Island Flair

If you’ve ever experienced a tiki drink, you probably know that tiki culture involves fun, flair, and plenty of flavor. I’m no tiki expert, but I’ve had blast seeking out tiki bars in my travels and often gravitate to tiki drinks for their delicious blend of fruit and nut ingredients. The trend started in mid-century America and has, in my opinion, seen a recent resurgence in popularity. It’s hard not to get behind a cocktail style that’s so theatrical and easy to enjoy.

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My biggest qualm with a lot of tiki drinks is that they tend to be deceptively debilitating. The drink tastes great as you’re enjoying it, but the aftermath can hit quite unpleasantly. Tiki drinks often contain a fair amount of booze but, more likely, it’s the sugar content that causes your hangover. Typical tiki syrups and liqueurs are high in sugar content on their own and are often used in combination with a slew of sweet fruit juices.  

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I wanted to create a cocktail that was true to tiki flavors and garnish while being easier on my body. After some brainstorming, I landed on a combination of an aged and spiced rum, fresh apricot puree, orgeat, and lime. I paired Grander, a high-proof Panamanian rum aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels, with Spytail, a ginger-spiced French rum with a delightful vanilla smoothness. Joining the rums with a 1-1 ratio gave me the spirit strength I wanted and allowed the spice flavors to elevate the drink rather than steal the show from the other ingredients. 

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I chose to include fresh, ripe apricots rather than apricot liqueur to control the sugar content and was rewarded with a burst of authentic flavor. To give the puree an easier consistency to work with, I added lime, water, and a bit of demerara sugar to the apricots before blending them. The leftover puree held up well in my fridge for about a week, allowing me to experiment adding it to other drinks without worrying about the whole fruit going bad.

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The real highlight of this drink is the homemade orgeat. Orgeat, pronounced "or-zhat," is a rich almond syrup with a hint of floral flavor. Store-bought varieties tend to be pricey, artificial or overly sweet, so I experimented with making my own. In a nutshell (pun intended), you grind up toasted almonds and then soak them in a simple syrup overnight for the nut oils to be released. Orange flower water is added for the floral flavor and a bit of vodka acts as a preservative. You can also use the discarded ground almonds as a topper for oatmeal or yogurt - just toast them in the oven after straining them out of the syrup. 

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Going in the tiki direction gave me an excuse to get really wild with my garnish. I've been mesmerized by flaming lime garnishes plenty of times at cocktail bars and found after some research that they're not too hard to recreate. The flame will burn longer if you use a stronger spirit so I recommend finding a cheap bottle of overproof liquor for this purpose. I wouldn't directly mix with the spirit I used for this garnish but it's great for making bitters. Because I care about your safety, please be sure to use a metal (not paper straw) or to add the straw after the flame dies out to avoid any unintended chaos.  

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Island Flair

  • 1 oz Grander Rum (aged rum)
  • 1 oz Spytail Rum (spiced rum)
  • 1.5 oz apricot puree*
  • 0.75 oz orgeat**
  • Shell of 1/2 lime
  • Sugar cube
  • Overproof spirit (I used 190 proof Polish pure spirit)

Stir first four ingredients with ice until chilled, then strain into a tiki mug or a colorful party glass over crushed ice. Add crushed ice as needed to fill your glass to the top, insert a metal straw, and nestle a hollow lime half into the ice, open side up. Place a sugar cube into the lime, pour a bit of overproof spirit over the sugar cube and then light the sugar cube to ignite the flame. Enjoy while wearing your most ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and dreaming of your next tropical getaway.

*To make the apricot puree, blend 8 ripe apricots (seeds removed), 0.5 oz lime juice, 1 tbsp demerara sugar and 1 oz water. Strain out any leftover solids if you prefer a smoother consistency and store the excess in the fridge for up to 1 week.

**To make the orgeat, broil 3 cups of almonds until toasted, then grind them up in a blender. Add 1 cup demerara sugar and 2 cups waster to a medium saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved. Add the almonds to the syrup and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the syrup from heat, cover and allow to infuse for at least 12 hours. Strain out the solids, then pour into a glass jar or bottle and add 0.25 tsp orange flower water and 0.5 oz vodka. Store excess in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses.

Vice Grip

My tolerance for spicy foods is basically nonexistent though I've been challenging it diligently ever since leaving for college. This tends to be pretty typical when you're Eastern European and grow up primarily with salt, (small amounts of) black pepper, parsley and dill. Somehow, I went from a fairly limited spice exposure to deciding upon Mexican as my favorite food category. I love the brightness and variety of the seasoning and the way the different ingredients balance each other out if mixed in just the right way. While I prefer mixology over cooking, I appreciate the cross-functional concepts you can apply if you're avidly learning both skills. 

I chose to create this drink to channel that flavor vibrance and to find a way to enjoy spice in liquid form as much as I've grown to approach it in cuisine. My thought process led me to the classic screwdriver cocktail - a drink that's very straightforward but often leaves you wanting. I aimed to take the concept of vodka and orange juice and to dress it up with better ingredients and a fiery kick. Perhaps the most critical way to improve on the classic is to pick the right vodka.

Though vodka is often disregarded as a spirit that is simply neutral, I believe that a good vodka will disappear amidst other ingredients while a great vodka will blend smoothly and add flavor interest. I was thrilled to incorporate BET Vodka, a particularly great Wisconsin spirit made from co-op grown sugar beets. It starts smooth and therefore plays nicely with most cocktail ingredients, but also adds a bit of a peppery body and a lingering vanilla sweetness. I don't often get excited about vodka, but BET left quite an impression with both its flavor profile and beautiful minimalist branding. 

Instead of orange juice from a carton, I used the juice of an entire fresh navel orange. It takes a bit more effort but it is so incredibly worth it. Not only is fresh juice additive-free, but the flavor is so much brighter immediately after extraction. Oranges are also fairly easy to find throughout the year and affordable to grab in bulk. If you'd like to make this drink for a group and don't have an efficient way of juicing fresh oranges, grab some freshly squeezed juice from the grocery store on the same day you make this cocktail. Just remember that you'll still need fresh orange peel for the syrup.

To finish the drink, I crafted a syrup with orange peel and habanero pepper. Adding the spice element in syrup form gave me plenty of control over the final flavor balance of the cocktail. I worked with incredibly spicy habanero peppers, so I just added one to my syrup for a minute to get the level of spice I was looking for. Make sure to taste the syrup as it's simmering. If you'd like more spice, simply throw in another pepper or leave the one pepper in for a little longer. 

The resulting cocktail is bursting with citrus freshness and a pleasant spice finish. It's perfect for a hot summer day but would be equally lovely to break up the gloom of a rainy autumn or cold winter.

The Vice Grip

  • 2 oz vodka
  • Juice of 1 fresh orange
  • 0.25 oz orange habanero syrup*

Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into chilled glasses. Garnish with a habanero pepper and enjoy on a scorching summer day. 

*To make orange habanero syrup, combine 2 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, peel of 1 orange (try to avoid the pith) in a small saucepan and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add 1 chopped habanero pepper and simmer for another minute. Strain out the solids and store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. The pepper oil will separate to the surface so be sure to give the jar of syrup a shake before using it next.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses and tray.

Strawberry Season

I have a confession.

I don't like tequila. While it has grown on me tremendously since college, you won't find me sipping any on the rocks or volunteering to consume it in shot form. Maybe being Eastern European gives me a poor tequila tolerance to offset my excellent vodka tolerance?

That being said, a lot of other people find tequila enjoyable so I can't leave it out of my cocktail repertoire. It's good to stick with the ingredients you know you love but challenging yourself to move beyond your comfort zone can have surprisingly good consequences. This cocktail is one of those good consequences.

In the past, I've started with a traditional margarita recipe and tried adding egg whites. Why? I thought the foam created by egg whites could smooth out some of the bite of the tequila flavor and bring it down to a level I could find agreeable. The egg whites accomplished exactly what I was hoping for and so much more. 

I particularly enjoy this margarita variation when paired with another fruit flavor. Since strawberries are currently wonderfully ripe and abundant, they served as my fruit of choice. As an extra step, I spent a few hours infusing my tequila with a few bags of wild strawberry tea (steps: put tea bags into tequila -> taste until desired flavor is achieved -> take tea bags out of tequila). The bottle I had on hand was a cheap one but excellent for mixing, especially when given some extra flavor with an infusion. You can snag it for under $10 at Trader Joe's!

One final word of advice - having tested multiple ways of preparing strawberry cocktails, I highly recommend either boiling them to create a syrup or blending them if you prefer to have the fresh fruit. You simply can't get as much goodness out of them if you muddle and then strain. 

Strawberry Season

  • 1.5 oz strawberry tea infused tequila
  • 2-3 blended strawberries
  • 0.5 oz orange liqueur (I swear by this one)
  • 1 small lime
  • 1 egg white

Cut a slice out of the center of the lime and set aside for garnish. Juice the rest of the lime into a shaker and add all other ingredients. Shake without ice for 10-15 seconds, making sure to periodically release the pressure from the top of the shaker (pressure will build as the egg white starts to foam). Add ice and shake until chilled, then strain into a stemmed glass and garnish with a lime wheel. Enjoy outdoors with good company.

Photography by Belen Aquino, glassware by Gather Vintage Tablescapes