Marlo Gamora is lead bartender of Dante in New York.
Tiki dates back to the 1930s, when bartenders like Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic added an exotic touch to drinks using tropical ingredients and started a cocktail revolution. While Tiki’s popularity has dipped over the decades, the modern mixology movement, a recent wave of neo-Tiki bars has brought it back.
Marlo Gamora, lead bartender of Dante in New York, is a Tiki aficionado. He first became fascinated with the sense of “escapism” in Tiki after visiting Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas. We recently caught up with Gamora to talk all things Tiki.
Better Bartending: How do Tiki cocktails provide a sense of “escapism”?
Marlo Gamora: Whether or not you have been fortunate enough to visit an island in the Caribbean or the Pacific, there is something exotic about a cocktail with rum or made with tropical juices like pineapple and coconut. Sweet and refreshing with a kick, I believe something sensory happens—you are whisked away to a beach under a palm tree when you sip a Tiki cocktail.
BB: Why else have Tiki cocktails become so popular in modern times?
MG: When made right, they are fun alternative to a classic cocktail. Sometimes you feel like a Manhattan and other times, you just want a refreshing Mai Tai at your Friday-night Happy Hour. Tiki cocktails are just as complex as any classic drink and you need a great bartender with the right ingredients to get it right.
BB: What kind of Tiki cocktails are most popular right now?
MG: The Jungle Bird has become quite popular. More consumers are drinking aperitifs and cocktails with bitter ingredients. The Jungle Bird is a nice representation of a slightly bitter, but well-balanced Tiki cocktail with hints of spice and citrus.
BB: What are some of your favorite Tiki cocktails?
MG: Some of my favorites include the Ti Punch, Missionary’s Downfall and the Painkiller. The Ti Punch is an amazing classic cocktail which uses a nice grassy agricole rhum. I also like to add a little bit of St. Germain French elderflower liqueur for a nice floral note to the drink.
A Missionary’s Downfall is a blended drink of peach, pineapple and fresh mint—so clean, refreshing and complex at the same time. The Painkiller has a nice blend of funkiness, spice and a creamy nuttiness from the Jamaican rum and coconut cream.
BB: What are some must-visit Tiki bars and why?
MG: The Mecca of mid-century, Polynesian-themed restaurants and bars is the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It opened in 1956 and I believe is the last remaining establishment of its kind, with great cocktails, food and a Polynesian show. Tiki Ti in Los Angeles is also another historic must-visit Tiki bar.
As far as modern bars that are a great representation of a classic escapist Tiki bar, my favorites are Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and Undertow in Phoenix. Proper cocktails and perfect atmosphere are quintessential for a Tiki bar—both places have nailed it.
BB: What’s the most underrated ingredient in Tiki cocktails?
MG: Cognac or brandy can really smooth out the acidity and spice in cocktails. When used properly, Cognac and rum together create an amazing cocktail. Cognac adds a whole different level and depth to a drink.
BB: What makes for a great Tiki glass?
MG: Nothing says tropical/Tiki cocktail when you drink from a cored out pineapple or coconut. But for me, you have to have the proper garnish for the drink and the glass.
Using natural, fresh garnishes and swizzle sticks completes the experience of the cocktail. You can put mint sprigs, a pineapple slice, dusted nutmeg or cinnamon, cherry, lime wedge, mini umbrella and a swizzle stick to any glass or vessel and your Tiki cocktail is complete!