Certain elements make a tiki drink a tiki drink: a mix of rums; fresh citrus juice; tropical fruit, like pineapple or passion fruit.
But there’s something about the tiki mindset that’s a little more ineffable. It’s a feeling.
“For me, tiki is all about escape,” said Tom Dufek, director of beverage and operations at Lucille and Merchant in downtown Madison. “You think of these tropical, flowery drinks. Definitely, that’s tiki.
“It’s all about exotic flavors, something that takes you somewhere else.”
After a few decades as the target amused derision, tiki cocktails have been floating back into American cities at bars like Lost Lake in Chicago and Foundation Bar in Milwaukee.
Dufek called tiki one of his specialties. For Dufek, a tiki cocktail should give a drinker the feeling of reclining on a beach or swimming up to a bar on an island resort somewhere, even if in reality your feet are shoved into sturdy Danskos beneath a Wisconsin bar.
“Not everything has to be fruity and juicy for it to be tiki,” he said. “It’s just about escaping.”
Tiki culture in the United States can trace its roots to just after Prohibition, when Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s developed Polynesian-inspired southern California cocktails. The trend really exploded after the Second World War.
“Tiki evolved into being all sorts of tropical flavors you couldn’t get stateside,” Dufek said. “To me that’s endlessly interesting. And I think rum is the most versatile spirit out there — you can do so much with it.
“The best tiki drinks are really nuanced and very intricate,” he added. “There are all these ingredients that if they’re not done in the right proportions, they’re either bad or just like punch.”
Most tiki cocktails are built on a blend of rums or rum and other spirits, like gin. Fresh citrus like lemon or lime juice is essential so the drink won’t taste overly sweet, as the fresh stuff has more sourness than pre-bottled juices. Most tiki drinks have little spice and a healthy splash of tropical fruit.
The Mai Tai and the Zombie are both classic tiki cocktails, made with ingredients like Curacao, a citrus liqueur, and orgeat, an almond-flavored syrup. Often tiki cocktails include falernum, a syrup (or sometimes a liqueur) that has citrusy, sweet and spicy notes from lime zest, sugar and cloves.
“With the right tiki drinks you get several different zones of the cocktail throughout it,” Dufek said. “You don’t get that in a Manhattan. A Manhattan can be nuanced but at the end of the day it’s three ingredients.”
Lucille, a downtown pizzeria, has focused much of its cocktail program on rum, and the daiquiri shooter of the day is like an after school snack for grown-ups. One of the most popular drinks on Lucille's standard menu is the Painkiller ($9), which Dufek said could also be called a “boat drink” for lake lovers.
Lucille’s version, a take on a classic created at the Soggy Dollar in the British Virgin Islands, combines citrus juice, sweetened coconut milk and Plantation 3 Stars rum (Pusser’s is traditional, but Dufek doesn't care for it). The cocktail comes out a light yellow color, garnished with pineapple leaves and an orchid.
“If it doesn’t have a garnish, probably not a tiki cocktail,” Dufek said.
“It’s as much as visual experience as it is a tasting experience,” agreed Ryan Williams, a Lucille bartender. “Tiki is just a state of mind at this point.”
Williams also noted another tiki convention: the drink limit. Some bars apply it to the Fog Cutter, a cocktail with a base of cognac, gin and rum. It’s a clever marketing trick, since it’s not really stronger than other cocktails.
“I feel like you’re not a real tiki bar unless you have something you can only sell two of,” Williams said.
Williams came up with a riff on a Zombie for Lucille’s new spring menu called Death by Snu Snu ($12). That is a “Futurama” reference that means, basically, death in the most pleasant possible way.
Death by Snu Snu is built on two kinds of rum, falernum, an allspice dram that gives it a spicy kick, juice from oranges and limes, banana syrup and a sprinkle of salt, which Williams called “the secret key to making every fruity drink that much better.”
And of course, it’s served on fire. Tiki is all about the experience.