Techniques

Tropical Tips for Landlocked Tiki Bars

A heavily garnished tiki drink.
At Porco Lounge in Celeveland, bartenders don't let their landlocked location prevent them from serving up tropical paradise. Photo by Gus Chan.

Ever-popular for its tropical allure, it’s easy to forget that the tiki trend is more than just an aesthetic — it is, first and foremost, an ingredient-driven movement. As the trend spread inward from the coasts, bars in landlocked regions of the US have struggled to find a reliable way to source island flavors. Operating a successful tiki bar in, say, Denver or Cleveland comes with a set of challenges unfamiliar to those in San Diego or Miami. Still, these seemingly obvious obstacles haven’t held back the tide of tiki sweeping across the land. Here’s how a few notable bars overcome geographic boundaries to deliver a taste of the tropics to places you’d least expect.

When you dream of a Polynesian paradise, Minneapolis is unlikely to enter your mind — unless you’re terrible at geography. Yet that’s exactly where you’ll find Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge — among the country’s liveliest takes on tiki. Coconut, mango, pineapple, passion fruit — these are a few of the usual suspects that collide in the classics. You won’t find any of them growing within a thousand miles of here. But that’s just one part of the story. Tiki cocktails also rely on nutty notes and textures, rose water, elegant syrups and even coffee flavors. Rather than worrying about the elements they can’t control, Psycho Suzi’s focuses on those they can. House-made orgeat, falernum and an array of invigorating bitters and botanicals heightens the drinks here to great effect. Never is the need of a tropical getaway as appreciated as in the middle of a Minnesota winter.

At Porco Lounge in Cleveland, owner Stefan Was finds the garnish as challenging as the ingredients of the drink itself. “One of the things we have an issue with in a small market is access to fresh, tropical flowers,” he explains. “For us to source things like that is very expensive.” The solution? Seasonal lilies that grow locally, as well as artful arrangements of citrus, designed to take on a floral look. Inside the drinks, his three year-old bar keeps concentrates and purees at a minimum. “They are loaded with sugar,” Was warns. “We prefer to use actual fruit pulp, and then add our own sugar to it, at our own desired levels.” This results in drinks as balanced as they are unique. He’s particularly proud of his falernum: “It’s unlike anything else you’re going to get. We feel confident that we have the best product out there.”

Although Was remains skeptical, plenty of highly-regarded mixologists across the land embrace purees as a way to sidestep the setbacks of sourcing. “We rely heavily on purees at Leyenda,” admits Ivy Mix of her hip Brooklyn bar. "Perfect Puree is my personal favorite — this is how I do my guava and passionfruit for some of our tiki-style drinks. The nice thing about purees are that they are consistent.” Furthermore, they allow for flavors that simply refuse to travel well. Yuzu, as a prime example, oxidizes faster than any other citrus. As a result, you’re unlikely to get it fresh outside of Japan or Hawaii. In puree form, however, it is soured and preserved, maintaining the fruit’s vibrancy and extending its shelf life.

The modern tiki revival is defined by its commitment to craft — quality ingredients and inspiring ingenuity, executed with technical precision. And so, with equal parts hard work and creativity, the flavors of the South Pacific have little problem finding a home in the Rocky Mountains or along the Great Lakes. In today’s cocktail climate, this hardly surprises anyone. But don’t take it for granted. Those flavors traveled a great distance, surrendering little authenticity along the way. You have no one else but your barkeep to thank for the safe passage.

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