In 2012, Austin’s chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) declared an annual Texas Tiki Week. Intended as a showcase of the city’s then newly blooming cocktail culture, the event also paid tribute to Texan Ernest R.B. Gantt, founder of the Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain that inspired the tiki movement. Year four of Texas Tiki Week wrapped last night, after a busy week that included movie screenings with cocktail pairings (Beach Blanket Bingo), a guest bar tiki pop-up from Chicago’s Lost Lake, a bus-based mai tai crawl and rooftop pool parties. At the core of all these events is an appreciation for both the complexity of great tiki drinks and the idea that not all cocktails or bartenders need to take themselves too seriously. This year, a number of Austin bartenders used their distinct points of view to shift their Tiki Week menus from the expected daiquiris and mai tais to a surprising mix of eclectic and thoughtful variants on the classics. Here are five of our favorite creations from this year’s Texas Tiki Week.
Jason Stevens, Bar Congress: Thunder Island
Key ingredients: Clement blue Petit Canne agricole rum, Cocchi di Torino, Pineapple Campari (Campari steeped with cubed pineapple, Cynar, and salt, then strained and bottled with a small amount of Cruzan blackstrap)
At Bar Congress, Jason Stevens has led the charge for years with weekly tiki nights at this downtown flagship. While his previous Texas Tiki Weeks have focused on spirit suites including gin and aquavit, this year’s theme was the more relaxed “soft rock,” with drink names like Caribbean Queen and Summer Breeze. Our favorite current selection, the Thunder Island, splits the difference between two old-school classics. Stevens’s creation starts with the classic pineapple and lime flavors of a Jungle Bird, but moves away from the long drink format and focuses on the fruit. To accomplish this, he meshes the Jungle Bird profile with a Negroni for a bitter, fruity slow sipper. A base of rhum agricole and a pineapple-infused Campari give bright, grassy, and bitter flavors to the drink, and the infused Campari’s added dose of Cynar adds vegetal qualities. To finish, there’s a touch of Blackstrap rum in the mixture for sweetness, and a secret house blend of salt and minerals to blunt the bitterness. Says Stevens of doing unconventional tiki: “Most people associate these drinks with rum only, but the Trader Vic’s books have changed a lot over the years. At times, they’ve had quite a lot of tequila, and in the ’70s, they even used a lot of Southern Comfort.”
Justin Elliott, the Townsend: The Saturn
Key ingredients: Ford’s Gin, Underberg, orgeat, passionfruit, lemon
As a bar focusing on gins and world whiskies, the Townsend seems like an unlikely participant in Tiki Week. To play ball while maintaining their own point of view, the bar put together four Tiki Week creations, but there’s no rum to be found. Why? Jokes beverage director Justin Elliott: “Probably because we’re daft!” Kidding aside, the Townsend offered clean, boozy and citrus-forward takes on some tiki classics and lost treasures. Our favorite was Elliott’s update of the 1967 World Cocktail Championship winner, the Saturn: where the original employed falernum, The Townsend’s version used Underberg for clove and anise notes. Says Elliott: “I love finding excuses to work with Underberg, and that clove flavor really works well with lemon.” The 86 Co.’s versatile and zesty Ford’s Gin anchored the creation, with lemon and passionfruit juices and orgeat rounding out the edges. The resulting drink seemed like a happy hour offering from a five-star island resort; it was at once boozy, tart, balanced and refreshing. There was also an Eastern Sour on this year’s menu, which married the workhorse Old Grand-Dad bonded bourbon with orgeat, lime and orange juice in a whiskey-tiki combination that Elliott says “sounds like it won’t work at all, yet somehow, it all just fits together.”
Trey Jenkins, Isla: The Velvet Glove, Menta Colada
Velvet Glove key ingredients: Dark rum, “Coco #3,” pineapple, lime, crème de cassis
Mental Colada key ingredients: Branca Menta, Hamilton Pot Still black rum, coconut cream, pineapple
As Austin’s only fully-fledged tiki bar, Isla’s tropical drink menu is lengthy and varied. Trey Jenkins divides the menu between classics on one side and modern accents on the other, calling them “reimagined” and commenting that “they should blend in, yet feel new.” So their Tiki Week menu focused on some familiar favorites. For their menu mainstay the Velvet Glove, Jenkins combines dark rum with a house-made coconut cream dubbed Coco #3 in a nod to a time when bartenders jealously guarded their recipes. The Coco #3 starts with coconut milk boiled with cardamom pods, then adds coconut water, sugar and vanilla bean paste. The drink is finished with fresh lime and pineapple juice along with crème de cassis. The resulting drink is strong, creamy and balances the citrus with warm cardamom spice. Another Isla creation, the Menta Colada, takes inspiration from onetime Austin resident George Kanelos and his ubiquitous candy classic the Andes Crème de Menthe. The Isla version uses bracing Branca Menta amaro (made with peppermint oil) and pot still black rum as the drink’s base. The rum brings a funkiness to counterweight the sweetness, and the molasses brings out a chocolate note in the frozen drink. A coconut cream and pineapple juice finish the long drink, which is served with crushed ice and a mint garnish.
Jessica Sanders, drink.well: Lake of Fire
Key ingredients: Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Rhum Barbancourt 4 Year, Amontillado Sherry, pineapple, lime, BG Reynolds Vanilla Syrup, Bittercube Jamaican #1 Bitters
The team at drink.well have a real fondness for sherry, so it was no surprise to see it pop up on their Tiki Week menu. The wildcard was the use of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal as a tiki base ingredient — sherry and mezcal, sure, but with rum? The drink’s creator, drink.well co-owner Jessica Sanders, says, “I wanted to create something a little brooding and smoky, but with recognizable island-inspired flavors. Mezcal and sherry as a combination just sings!” The result felt in sync with tiki classics: There was smoky cinnamon from the mezcal, almond nuttiness from the sherry, and the classic vanilla and citrus profile of an island long drink. Wisconsin-made Bittercube Jamaican #1 Bitters sealed the deal with allspice dram flavors of warming ginger and pepper, and Sanders served the drink with a flaming lime shell because “who doesn’t love to see their cocktail hit the table with fireworks?”
As a cofounder and ringleader of Texas Tiki Week, she says of this year’s experience: “I’ve been totally blown away by the reception from the bars and the public. When David Alan and I started this in 2012, we thought it had the potential to become Austin’s contribution to the cocktail week circuit. This year, we’re seeing that potential fully realized. The talent in our bar community is at an all-time high, and tiki is a cool avenue for bartenders to express creativity, let their guard down a bit, and just have fun. There’s a levity and eccentricity to tiki that reminds us that at the end of the day, our job is to make our guests smile.”
Bonus: Watch a video of Jessica Sanders discussing how Austin’s cocktail culture has evolved: