Tiki, Untacky

Implausible as it may sound amidst the brown whiskey boom and serious cocktail culture, tiki-style drinks are making a comeback. With the requisite faux Polynesian wink.

The original tiki tipple was probably the mai tai, made with run-of-the-mill rum and syrups. Authorship was claimed by both “Trader Vic” Bergeron (1944) and Donn Beach of L.A.’s Don the Beachcomber bar (1933). Their recipes differed, but both were sweet.

The new tiki drinks, while sweet, are more complex in flavor and upscale in ingredients. Last summer, Asbury Park’s Smith company converted what had been Happiness Luncheonette into the Little Buddy Hideaway, complete with bamboo-lined walls, thatched-roof motifs and speakeasy-like entry through the annex of the Brickwall Tavern next door.

“We try to be a little more modern,” says bar manager Cortney Baum. Examples include the Concrete Jungle Bird, made with Appleton 12-year-old rum and Campari, and the Shirley Temple of Doom, made with tequila, mescal, lemon and lime.

Today’s tiki drinks are built on house-made syrups, fresh-squeezed juices, spices such as cinnamon and allspice, exotics like absinthe, and layerings of different liquors. Fanciful mugs and garnishes complete the party-hearty picture. The trend, big in New York and Philadelphia, is just catching on here.

“Why put in one rum when you can put in four?” asks Peter Arnone, operations director of the NJM Top 25 restaurant Cellar 335 in Jersey City, referring to the restaurant’s Category 4 cocktail. His answer: “There are many ways to make rum, so each rum is personal. By combining them, we can make levels of flavor in a cocktail.” The result: sophistication that smiles.

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