of stuff that we work with behind a cocktail bar."
¾ ounce Old Line Navy Strength Aged Caribbean rum
¾ ounce Angostura bitters
¾ ounce housemade orgeat
¾ ounce lime juice
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake with ice and then strain twice into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.