What makes a great Tiki drink?
“If you close your eyes and take a sip, it should taste like a witch doctor gave it to you.” That’s according to Japp’s bartender Jeremy Harrison, the man in charge of coordinating the Over-the-Rhine bar’s monthly Tiki Nights, an homage to authentic Caribbean/Polynesian libations.
The drink should be complex, potent, exhibit a balance of sweet and sour and perhaps include notes of spice or herbs and, ideally, impart an air of mystery or even danger. You should feel a sense of adventure, or at the very least, fun, as you tip your glass.
Most Tiki drinks have a rum base — about 90 percent of them, according to Harrison — and build on that with up to eight or nine ingredients per drink. Bartenders strain the drinks over ice into sculptured ceramic mugs that depict Polynesian or Micronesian figures. Some Tiki cocktails may be blended with ice. Common garnishes include paper umbrellas, pineapple or more creative items such as flaming lime wedges or other fruit.
Japp’s has hosted a monthly Tiki Night since February. Some additional bars around town “dabble” in Tiki drinks, Harrison says, but Japp’s seems to be the most serious about the genre. Along with other Japp’s staffers, he creates a short menu each month of classic and modern Tiki cocktails, gets an array of Tiki mugs out of storage (some are collector’s items) and puts up decorations to enhance the tropical mood. The bar also brings in a band or DJ and offers a table of finger foods, some with a Polynesian theme.
On July 6, the festivities started at 8 p.m. and the crowd built to a peak of about 60-70 patrons at 10 p.m. A DJ began spinning Exotica music around 9 p.m., a style that went perfectly with the vibe.
The drinks menu consisted of five choices (each $9) — two classics and three moderns — each based on extensive research about the history of Tiki lore. Harrison comes across as a walking encyclopedia of the cult of Tiki, and he’s happy to tell you how the drinks became popularized in the 1930s by a man known as Don the Beachcomber, who basically invented rum cocktails such as Tahitian Rum Punch, Navy Grog and the Zombie, at his eponymous bar and restaurant. Most of his recipes were closely held secrets but have been unearthed thanks to research with some of Don the Beachcomber’s bartenders. Japp’s Tiki drinks delve into those recipes along with a few variations, but all within the parameters of what Harrison considers authentic.
This month’s classic Tiki selections were the Merciless Virgin, made with Dominican rum, falernum, Cherry Heering, dry curaçao and lemon; and Three Dots and a Dash, the Beachcomber classic made with Jamaican rum, Rhum Agricola, falernum, allspice, honey, orange and lime. Harrison said the latter was shaping up to be the most popular drink of the night.
On the modern list were three spicy, fruity rum drinks: Isle of Ningyo, Kowloon Night and the impressively boozy and complex Dance of the Brancadile (overproof and pot-stilled Jamaican rum, Fernet-Branca, ginger, pineapple, lemon, absinthe and bitters) — another big hit.
The crowd leaned noticeably male, with plenty of tropical shirts dotting the room. Several patrons said they had been to each of the previous Tiki Nights, while others had just found out about it this month. One group included Adam Mitchell and his friends; Mitchell bartends at Wiseguy Lounge down the street from Japp’s and likes to make Tiki drinks as well. He came to get ideas for his own rum drinks as well as to enjoy the ones being produced by the three Japp’s bartenders working from Harrison’s recipes.
“Wiseguy is a bourbon bar, my boss reminds me,” Mitchell says, “but I just love to work with rum.” Over time, he has developed enough of a following for his own Tiki drinks that he’s been able to talk the boss into buying a wider variety of rums.
Many of the patrons at Japp’s Tiki Night are in the local bar and restaurant trade, Harrison says. “Tiki cocktails are still kind of a secret,” he says. And plenty of other bartenders are anxious to get in on the trend.
Tiki Nights occur the first Wednesday of the month; the next one is Aug. 3.
JAPP’S hosts Tiki Night the first Wednesday of the month. More info: wellmannsbrands.com/japps1879.