Let’s say you’re poolside and someone serves you a rum cocktail with an umbrella. Chances are you’ll assume it’s either a Tiki or tropical drink, but do you know the difference?
Although the names are similar, and the drinks tend to be enjoyed in the same kinds of places, many drinkers don’t know that Tiki and tropical cocktails are, in fact, two very different animals.
Although it borrows influences from the Polynesian and Caribbean Islands, Tiki cocktails are actually an American invention. They were first made popular in the 1930s by restaurants like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s and made trendy once again in recent years by standout bars like San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove and Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash.
Known not only for its playful visual style, with various ceramic and glass drinking vessels and ornate garnishes, Tiki’s famous drinks include the Mai Tai (rum, orange curaçao, orgeat and lime juice) and the Zombie (three types of rum, lime juice, falernum, Angostura bitters, Pernod absinthe, grenadine and a combination of cinnamon syrup and grapefruit juice). They may combine more than one type of rum, spices, syrups and various fruit juices to achieve their typically sweet flavor combinations.
Classic tropical drinks, on the other hand, are lighter, drier, more streamlined, using only a couple of ingredients. They also have very distinct Caribbean roots. Many, like the Cuba Libre, Daiquiri (rum, citrus juice and sugar, served up) and Mojito (a highball of white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water and mint), originated in Cuba, while the Piña Colada (rum, pineapple juice and coconut cream) hails from Puerto Rico, where it’s still the national drink.
“When you look at the most consumed cocktails in the world, you’ll find rum in them, and they tend to be tropical drinks, which are lighter and more refreshing,” says David Cid, Bacardi’s global master of rum and cane spirits. He says that tropical cocktails lend themselves more easily to upscale establishments, whereas “Tiki drinks are a more elaborate drinking experience.”
“You can start to see bartenders drawing distinctions and helping their customers to understand the difference between tropical and Tiki drinks,” says Cid. “You can certainly enjoy both, but you don’t have to enjoy both to enjoy either one.”