An Introduction to Tiki Drinks: Celebrating Summer in the South China Sea

Enjoy summer with a classic summer cocktail from the Tiki Bar.

When I think of Tiki drinks, an image immediately forms in my mind: I see a gigantic banyan tree, its limbs stretched out in every direction, and around its trunk a dwelling built of massive, dark, wooden beams, with a thatched roof and little lamps hanging in its windows. Expatriates from many countries gather there, wearing suits of white linen and flower-print gowns, to sip exotic concoctions while staring out through the mosquito netting at the setting sun as it sinks into the crashing ocean. In the distance, drums pound out a powerful rhythm.

This is exactly the sort of image that Don the Beachcomber – the man behind the Tiki drink craze of the 1940s and 50s – wanted to inspire. He wanted people to associate these fruity, elaborate drinks with the Polynesian islands that inspired them. Funny thing about Don, though … he was born and raised in Texas. He opened his first Tiki bar in Los Angeles in 1934, and while he did indeed travel to the South Pacific in his youth, the furthest west he ever got as a barman and restaurateur was Hawaii.

In addition to Don, I would be remiss in ignoring the famous Trader Vic, another California restaurant owner whose Polynesian-themed restaurants helped kick-start the Tiki fad. It’s said that he visited one of Don’s restaurants very early on, and drew his own inspiration from it. Vic got the name “Trader” because he was willing to sell the Polynesian decorations right off the walls of his restaurants.

Tiki drinks are a unique subset in the cocktail world with a few basic qualities: they’re usually rum-based, they nearly always feature tropical fruit juices, and they absolutely must be served with a flare – from glass to garnish – that borders on ridiculous. It’s this last reason, I think, that explains why they have only recently begun to find acceptance amongst the purists, the artisans, and the expert mixologists out there. It’s happening, though, and there’s no reason you can’t be a part of it. You want the recipe for a perfect summer get-together? Throw a Tiki-themed party. All you need is a few grass skirts, a few Hawaiian shirts, a plethora of fruit juices, and a whole lot of rum.

Below, I’ve collected some of my favorite Tiki recipes, both classic and modern. This is a good list, but there are many more out there than I can cover in this space! Quality cocktail books will always include at least a couple, and the internet is full of recipes, both good and bad. The best way to figure out which ones you love is to experiment. Making your own Tiki drinks isn’t too tough either. Start by adjusting existing recipes for practice, and then move on to crafting your own.

Recommendations? Certainly! Let’s stay around $16 a bottle, shall we? For white rum I like Denizen* or Flor De Caña. For golden rum, I’m a huge fan of Plantation Barbados 5 year. Dark rum? I’d go with Zaya 12 year, even though it’s a few more bucks a bottle. Your best bets for black rum, with its heavy emphasis on molasses flavor, are Gosling’s Black Seal or Cruzan Black Strap. When the recipe calls for spiced rum, I recommend Sailor Jerry* or The Kraken. Oh, and a quick tip on juices: use fresh if you possibly can. It really makes a difference.

Now, on to the drinks!

Zombie cocktail tiki drink illustration


Invented by Don the Beachcomber, the Zombie is the prototypical Tiki drink: lots of rum combined with lots of tropical ingredients, including passion fruit puree. It’s not exactly a common ingredient, but it’s not hard to make. You can also buy pre-made versions online.

  • 1 oz. Gold Rum
  • 1 oz. Dark Rum
  • 1 oz White Rum
  • 1 oz. Lemon Juice
  • 1 oz.  Pineapple Juice
  • 1 oz. Lime Juice
  • 1 oz. Passion Fruit Puree
  • 1 tsp. Brown Sugar

Combine lemon juice and brown sugar in a shaker, and stir to dissolve. Add crushed ice and all other ingredients. Shake vigorously and pour into a Collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig and a maraschino cherry.

Mai tai tiki drink illustration

Mai Tai

A Trader Vic creation, this is my favorite Tiki drink of all time, and makes my top twenty cocktails of any type. The almond notes from the orgeat add so much depth to the drink (you can substitute amaretto but it’s not as good), and the other ingredients combine perfectly. Over the course of my honeymoon in Hawaii, I lost count of how many Mai Tais I tried. That was a good trip.

  • 1 oz. Golden Rum
  • 1 oz. Dark Rum
  • ¾ oz. Lime Juice
  • ½ oz. Curaçao
  • ½ oz. Orgeat
  • 1 dsh. Regan’s Orange Bitters

Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice. Combine ingredients in a shaker and shake well. Strain into old-fashioned glass and garnish with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint.

