If you think all tropical drinks are boozy, blue and carry a paper umbrella, you probably need to find a new cocktail bar.
Here in the Bay Area, we have a small but fiercely dedicated group of tiki loyalists, including San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove and Alameda’s Forbidden Island, making exotic cocktails in the way that Vic “The Trader” Bergeron intended when he opened Trader Vic’s nearly 45 years ago: using quality rums, hand-squeezed juices and house-made syrups.
And if you prefer other spirits, chances are high that you’ll find a well-made tropical cocktail on the menu of more and more bars and restaurants right now. Fueled in part by a growing interest in rum, this current wave of tropical sipping is less about Hawaiian shirts and reliving the past. Instead, it’s about bartenders who want to explore creativity, push the principles of the craft cocktail movement and offer their patrons an escape.
Consider Rhett Rosen, the executive vice president of Trader Vic’s. On a recent trip to Tokyo, Rosen spotted mixologists sweetening their cocktails to order using fresh cane juice. Rosen, a bartender at heart, returned from the trip and purchased the Emeryville bar and restaurant its very own sugar-cane juicer. The team has since developed six cocktails featuring the natural nectar. In May, they followed that up with another innovation: Uncharted Cocktails, a menu of new exotic drinks, like the Black Sand Beach, made with activated charcoal (yes, the trendy medicinal powder), rock candy syrup, pineapple juice, two types of rum and lime.
“We wanted to do something different with an ingredient you don’t often see in tiki cocktails,” Rosen says. “Plus, it’s reminiscent of some black sand beaches in Hawaii.”
As Smuggler’s Cove owner Martin Cate explains, it’s the experience — the escape — that is driving more and more patrons to tiki bars. “I think it’s popular for many of the same reasons it was in the first place,” says Cate, author of “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki” (Ten Speed Press, $30, 352 pages), winner of a 2017 James Beard Foundation Book Award. “It offers a transformative escape from the stresses of the outside world. … There’s a need to quell the onslaught of information, stress and anguish of the modern world and head to a quiet slice of paradise.”
For Cate, that paradise is brimming with rum, which he calls “the most diverse spirit on the planet.” According to Cate, there are currently more than 400 craft rums being produced in at least 60 countries from different raw materials in different kinds of stills, aged at different temperatures and in different kinds of wood. “There’s just a ton of variety out there,” he says.
You can taste the differences by comparing the vanilla-like flavors of the black blended overproof rum featured in Smuggler’s Cove’s Twenty Seventy Swizzle with the lighter (in color and flavor) pot still unaged rum in the Kahiko Punch. At Forbidden Island, which was the first bar in the country to offer an extensive rum program — not to mention at least 10 syrups that are housemade daily, from Passion Fruit to Chinese Five Spice — drinks like The Jet Pilot define owner Michael Thanos’ dedication to the “layers of flavor” adage made famous by Don the Beachcomber, the father of tiki bars. The cocktail, based on Don’s Test Pilot, features Whaler’s Dark Rum, Don Q Gold Rum and Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum plus hand-squeezed citrus juices, Falernum, Angostura bitters and Pernod.
“Layers of rums of differing expressions, liqueurs, juices and syrups that tantalize the taste buds with every sip,” he says. “To me, that’s the perfect cocktail.”
But not all tropical cocktails are made with rum or served at tiki bars. At ‘aina, a modern Hawaiian eatery in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, there isn’t a panel of bamboo or drink umbrella in sight. The low-proof bar is an extension of Hilo native and chef and co-owner Jordan Keao’s kitchen, which focuses on fine-dining techniques, local ingredients and a lot of aloha spirit.
A carafe of the guava-and-aperitifs-based Punch “Bowl” for four is almost required sipping during brunch. At dinner, the Hawaiian Soda, made with anise-infused Lillet plus papaya juice, matcha and coconut cream, is often the first drink to sell out. That may change with the recent introduction of Le Maile, a cocktail named for the long-lasting Hawaiian lei. It is made with three aperitifs and gets a bittersweet balance from grapefruit and chocolate bitters. But the focal point is a single roasted Kona coffee bean that’s toasted over Japanese coals and dropped into the drink at the last minute. The coffee bean is grown by a single-origin fifth-generation farmer on the island.
“These are drinks I would make at home or what people would make in Hawaii, given the local ingredients,” Keao says. Come fall, Keao hopes to begin offering 100 percent Kona coffee as part of the restaurant’s beverage program. Talk about an indulgent and rare escape.
Perhaps no bar has mastered the escapist thing quite the way San Francisco’s Leo’s Oyster Bar has. The Financial District seafood restaurant has not one but two bars within the main bar. Both hidden bars – The Hideaway and The Tiki Lounge – transport you to a post-World War II era of garden parties and personal lanais. The tiny Tiki Lounge, with its bamboo walls and flamingo lights, is the perfect place to sip on whatever tropical beverage lead bartender Casandra Salazar is dreaming up.
Currently, that would be a divine Banana Daiquiri with molasses-based Venezuelan rum or the surprisingly food-friendly Leo’s Mai Tai, which is served in a hula girl glass and gets its flavors from pineapple gum syrup and amaretto, not juice. But the drink everyone keeps coming back for is The Skinny Dip, an Aperol-and-vodka-based beauty made with fresh watermelon juice, cucumber and lime. Salazar serves the drink with a tonic ice pop. As it melts, it changes the drink.
“Every sip is a new experience,” she says.
And a reason to escape a little longer.
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