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Highlights from the Tiki Oasis Bartender Battle Prelims

Seven Caves tiki gin, the magic of tejuino, and how to elevate an ’80s sugar bomb


Irving Gonzalez + Flock of Seagulls hair = winning

For the last few years, I’ve been invited to help judge cocktails by bartenders vying for one of four slots in Tiki Oasis’s annual Bartender Battle. The battle is one of the final events of the all-things-tiki conference that’s held each August in San Diego and boasts being the “largest and longest-running tiki gathering in the world.”

The preliminary competition, held earlier this week at George’s at the Cove’s Level2, was a fun chance to watch bartenders get creative with the beloved cocktail genre while also embracing all those things that make a true tiki cocktail: tropical flavors, over-the-top garnishes, and (usually) lots of rum.

Congratulations to the four bartenders moving on to the big competition; your cocktails were exceptional: Sam Peters (George’s at the Cove / Level2), Irving Gonzalez (Snake Oil Cocktail Co.), Dannika Underhill (Kindred), and Joan Villanueva (Caffè Calabria, which is upping its cocktail game). You can watch them compete, and try their creations, on Sunday, August 10, at 3:30 p.m. in the Peacock II room of the Crowne Plaza hotel. This year’s Tiki Oasis theme is “Catch the New Wave,” so expect cocktails that play up ’80s pop culture. Tickets are $25. (See below for additional Tiki Oasis cocktail events.)


Here are several highlights from this year’s prelims:

Gin goes tiki: Seven Caves Spirits was a sponsor of the prelim competition—and for good reason. The San Diego distillery recently released a tiki-style gin as part of its seasonal, small-batch gin program. “It was made to pair with or even substitute rum in traditional tiki drinks,” says distiller Geoff Longenecker. “A daiquiri made with it is off the charts.” And, of course, it would be wonderful in a Saturn, the famous gin-based tiki cocktail. For now, Seven Caves’ tiki gin is only available at the distillery, but Longenecker says it’ll also be featured at Tiki Oasis.  

Don’t judge a rum by its label: Rum Fire was another competition sponsor. It’s made by revered 250-year-old Jamaican distillery Hampden Estate. But the label is terrible. It’s just terrible. As one review put it, it looks like it was “made by a high school art student with their first color printer and some free clip art.” So you’re forgiven if, like me, you’ve never heard of this rum. But it’s actually a funky overproof white rum that smells fantastic—like ripe bananas and pineapple. (Just don’t open it near a flame. Really.)

More tejuino cocktails, please: Snake Oil Cocktail Co.’s Irving Gonzalez is known for using ingredients that are popular in Mexican cuisine and culture. His “And I Rum” cocktail, a take on a Pearl Diver, included tejuino syrup made with fermented corn and brown sugar. It’s delicious. Or, as another judge put it, “tiki elote.” It also adds great texture to a cocktail. I’d love to see more of this ingredient. (And props to Gonzalez for nailing the Flock of Seagulls hairdo.)


Kindred's Dannika Underhill prepares her elevated riff on a Miami Vice cocktail | Photo by Kelly Davis

More Neon Blazers, too: Dannika Underhill’s The Neon Blazer riffed on a Miami Vice: half frozen strawberry daiquiri, half frozen piña colada cocktail, and everything you need to know about the ’80s cocktail scene. Underhill elevated the boozie slushie using a fassinola syrup she’d made from red dragon fruit, two kinds of rum, and lime juice for the daiquiri part. For the piña colada, she combined Coco Lopez, pineapple gomme syrup, more rum, Boy Drinks World walnut bitters, and Armada Oloroso Sherry for its toasty, nutty flavor that, Underhill noted, pairs well with the coconut and walnut flavors. The result was delicious and beautiful to look at. It’s a time-intensive cocktail to make, obviously, but Underhill said she’d consider putting it on the menu for an upcoming Permanent Vacation, Kindred’s weekly Thursday-night tiki party—so, keep an eye out.


Tiki Oasis Cocktail Events

Tiki Tasting (Thursday, August 8 at 1 and 3 p.m., $25): Learn more about rums and other spirits popular in tiki cocktails.

Ingredients Matter: Guide to Drinking Well (Friday, August 8 at 1 p.m., $50). Liquid Alchemist’s Randy Tarlow discusses why it’s important to use quality ingredients.

Create a World of Tiki in Your Home Bar (Friday, August 8 at 1 p.m., $15): Pam Kueber of Retro Renovation talks about how to create the perfect home tiki bar.

Riffs and Spiffs (Saturday, August 9 at noon, $50): San Francisco bartender and author Tiki Lindy will talk about what makes a tiki cocktail a tiki cocktail. 

New Traditionalists (Saturday, August 9 at noon, $50): Garret Richard from ZZ’s Clam Bar digs into techniques like brix adjusting, acid manipulation, and clarification used to craft perfect tiki classics.

The Home Bar Guide to Tropical Cocktails (Saturday, August 9 at 3:30 p.m., $50): Tom Morgan and Kelly Hiphipahula Reilly, authors of the new book The Home Bar Guide to Tropical Cocktails, talk about how they put the book together. They’ll also offer a tutorial on syrup making.

Got a tip or suggestions for a future post? Email me.

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