When Don the Beachcomber first opened his eponymous bar in Los Angeles, the drinks he served were known, in Beachcomber parlance, as “rhum rhapsodies.” Ever since, rum and tiki have been synonymous. The icons of the genre—Zombie, Mai Tai, Fog Cutter—are naturally all built around rum, and more often than not, feature several types of rum in the same glass. But that doesn’t mean other spirits don’t bring anything to the tiki table.
Trader Vic, for example, created several sours—Munich Sour, London Sour, Eastern Sour—all built around different non-rum base spirits, but the classic Trader Vic’s Sour, a mix of lemon juice, orgeat and simple syrup, can work equally well with bourbon, Scotch or brandy. But it’s bourbon that shines in the 1966 Port Light, an unsung blender drink created at the famed Kahiki restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. There, bourbon acts as the backbone to the fruit-forward blend of lemon, grenadine and passion fruit syrup.
In the canon of non-rum tiki drinks, gin shines especially bright. It’s central to drinks like the Saturn, a combination of gin, passion fruit purée, lemon juice, orgeat and falernum that bartender Garret Richard notes “deserves the mantle of the perfect gin tiki cocktail.” Gin is also key to the Suffering Bastard, a heady combination of brandy and gin topped with ginger beer and splash of lime. Notably, gin also stars in the Double Barrel Winchester, Brian Miller’s update to his own Winchester, the only tiki drink to enter the modern classic canon. There, it appears in four different expressions, layered the way one might expect rum to be layered in typical tiki fashion.
Rarer in the catalog of vintage tiki drinks is the use of vodka. But it does make the odd appearance, notably in the Macadamia Nut Chi Chi. With versions attributed to both Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber, this blended mixture of vodka, pineapple juice, coconut cream and macadamia nut liqueur has as much cred as any of its more famous rum counterparts.