If you were asking a cocktail fan to define what makes for a “tiki drink,” then rum would surely be one of the first words mentioned. This is no coincidence—the very idea of “tiki” as we think of it today is perhaps better defined as Polynesian Pop, and the ethos of Polynesian Pop was a romanticized version of the supposed adventure and “danger” inherent in the South Seas, combined with the tropical, rum-based drinks of the Caribbean. Put them together, and you have the tiki drink—cocktails defined by their long lists of exotic sounding juices, syrups, cordials and liqueurs … and yes, rum.
From the very beginning, though, it’s not as if other forms of spirits have been prohibited from appearing in classic tiki drinks. Two of the legendary Trader Vic’s most famous creations, the Fog Cutter and the Scorpion Bowl, each prominently feature other spirits in addition to rum—the Scorpion Bowl has brandy, while the potent Fog Cutter calls for brandy and gin. Indeed, you can find a tiki drink recipe that contains almost any spirit imaginable. And that includes the most American spirit of all, whiskey.
So, what makes a bourbon or rye cocktail “tiki” if not for the rum? Well, it’s the same things you associate with any other classic tiki drinks—often an array of juices, along with accents from syrups, liqueurs and spice drams. If you’re an American whiskey geek who has never really dabbled in rum—although you really should—consider these cocktails a way to dip a more familiar toe into the world of tiki. And even for seasoned tiki fans, these whiskey-based drinks make for quite a novel change of pace.
Almost certainly the oldest cocktail in this list, the Halekulani is like a textbook on how to adapt a rum-based tiki cocktail into one that instead features whiskey. It supposedly hails from the House Without a Key, the famous bar/lounge of the Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii, having been created at some point in the 1930s. It’s pretty much a template for other recipes on this list, in the sense that it swaps the rum out for bourbon, and other ingredients for ones that classically play well with bourbon—lemon juice instead of lime, and the addition of pineapple, which has long been one of bourbon’s best complementary flavors.
Most Halekulani recipes call for strong bourbon of 100 proof or more, which gives this drink the punchy presence of a whiskey-based daiquiri, with a pineapple twist.
— 1.5 oz overpoof bourbon
— .5 oz pineapple juice
— .5 oz lemon juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— ½ tsp or 1 barspoon grenadine or pomegranate molasses
— .5 oz demerara syrup or brown sugar syrup
— 1 dash Angostura or otherwise aromatic bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Shake hard, and strain. The Halekulani can be served as either an “up drink,” or over a glass of fresh ice. Served “up” in a cocktail glass or coupe, it’s a fairly potent tropical drink, akin to a stronger, whiskey-based daiquiri. Served in a rocks glass over ice, it’s somewhat more friendly and easygoing, like a tropically influenced whiskey sour.
Whereas the Halekulani is pretty big and punchy, with its base of overproof bourbon, the Bronx Cheer is a somewhat lighter, spicier and more elegant version of a whiskey-based, daiquiri type drink. Rye whiskey is used here in lieu of the bourbon, and this recipe preserves the lime juice rather than switching it to lemon. The addition of spiced falernum syrup and raspberry syrup, however, keeps it from being too familiar as simply a “whiskey daiquiri”—as does the fact that it’s served over crushed ice. This recipe was created by Joe Robinson of the cocktail bar Standby in Detroit.
— 2 oz rye whiskey
— 1 oz lime juice
— .75 oz falernum
— .75 raspberry syrup
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Cap and shake hard. Strain into a glass—preferably a tall glass filled with pebble ice or crushed ice. This will lengthen the drink, making for a refreshing cooler.
This recipe, courtesy of Brown-Forman’s Coopers’ Craft brand of bourbon, basically seems to look at the bourbon and pineapple combination of the Halekulani and then add bitter Campari to the mix in order to create a riff on the ever-popular Jungle Bird cocktail. At the same time, though, there’s also some coconut milk involved, which might put you in mind of a Painkiller as well, especially if you chose to dust it with some nutmeg. All in all, it seems like a fusion of the two concepts.
— 1.5 oz bourbon
— .5 oz simple syrup or demerara syrup
— .5 oz lime juice
— 2 oz pineapple juice
— .75 oz Campari
— 1.5 oz coconut milk
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Cap and shake vigorously. Strain into an ice-filled glass. You’ll probably want an especially large double old fashioned glass to hold this volume of liquid, be aware.
Pineapple and Campari meet once again, but instead of stopping there with a Jungle Bird riff, this one is instead drawing from the whiskey-Campari connection to label this drink as a take off the Boulevardier, which is of course the whiskey-based variant of the venerable gin Negroni. You’ll also note that this one is a bit less heavy on the whiskey, and more intense in terms of the Campari and amaro presence. To that profile, it adds banana liqueur to satisfy its namesake. This recipe was created by Lucinda Sterling of NYC cocktail bar Middle Branch.
— 1 oz bourbon
— 1 oz pineapple juice
— 1 oz Campari
— 1 oz Braulio amaro
— .5 oz banana liqueur
— .5 oz orange juice
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Cap and shake vigorously, then strain. Pour into a tall glass full of crushed or pebble ice.
We weren’t going to go through with this endeavor without at least one riff on the mai tai, itself the most iconic of all tiki drinks—so classic, in fact, that we recently wrote an entire essay about what goes into making the perfect mai tai. This one obviously swaps the rum for rye whiskey, although we suspect that bourbon would probably work quite well also. It retains the orgeat (almond syrup) that is essential to making a mai tai, but swaps the lime juice for lemon, and adds some pineapple as well. We typically don’t love to mess with the classic mai tai by adding pineapple, but when you’re making a whiskey twist you might as well go ahead. This particular recipe was created by Nick Brown of NYC cocktail bar The Spaniard.
— 2 oz rye whiskey
— .75 oz pineapple juice
— .75 oz lemon juice
— .75 oz orgeat
— 6-10 dashes of Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Cap and shake vigorously, then strain into a lowball glass filled with crushed or pebble ice. Alternatively, you can leave out the Angostura before mixing and then top the drink with a red sheen of bitters as a crown.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.