It’s probably a safe bet to say that we’re all looking for something exciting, fun, and different to get our minds off of everything. That’s why there’s no better time in our history to embrace fruity, rum-powered, sometimes cloyingly sweet tiki cocktails. While tiki culture is built around very colonial-U.S.-military ideas of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, the flavors and punch of these drinks still hold up to this day. Plus, that “punch” is almost always extra boozy.
While there are other spirits in tiki cocktails, Caribbean rum is the undisputed throughline of most drinks. The key to most tiki cocktails — and what gives them that signature punch — is the use of multiple rums in one drink. Like a Mai Tia? That has white and dark rum. What about a Zombie? That’s a mix of golden rum from Puerto Rico, Jamaican rum, and Guyanan demerara 151 proof rum. How about a Cobra’s Kiss? Just lose the golden rum from Puerto Rico. There’s a lot of rum involved no matter which tiki cocktail you’re mixing up.
Kyle Harlan, beverage director of Mission Taco Joint in Kansas City and St. Louis, knows mixing good rum is crucial to making any tiki cocktail and adds that picking the right country for rum is important as well. “I love Plantation, Appleton Estate, Cruzan, and Foursquare rums.” He adds, “But, it’s easier to tell you that I prefer Barbadian, Jamaican, or Trinidadian rums.” Harlan relays that Trinidadian rums are his favorite because of the sweet notes and funk which match his palate. The point being, you don’t use just one rum in a tiki cocktail.
Since we’ve officially made it seem impossible to select the right bottle of rum for your new tiki-centric life, we decided to ask some of our favorite bartenders for help. They were nice enough to tell us their go-to rums to mix into classic tiki cocktails.
Mount Gay Eclipse
Luke Pecoraro, director of curatorial services at Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia
While I can’t say I make classic tiki drinks, I do enjoy rum-based beverages. Among the rums I have tasted, the most versatile for drink mixing (or on its own to sip) is the Mount Gay Eclipse from Barbados. While it may be sacrilegious to say, you can even make a good Dark n’ Stormy with Mount Gay. It just won’t be quite as dark.
Koloa Kaua`i Spiced Rum
Katie Nierling, general manager at Ska Street Brewstillery in Boulder, Colorado
Family vacations in Hawaii led us to discover the Koloa Rum Company. It’s a local company that embodies the Aloha vibe and draws on their natural Hawaiian ‘tall cane’ sugarcane and other locally sourced ingredients for their products. I like to combine their white or gold rum with their spiced rum in a punch or just the spiced rum on its own for a classic rum swizzle. The spiced rum is my favorite though. The spice is on the aroma and nose with a smooth, sweet caramel flavor that’s just the right amount of sweet. It’s perfect as a tiki drink should still have a hint of the spirit, not all sugar and sweet juices.
Maison & Velier Clairin Sajous
Pete Stanton, head Bartender at Ai Fiori in New York City
I love blending but if I have to choose one its the Maison & Velier Clairin Sajous. I almost always blend rums to achieve a spectrum of flavors but if I have to choose one it’s easily this one. Super funky, ester-y, and rich fat texture will give you bass and treble all at once.
Appleton Estate Signature Blend
Gord Hannah, head bartender at The Drake Hotel in Toronto
I can already hear the rum nerds losing their minds about this question, but if I had to pick one bottle that would work well in any tiki drink, it would be Appleton Estate Signature Blend. It still has that Jamaican funk but the extra time it spends in a cask makes a huge difference in its versatility. Of course, any time your “tiki” you should have an over-proof rum handy as well for that extra kick, but that is a whole other discussion.
Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum
Ian Clark, bar supervisor at Topside in Baltimore
Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum is a great go-to for a light rum in tiki drinks. It has notes of citrus and tropical fruits with hints of spice and sweetness. It has great versatility to contrast or elevate certain flavors, depending on what your other ingredients are.
Blackwell Dark rum is my go-to for dark rum. Dense, spicy, and a deeply rich finish. Used heavily, it’s absolutely delicious but also great when used sparingly as an accent or floater.
Tim Wiggins, co-owner and beverage director at Yellowbelly in St. Louis
Right now, I love the “Rum Bar” rums from Jamaica, the agricole rums from Rhum JM, the recently released Probitas from Foursquare/Hampton Estate, and a local rum distillery in Missouri called Duckett. All of these brands and rums are pure rums that are not full of additives and sugar, which is nice as it helps me have more wiggle room with the syrups/liqueurs in the cocktail.
Rhum JM VSOP
Brandi Carter, beverage manager at Elvie’s in Jackson, Mississippi
My go-to in a tiki drink is any rhum agricole but I particularly like Rhum JM VSOP. It adds a nice vegetal quality while adding a bit of depth.
Catalina Borer, bartender at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia
I love to use Zacapa Rum to create perfect tiki drinks. If I am going to drink out of anything that has an umbrella it must have a bold personality and that is exactly how I would describe Ron Zacapa. Zacapa has a delicious dark sugar cane lush to it. You can feel molasses on your lips and at the same time it’s smooth with a subtle hint of spice to it. It’s the perfect backbone for any poolside concoction.
Spencer Elliott, bartender at Bounce Sporting Club in Chicago
Banks 5 makes any tiki cocktail better. Smooth grass notes with bright earth, this rum is a delight when mixed with tropical flavors or spirits. The problem is figuring out when to stop pouring.
Plantation Original Dark
Kira Webster, beverage director at Indo in St. Louis
Plantation Original Dark has sweet, caramel notes from the molasses making it really balanced with an overall fruity flavor profile. It has a great body as well, which holds up when mixing it into a tiki cocktail. It’s my go-to base that meshes with many flavors, including over-proof rums.
Koloa Kaua`i White Hawai’i Rum
Piero Procida, bartender at The London West Hollywood in Los Angeles
If I am doing a white rum, I prefer Koloa Kaua`i White Hawai’i Rum. It’s a Hawaiian rum that is quite amazing. I know typically for tiki drinks many people tend to stick with rums from Jamaica and Barbados, but I like something different from the typical Caribbean style rums. It has wonderful hints of fruit, predominately pineapple, which is what I think of when I think of tiki drinks.
Bacardi Añejo Cuatro
Juan Coronado, brand ambassador at Bacardi
My go-to rum to use in a tiki cocktail is always Bacardi Añejo Cuatro. Its oaky notes make it a vibrant and solid base, while its hues of apricot, honey, and vanilla bring out the classic tropical flavors instead of dominating them.
The Real McCoy
H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of ELIXIR in San Francisco
Anything out of Foursquare Distillery in Barbados is going to give you great balance (The Real McCoy is pretty easy to find). But you’re also going to want some funk from a Jamaican rum like Rum Fire or a great mixing agricole like Rhum JM VSOP.
Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami
Plantation Pineapple! Both the pineapple bark and fruit are infused with their light/dark rums then blended back together to craft this incredible spirit. It crushes in tiki drinks or just in your glass alone, truly a wonderful way to enjoy rum with flavor.