My girlfriend and I have a pact: When this whole global pandemic thing blows over, we’re heading straight to a beach in Central America, to one of those all-inclusive resorts we would normally only joke about. I’m not entirely sure when I’ll be comfortable exploring big, dense global cities like I normally love to do. With any luck, it’ll still feel like catharsis to sit our asses in a cabana and suck down B-minus tiki drinks while watching bachelorette parties from a distance.
In the real world, I’m staring at a San Francisco sky that’s a discomfiting shade of dusky peach, the result of wildfires that are raging to the north, south and east. The week started with a thunderstorm that rumbled along for damn near a full 24-hour cycle, precipitating a heat wave that rocketed Bay Area temperatures into the 90s. It’s the perfect formula for a firestorm, and while I understand life is a metaphoric hellscape right now, watching flakes of ash fall from a smoke-smeared sky is a bit on-the-nose, isn’t it?
So screw it. If the world is going to deliver up a muggy, blistering week of tragic bullshit, I’m throwing away other responsibilities and blending up some frozen tiki drinks.
The tiki renaissance has been in full bloom over the last couple of years, with a resurgence of tiki-inspired craft cocktails as well as full-on tiki bars that mimic the vintage drinking holes that defined the American tiki craze of the 1950s and 1960s. The phenomenon is a masterclass in appropriation — a blending of real Polynesian and South Pacific culture, language and flavors with a wholly white American worldview of exotic adventure and hospitable lands. (The word “tiki,” for one, is a Maori word for a type of traditional carving).
But despite the crassness of this postwar fusion, the tiki craze left us with some of the most delicious, inventive cocktails ever drunk in America. Bars like Trader Vic’s in Oakland and Don the Beachcomber in L.A. pioneered a technicolor variety of flavors and ingredients that seem exotic even by modern standards. As the Baby Boomer generation began to rise, so did America’s appetite for travel — even if the average Joe couldn’t afford a ticket to Hawaii, let alone Tahiti. It was the humble tiki bar that became a surrogate for escapist fantasies, instead.
The craze was killed partly by fading appreciation for the oceanfront kitsch, but I also blame a good thing getting ripped off over and over again until it turned to a shell of itself. By the 1970s, a lot of so-called tiki bars were serving cheap, saccharine drinks loaded with fake flavorings and dirtbag rum, rather than the intense and thoughtful cocktails that Vic Bergeron imagined up. Odds are, even today, that ordering a frozen daiquiri or piña colada at an average thatched-roof beach joint will leave you sucking on a dimensionless disappointment of a beverage.
Lucky for me, thanks to COVID, I can’t even get to an average thatched-roof beach bar, nor do I feel a desire to burden exhausted, pissed-off bartenders with my order. What I do have is a blender. Most of my favorite tiki cocktails in the world — like the Zombie, Singapore Sling and the Scorpion — have too many ingredients for me to recreate at home, but these nuanced cocktails wouldn’t be appropriate for a frozen version, anyway. You want something more direct for an icy-cool blended drink, and I think these three cocktails can please every type of palate…
I love piña coladas, but I think its offshoot, the Painkiller, is even more delicious. The crux is to replace white rum with something more flavorful, and to add a touch of orange juice to the pineapple base. This is a drink that’ll taste different every time you switch up the rum, making it a flexible canvas on which to riff and experiment. Case in point: Our version includes a splash of orange bitters and a blood-orange garnish, just to highlight the citrus flavor.
- 1/2 cup aged Jamaican rum
- 1 cup of pineapple juice
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup of coconut cream (the gold standard is Coco Lopez, but any thick, sweetened coconut milk works)
- 8 dashes of orange bitters
Add 2 cups of ice and blend until smooth. Serve in a glass garnished with a pineapple wedge or a citrus wheel.
Frozen Mai Tai
Regardless of whether you think Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic’s was first to create it, the Mai Tai was conceived as a tart, flavorful, spirit-forward drink, not the fruity mess with pineapple juice and cherries that you’ve probably received at a beach bar somewhere. Most OG-style recipes feature a blend of light and aged rums, with a dark rum float to give it that distinct layered look. I think the frozen blender version tastes fine with just one kind of aged rum, though.
- 1 cup aged Jamaican rum (my favorite is funky Smith and Cross rum, although supermarket-aisle favorites like Appleton Estate Signature Blend or darker Myers’s Rum will do just fine)
- 1/2 cup lime juice
- 1/4 cup orgeat syrup (available online, but here’s the best recipe I’ve made at home)
- 1/3 cup of orange curacao
Add 2 cups of ice and blend until smooth. Garnish with mint — a must if you’re sticking to tiki tradition. Float some dark rum on top if you’re feeling reckless.
Okay, so this isn’t really a tiki drink per se, but it got grandfathered into the mid-century tiki boom anyway because it’s a fresh, timeless blend of white rum, lime and white sugar. You can play around with grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur to make the “Hemingway” variant, but the original drink is the favorite for a reason. And when blended with ice, it basically turns into an R-rated slushie.
- 1 cup white rum
- 1/2 cup lime juice
- 1/2 cup simple syrup (or 1/4 cup of white sugar, if you don’t mind some sugar crystals floating around)
Add 2 cups of ice and blend. Garnish the glass with a lime wheel.
Remember, no matter which of these drinks you make, indulging the urge and chugging down the entire blender of frozen cocktail won’t fix the world’s problems. You might as well sip and savor it.