First popularized in the 1930s and 40s when the likes of Donn Beach (owner of Don the Beachcomber) and “Trader” Vic Bergeron (owner of Trader Vic’s) opened Polynesian-style bars, Tiki drinks, while not nearly as popular as they once were, have never really gone away. There are conflicting stories but it’s believed by many that the mai tai (created in 1944) was the first Tiki-style cocktail. Like the mai tai, other Tiki-style drinks are known for their sweet, fruity, tropical flavor profiles that usually feature rum as the main ingredient. Pineapples, coconut, and other tropical fruits are also common.
In recent years, the romanticization of cocktails with over-the-top ingredients, decorations, and Tiki-style, elaborately decorated drinking vessels has come into question (and with good reason). But this hasn’t stopped Tiki bars from continuing to flourish. Fans of the style will point out that it’s a love letter to a tropical paradise and sort of its own fantasyland, rather than a representation of actual Polynesian culture. If that tracks for you, well, they are some good drinks — and can potentially be enjoyed without the colonial hangover aspect.
All that aside, you can’t talk about Tiki drinks without rum. White rum, dark rum, and even spiced rum — the sugarcane-based spirit is at the center of this style. To find some of the best options for Tiki-style cocktails, we turned to the professionals who bide their time behind the bar for some help. We asked a handful of bartenders to tell us the best rums to mix into Tiki drinks. Keep scrolling to see them all.
Smith & Cross Rum
Tom Muscolino, director of beverage innovation at Landmark Hospitality in Plainfield, New Jersey
Average Price: $32
Smith & Cross. It is a funky Jamaican pot still rum, coming in at 114 proof. Created in collaboration with cocktail historian David Wondrich, it’s a great base for your favorite rum cocktails, Tiki or otherwise. It’s the kind of rum you’ll always want on hand.
It has notes of overripe banana, dark chocolate, tobacco, vanilla, and spice. It’s much more flavorful than you’d expect from such a high-proof rum.
Sawyer Platt, bar lead at Publico Street Bistro & Garden in South Boston
Average Price: $38
I’ve been experimenting with Bumbu Rum a lot this season and it’s shown to be a great addition to Tiki, coffee-centered, and twists on sour-like cocktails. The first sips of it reminded me of Basil Hayden’s infamous Caribbean Reserve Rye. A versatile rum, it would pair wonderfully in a Tiki drink or even in a Manhattan with Antica Formula Carpano Vermouth and chocolate bitters.
Its flavor profile is dominated by bold notes of chocolate, molasses, and banana, with an oaky, whiskey-resembling finish.
Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum
Jared Bailey, bar manager at Soho Cigar Bar in New York City
Average Price: $26
I prefer a darker rum like Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum, both for its cost-effectiveness, as well as the rum’s ability to mix very well and provide that signature rum flavor, but not add too much sweetness to the drink.
Sweet and nutty, this Jamaican-produced rum is known for its nutty, vanilla, caramel, candied orange, dried fruits, and sugar cookie flavors.
Hamilton Demerara 86 Rum
Brandon Ristaino, co-founder and beverage director at Good Lion Hospitality in Santa Barbara, California
Average Price: $25
Tiki-style drinks are unique in that a lot of classics call for a ‘layering’ of rums. These rum blends can add complexity and depth to a cocktail while drawing out the best of each individual expression of rum. While there is a myriad of options for every component of these layered rum blends, we feel as though Hamilton Demerara 86 rum is a perfect ‘base’ for most tiki-style cocktails.
This Guyanese rum is rich, slightly smoky, and has tasting notes of tobacco, oak, nuts, and tropical fruit that converge to anchor most fruit juice-laden cocktails. We like to layer a funky Jamaican pot still rum on top of the Hamilton, but that’s a discussion for another day.
El Dorado 3-Year Rum
Alicia Perry, beverage director at Consortium Holdings in San Diego
Average Price: $20
El Dorado 3-Year-Old Rum is a great choice for Tiki drinks. Matured for at least three years in charred oak casks, this crystal clear, flavorful rum is filtered through charcoal. The result is a complex, versatile rum well-suited for mixing.
El Dorado 3-Year-Old Rum Offers tropical notes. Rich yet complex flavor profile. El Dorado 3 Year is crisp, with notes of cacao, cane sugar, and grassy.
Plantation Barbados 5 Year
Bijan Ghiai, beverage manager at Urban Hill in Salt Lake City
Average Price: $25
The Plantation Barbados 5-year Dark Rum. I feel that it has the strongest personality, but it isn’t going to overwhelm the cocktail either. My favorite tiki-style cocktail is either a mai tai — I think I am drawn to it by its simplicity– or a classic pina colada, but you have to use real coconut cream for that one.
It has a deep layer of molasses, some baking spices, star anise, vanilla, and some citrus peel. It’s a great choice for Tiki drinks.
Paranubes Oaxacan Rum
Michael J. Neff, bartender at Bar Loretta in San Antonio, Texas
Average Price: $45 for a 1-liter bottle
Paranubes Oaxacan Rum is a fantastic choice for Tiki-style drinks. I like a hurricane with Paranubes Oaxacan Rum, especially if it’s spring and I can get Cocktail & Sons Fassionola.
A few words on the rum: Funky pot still rums are great in tiki cocktails—their inherent earthiness plays well with all the different sugar most tiki specs call for.
Lee Moore, bartender at The Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina
Average Price: $20
Malibu Rum. This might not seem like the most popular choice. But if you’re looking for a sweet, coconut-filled rum liqueur to use in a Tiki-style drink, you have to consider Malibu. Maybe it won’t be the main rum used, but it definitely fits as a complimentary rum.
The light mellow flavors of pineapple or coconut are the perfect tropical flavors for Tiki-style drinks.
The Real McCoy 12
Alex Barbatsis, head bartender at The Whistler in Chicago
Average Price: $54
I’m a purist, so I tend to use these spirits in completely different fashions; however, the Real McCoy 12-Year Aged is one rum that I’ve used in a variety of traditionally stirred Tiki-style cocktails.
Its earthiness and oak lend themselves well. There’s also a ton of caramel, vanilla, orange peel, and light spices. All of these work well in Tiki-style drinks.
Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum
Erica Dimmig, lead mixologist at Bar Pendry in Chicago
Average Price: $30
The world of Tiki is vast and full of many big opinions. I’m sure some will disagree that a flavored rum should be left out of classic Tiki drinks, but Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple is absolutely crushable in so many Tiki cocktails.
The sweet, spiced, and overripe fruit notes are killer in a pina colada but hold up just as well in a mai tai, or one of my favorites: the painkiller.