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San Diego Bartenders Mix Up Intriguing Cocktails for Tiki Oasis

Highlights include strange fruit, prickly pear brandy, and macadamia nut syrup


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The elaborate presentation of George's at the Cove's Cole Shepherd's 'Drink if You Dare' cocktail. | Photo: Kelly Davis

Of all the cocktail genres, tiki arguably garners the most respect among bartenders for its history, lore, and escapist lure.

Tiki Oasis, the Comic-Con of tiki held annually in San Diego (August 10-13 this year), puts a spotlight on tiki cocktails, via symposiums, panels, and tastings, culminating in a bartenders battle. I was lucky enough to judge this year’s preliminary round to select the four bartenders who will advance to the finals. This year’s Tiki Oasis theme is “International Intrigue,” and bartenders were expected to use it as inspiration and embrace tiki’s performative element: Fire! Sexy music! Exotic garnishes!

Irving Gonzalez's "Undercover Brother" cocktail incorporated chocolate-colored sapote fruit. | Photo: Kelly Davis

The winning bartenders were Andrew Larson (Proof @ The Hake), Irving Gonzalez (Plaza Bar @ The Westgate Hotel), Diana Danaila (Cache), and Cole Shepherd (George’s at the Cove). George’s at the Cove’s Jennifer Welsh secured a slot as an alternate.

The winning bartenders made the most of the theme. Cole presented his cocktail in an elaborate, handmade bomb set-up. Larson wrote up his recipe in security ink. Gonzalez wore a disguise (though, the appearance of his cocktail was intriguing on its own), and Danaila riffed on vintage Charlie’s Angels. But rather than describe each cocktail, I thought I’d include some observations for folks interested in how bartenders are interpreting and reinventing tiki these days.
 

Is Mexican tiki becoming a new subgenre?

South of the border influences showed up in multiple cocktails, including Gonzalez’s Undercover Brother, made with black sapote, a fruit found in Mexico that tastes like a spiced chocolate pudding. Diana Danaila used a healthy amount of Boy Drinks World serrano spice (15 drops per cocktail) to give her Silver Pearl a kick.
 

Does tiki always mean rum?

Of course not! One of my favorite tiki cocktails is the gin-based Saturn. While all of the competitors opted for rum, including Welsh’s tasty milk punch (made from a blend of eight different rums), Shepherd used Avua caçhaca and prickly pear brandy as his base.
 

Does orgeat always mean almonds?

A good orgeat (a rich nut syrup usually made from almonds) is a secret ingredient in many tiki cocktails. But bartenders are getting creative, using pistachios, hazelnuts, and pecans. Danaila’s cocktail included a macadamia orgeat that put her cocktail over the top.


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