Tiki Tsunami

DC rides the wave of island inspired cocktails

By Tim Ebner, Photographs by Rey Lopez

The rising tide of tiki-themed bars is washing ashore in Washington, DC, and bartenders are using local and seasonal ingredients, as well as far-away places, for tiki inspiration.

Say “tiki” to bartender Sarah Rosner, and she’ll immediately start talking about her tropical paradise: Hawaii. As a kid she grew up on the Big Island with passionfruit and mango trees in her backyard.

“We would run around the jungle and eat fresh mangos for lunch,” she says. “Those local and fresh ingredients continue to influence me, which is why I’m making tiki. It’s my love for island life.”

For a slice of Hawaii in DC, head to Radiator, where Rosner mixes inventive tiki cocktails amid poolside loungers, rooftop views and somewhat-tacky offbeat-tropical decor. The vibe here is definitively summer. And if that, combined with summer heat, doesn’t get you thinking South Pacific, the “Eddie Would Go” should do the trick.

It’s Rosner’s favorite tiki drink on the menu and reminds her of home. The drink’s name is in tribute to Hawaiian surf legend Eddie Aikau, and it contains a unique Hawaiian spirit—Okolehao, made from fermented ti root and sugar cane. The spirit is commonly known as Hawaiian moonshine and packs a punch when sipped straight.

Her “Eddie Would Go” adds to the booziness with green Chartreuse and a refreshing mix of grapefruit juice, cinnamon and local honey. To make the cocktail more local, Rosner recommends substituting a blend of Cotton & Reed white and dry spiced rum in place of Okolehao, which is hard to find outside Honolulu.

Part of the allure for tiki is that, for better or worse, you probably don’t know what you’re drinking—and you probably don’t care, says bartender Owen Thomson, co-founder of the tiki-themed bar Archipelago on U Street. There’s a lot of mysticism and mystery to the method of making tiki drinks, Thomson says. And many patrons, he says, are simply happy to drink from a flaming bowl of rum punch served in a cored out pineapple.

Luckily there are tiki purists, like Thomson, who have studied up on historic recipes. He can easily rattle off bars, like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, that opened in the 1930s and served carefully guarded cocktails from unmarked liquor bottles. More recently, he says bars like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago have come to set the standard for popular drinks like the Mai Tai, the Daiquiri and the Painkiller.

“Really, there are no rules because tiki is something that’s constantly evolving and changing,” Thomson says. “As more bars open—especially here in DC—the experimentation continues, and the notion of a tiki cocktail gets bigger.”

That’s good news for the at-home bartender looking to make tiki drinks at home. Thomson says there are two essential ingredients to a good tiki bar: a collection of quality rums and fresh fruit juices. Of course, the tiki mug, spices, bitters and garnishes matter too. At Archipelago, the Banana Daiquiri not only has fresh-ripened bananas in the drink, but also a banana dolphin that watches as you drink.

Garnishes can also serve a purpose. At barmini, bartenders Miguel Lancha and Al Thompson use fresh sprigs of rosemary to help heighten the senses. “Each time you take a sip, you also smell the freshness of the herb,” Thompson says.
Breathe deep as you down this fruit-filled punch, inspired by the far-off flavors of Peru. The cocktail—Mohan Travels to Peru and Gets a Haircut—is named for the drink’s mohawk shape and Peruvian ingredients.

To make this cocktail, grab a classic tiki glass and add aged Demerera Rum, Peruvian Pisco and a popular Peruvian juice—Chicha Morada—made from purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon, clove and sugar. While some might question whether a Peruvian-inspired drink can truly be tropical or tiki, Thomson says tiki has no real or defined boundaries.

“That’s part of the beauty,” Thomson says. “Tiki is a drink that’s from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.”


Drink: The Eddie Would Go