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Crowning San Diego’s Best Tiki Cocktails

The Tiki Oasis cocktail challenge asks bartenders to honor the genre, but also get creative


Noble Experiment's Ryan Koontz adds some flames to his Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired cocktail. | Photo by Stephen Kurpinsky

Of all cocktails, tiki cocktails are the easiest to recognize.

“Tiki is relatively simple,” says Anthony Schmidt, Consortium Holdings’ beverage director and the guy behind tiki bars Fairweather and the soon-to-open False Idol. “It rests on the premise of the old punch adage of something sweet, something sour, something spiced, something strong, and something to take the edge off, usually water in the form of chilling / dilution with ice.”

Tiki has its origins in Cuba, where Donn “The Beachcomber” Beach was enchanted by exotic cocktails he tried there during his travels. In the mid-1930s, he returned to L.A., opened a restaurant, and tried to re-create the drinks he’d had in Cuba.

Stephen Kurpinsky's Creature from the La Jolla Lagoon. | Photo by Josh Kasumovic

“He used what was available in L.A.,” Schmidt says. “Pineapple, orange, and grapefruit juice replaced exotic ingredients found in Caribbean bars. He also incorporated the spice element with juices, and blended big bold rums... In his errors, magic happened and he created a genre through exploration.”

Earlier this week, I was a judge (along with Schmidt) in a competition to select four bartenders for the Tiki Oasis cocktail competition on Sunday, Aug. 21. (Tiki Oasis, held annually in San Diego since 2001, is like a Comic-Con for all things tiki.) Last year, Ram Udwin, the guy behind San Diego-based Boy Drinks World cocktail bitters and spices, organized Tiki Oasis’ first cocktail competition, featuring two competitors. This year, he expanded it to four.

On Monday, at George’s at the Cove, 13 contestants vied for those four spots, creating drinks inspired by this year’s Tiki Oasis theme, “Party on Monster Island.” This meant cocktails floating in dry-ice lagoons. A garnish featuring opalescent black orchids. A nest of Godzilla eggs made from green Chartreuse and lime jello. Cocktail glasses turned into mini monster incubators. Lychee fruit turned into bloody eyeballs. Shrunken heads made from dried apples. Lots of flames.

While presentation was a big factor, the most weight was, of course, on how the cocktail tasted. As Udwin told the bartenders prior to the start of the competition, "You have to nail the ethereal, indefinable aspects of a tiki drink."

And that’s the magic of a good tiki cocktail: It should follow the simple formula that Schmidt describes above, but also manage to go beyond that. This is why bartenders find the genre such a challenge.

Luis Garcia's Tomoyuki Island. | Photo by Stephen Kurpinsky

“Tiki is so hard because there are no rules with it,” says Noble Experiment’s Adele Stratton, who’ll be competing at Tiki Oasis. Her Game of Thrones-inspired The Black Dread combined papaya and orange juices, Giffard’s Banane du Bresil liqueur, Don the Beachcomber’s Gardenia Mix, Pernod, rum, and passion-fruit bitters.

“There should be a tension between the sweet, the sour, and the booze,” Stratton says. But, at the same time, everything has to work together, she adds: “Is it balanced? Does it have interesting ingredients that make it thoughtful?”

Interesting ingredients in the winning drinks included a rose-petal and cinnamon simple syrup and a blueberry-lime cordial in Luis Garcia’s Godzilla-inspired Tomoyuki Island. Noble Experiment’s Ryan Koontz used a trio of rums in his Kill the Creature from the Black Lagoon: rhum agricole, Pusser’s Navy Strength and Smith & Cross’ Jamaican rum. And Level2’s Stephen Kurpinsky incorporated fresh guava juice and his bar’s famous milk punch in his Creature from the La Jolla Lagoon.

Udwin, who also judged the competition, says what he looks for in a tiki drink is good use of spice—cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. But, above all, the drink should be fun. “Of course this includes the obligatory over-the-top garnish and and festive glassware,” he says. “Tiki as a whole construct is about escapism, and if the drink can transport you, it is a success.”

Or, as Stratton puts it: “You’re sitting on a beach with nothing to worry about.”

Tickets to the Tiki Oasis bartender competition are $20 and include a taste of all four cocktails. There are also tickets available to cocktail symposiums like “Crafting your Exotic Cocktail Masterpiece w/Martin Cate” and “It Came From Beneath The Bar: Cocktail Parties Inspired by Classic Sea-Horror Films.”

Got suggestions for a future column? Write to 2kellydavis@gmail.com.

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