Tiki Takeover

Photo by Joel Veak

In the miserable nadir of Boston's winter, it feels odd to talk about tiki drinks. Our shortest days seem to demand simple, burly brown-liquor cocktails that can thaw the marrow of deep-chilled bones. Besides, isn't tiki the loud, vulgar, bad-Hawaiian-shirt-wearin' cousin at the cocktail family reunion? Nobody's proud of having done that dopey, barely legal rite of passage at the Hong Kong Cafe: guzzling communal scorpion bowls that taste like juice boxes spiked with Everclear.

Actually, that notion of tiki belongs in the same trashcan as the idea that ice-chilled vodka plus olive brine equals a martini: it's a modern corruption of a fine old original. Real tiki emerged in glamorous 1930s Hollywood at Don the Beachcomber, a tiny bar whose movie-star clientele worshiped the singular vision of its owner, Donn Beach. A vagabond soul, Beach had roamed the world studying tropical drinking customs and collecting exotic liquors. His cocktail philosophy emphasized high-quality spirits (notably unusual rums), abstruse liqueurs, fresh-squeezed juices, house-made spice-infused syrups, and obscure bitters, all combined for harmonious balance. (Sound familiar, craft-cocktail lovers?) He single-handedly invented a new genre: Caribbean- and Polynesian-inspired drinks that were dazzling in their freshness, beauty, complexity, and potency. Ambitious businessman Victor Bergeron mimicked Beach's closely guarded recipes and used them to build the Trader Vic's chain of restaurants, which brought tiki drinks to a national audience. Sad to say, today's Mai Tais and Planter's Punches, as served at places like Golden Temple, are as distant from Donn Beach's creations as you can get. Fortunately, Boston is in the throes of a real-tiki cocktail revival, with some of our most talented bartenders striving to rescue this once-great drink family from its current disrepute.

To experience the real thing, you'll need to visit one of Boston's elite craft-cocktail bars, like Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks (528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.9100), which hosts occasional real-tiki events, or Green Street (280 Green Street, Cambridge, 617.876.1655) in Central Square. The latter pours one of many historical variations of the Zombie ($8.50), built on Cruzan Estate light rum (St. Croix), Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star (Haiti), Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, fresh pineapple juice, and Angostura bitters. This embodies all the virtues of real tiki in a relatively simple, accessible cocktail. It's bracing, delicious, and lethal, using the unmistakable flavor of fresh pineapple as its springboard.

Over in the South End, the bar at Ginger Park (1375 Washington Street, Boston, 617.451.0077) is doing a more playful take on tiki with its Scorpion Bowl ($20). This combines Gosling's Black Seal rum (Bermuda), Bacardi Silver rum (Puerto Rico), a passel of fresh juices (pineapple, orange, lime, lemon, and white cranberry), and the thoroughly dubious Wide Eye Chili Mango schnapps. It's served in a kitschy, Hawaiian-themed ceramic bowl with scarcely less capacity than a kiddie pool. I suspect Donn Beach might not approve of that caffeinated schnapps, but otherwise Ginger Park plows a lighthearted middle ground between the Kowloon's heinous prefab umbrella drinks and the tonier versions concocted by our more scholarly tiki-drink purveyors.

That brings us to the forefront of Boston's real-tiki revival, to Drink (348 Congress St, South Boston, 617.695.1806), whose nonpareil bartenders painstakingly recreate forgotten classics like the Jet Pilot ($12). This '50s-vintage invention of Beverly Hills' bygone Luau restaurant combines Myers's dark rum (Jamaica), Lemon Hart Demerara 151-proof rum (Guyana), Ron Pampero Aniversario rum (Venezuela), Velvet Falernum (a milky, nutty, vanilla- and clove-scented cordial), cinnamon-infused simple syrup (one of Beach's original tiki secrets), fresh lime and grapefruit juices, and dashes of Peychaud's Bitters and the absinthe-like Herbsaint - all unironically served in the canonical tiki-statue mug. If you doubt whether tiki cocktails deserve the same respect as Drink's better-known Golden Age-inspired creations, this amazingly nuanced, deep-flavored, finely balanced cocktail ought to make a believer of you. (Warning: it also packs a sneaky wallop.) These serious yet seriously fun drinks won't just dispel your grim winter doldrums - they might just carry you through to that distant, longed-for summer ahead.