Bird in hand, tiki drink illustration

A Bird in the Hand

This is a new Tiki drink crafted by master mixologist Eben Freeman for PAMA Liqueur*. Pomegranates are not originally a tropical fruit (they’re native to what is now Iraq and Iran), but the tangy-sweet liqueur works well with common Tiki ingredients. Fair warning: this drink is very sweet and sour, almost like candy, when served straight up in a cocktail glass. The recipe calls for it to be served in a tiki mug over crushed ice, which should mellow it out a bit.

  • 1 oz. PAMA Liqueur
  • 1 oz. Spiced rum
  • ½ oz. Triple Sec (curaçao)
  • 1 oz. Lime Juice
  • 1 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • 1 dsh. Simple Syrup

Fill a tiki mug with crushed ice. Combine all ingredients over crushed ice in a shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into tiki mug, stir, and top off with more crushed ice as necessary. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and a pineapple wedge.

Sulu Sour tiki drink illustration

Sulu Sour

I always try to sneak one of my own cocktail recipes into my articles for Primer, and this one’s no different! I’m a sucker for a little bit of ginger burn in my cocktails, and Cherry Heering, while not a classic Tiki ingredient, works very well with the rest of the group. Sorry, Star Trek fans … this one’s named for the body of water that lies between Malaysia and the Philippines.

  • 1 oz. White Rum
  • 1 oz. Spiced Rum
  • 1 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • ½ oz. Cherry Heering
  • ½ oz. Lime Juice
  • ¼ oz. Simple Syrup
  • ¼ tsp. Grated Ginger
  • 1 dsh. Fee Bros. West Indian Orange Bitters

Fill a rocks glass with cracked ice. Combine all ingredients over crushed ice in a shaker and shake thoroughly to combine. Strain into the rocks glass and garnish with a lime wedge and a maraschino cherry. Serve with a stirrer, as the ginger tends to settle.

Pina colada tiki drink illustration

Piña Colada

A lot of the drinks in this article are pretty hard to screw up. The Pina Colada? Not so much. Made poorly, this drink is flat, boring, and one-note. Don’t try substituting coconut milk for coconut cream … it’ll end up thin and tasteless. Follow this recipe, and it’ll be delicious (albeit something of a calorie bomb). Stray from the path at your own risk!

  • 1 ½ oz. White Rum
  • ¼ oz. Black Rum
  • 2 oz. Coconut Cream
  • 2 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • ½ oz. Heavy Cream
  • 1 cup Crushed Ice

Combine all ingredients in a blender, and blend until smooth. Pour into a chilled hurricane glass and garnish with a pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry.

Improved Bahama Mama tiki drink illustration

Improved Bahama Mama

The original Bahama Mama uses a splash of grenadine. I find that crème de cacao adds a more noticeable tropical flavor. I’ve also converted this from a long drink to an up drink. To change it back, just double the non-booze ingredients and serve over ice in a Collins glass.

  • 1 oz. Golden Rum
  • ½ oz. Spiced Rum
  • 1 oz. Orange Juice
  • 1 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • ½ oz. Lemon Juice
  • ½ oz. Simple Syrup
  • ¼ oz. Crème de Cacao

Combine all ingredients over crushed ice in a shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry and a pineapple wedge.

Singapore Sling tiki drink illustration

Singapore Sling

At last, a non-rum recipe. This drink predates the Tiki craze by two full decades, but it meets every requirement of the genre. I am generally wary of cocktails with this many ingredients, but the Singapore Sling is a time-tested classic. Easy to drink, but packing quite a punch, you can get in trouble with this one if you’re not careful!

  • 2 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • 1 ½ oz. Gin (I like New Amsterdam)
  • ¾ oz. Cherry Heering
  • ¼ oz. Curaçao
  • ¼ oz. Benedictine
  • ¼ oz. Lime Juice
  • 2 dsh. Grenadine
  • 1 dsh. Angostura Bitters
  • ~~~ Soda Water

Put three cubes of ice into a Collins glass. Combine all ingredients except soda water over crushed ice in a shaker and shake to combine. Strain into the Collins glass, top with soda, stir once, and garnish with an orange wheel and a maraschino cherry.

* Note: I have been provided samples of these liquors by their PR companies and believe I should disclose that fact. The good news is: I don’t recommend liquor I don’t like, which is why you won’t find me advocating that you go buy a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon or Caffo Amaretto, even if they send me vats of the stuff.

Christopher Buecheler

Christopher Buecheler is a novelist, a web developer, an award-winning amateur mixologist, a brewer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an NBA enthusiast. He lives a semi-nomadic life with his wife and two cats, currently residing in Providence, RI. You can learn more at his website,