I was talking to a friend recently about cocktails, and we got on the subject of tiki cocktails. She made a face best described as "eww."
"Once you add pineapple juice," she said, "I'm not interested."
That got me thinking: For a cocktail to be truly tiki, does it have to have a sweet juice as its base? Craft-cocktail bars use fresh juices, which dial back the sweetness, but some folks still find pineapple juice in particular to be a little cloying.
"Why would somebody not like pineapple juice? That's crazy talk."
That's Erick Castro, general manager at Polite Provisions in North Park. Castro's a bit of a tiki fiend. The second Tuesday of each month, he decks out the bar in tiki decor and offers specials on tiki drinks.
If you're not into overly sweet drinks and, say, find yourself at Polite Provisions on a Tuesday, ask your bartender to make your tiki cocktail as dry as possible, Castro suggests. Or, opt for a Mai Tai.
"I love making people Mai Tais because the only version they've had tends to be a really bad one," he says. "It's all about the fresh juice and a good orgeat."
Castro's version has fresh lime juice, a house-made orgeat, Orange Curacao and two kinds of rum: El Dorado and Appletons. He's also a fan of a good, basic daiquiri with fresh lime juice and an aged rum.
What about a tiki drink made with bourbon? Sure, Castro says—there's the Western Sour, made with grapefruit juice, lime juice, Falernum, simple syrup and bourbon. The Eastern Sour, first made at Trader Vic's, combines orange and lemon juices, orgeat and bourbon.
Orgeat (pronounced or-zaht or, if you want to be fancy, or-zha) is an almond-based syrup. It was Polite Provisions, specifically the Attorney Privilege (a simple but delicious combo of bourbon, orgeat, Angostura bitters), that turned me on to orgeat. After looking for it in smaller liquor stores, I ended up at BevMo, where I was directed to Torani's orgeat. That stuff's not good. Avoid it. But I'll forgive BevMo, because on a recent trip there, I found Berkeley-based Small Hand Foods' orgeat. Now, that stuff's good. Really, really good (Small Hand also has a nice selection of syrups, some of which are at BevMo. See smallhandfoods.com for the whole lineup).
If you want to make your own orgeat, you'll find no shortage of recipes online, though they're a little involved and, if you mess up, you've just wasted a bunch of money on almonds. Since I recently ditched regular milk for almond milk, the orgeat recipe at craftcocktailsathome.com—"A Blasphemously Easy Recipe for the Best Homemade Orgeat"—that uses almond milk got my attention. The website's version is in grams, so here's a conversion that worked out pretty well:
6 ounces unsweetened almond milk
3 ounces sugar
Eight drops almond extract (I really like almond extract, so I added a few extra drops)
Four dashes orange blossom water (also available at BevMo)