Ahhh tiki cocktails … those sunset-colored vacations in a glass. When done right, they warm your taste buds with exotic spices and unexpected flavors. When done wrong, they coat your tongue with sugary dreck and your head with one mother of a hangover the next morning. Fortunately, in Asheville, there are plenty of places making “boat drinks” (to quote Jimmy Buffet) just right.
Although these days it’s possible (but not recommended) to buy premade pina coloda and splash in some some rum, there was a time when the recipes for tiki drinks were as closely guarded as the route to secret treasures buried at the bases of ancient volcanoes. America’s tiki craze was started by a man named Earnest Raymond Gantt, who went by the tropical monicker Don the Beachcomber, which was also the name of the bar he opened in Los Angeles in the early 1930s. Don came up with about 70 different tiki drinks made with fresh juices, spices and rum, and wrote his recipes in code so that no one could steal them. Thanks to tiki cocktail hunter and one-time Asheville resident Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, however, many of Don’s recipes were rescued and decoded and now form the basis of a new wave of tiki drinks that fights the syrupy stereotype the concoctions earned in tacky bars throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
When it opened in early 2008, the Asheville Yacht Club was a pioneer of the tiki scene in Asheville and, in fact, Berry himself paid the fledging bar a visit. Today, the punk-meets-Polynesia venue is still going strong — and making crazy strong tiki drinks. According to bartender James Browne, the Painkiller is the No. 1 choice of patrons. “We sell thousands of them,” he said. Made from a potent blend of rums mixed with pineapple and orange juices and topped with a flaming sugar cube, it’s definitely the cure for what ails you. After two, you will certainly feel as if you’ve left the mountains behind and landed in a ragtag pirate bar on a forgotten island. The Zombie, another tiki classic, consists of a blend of blackberry and apricot brandies, two types of rum and a float of dark rum. It’s a surprisingly nutty, deep drink that helped dissolve the muscles I’d been bunching to stay warm throughout our frigid winter. If those two options sound too sweet for you, I recommend the Sailor’s Grog, which veers into more sour, zingy waters with its grapefruit and lime juices.
While the Yacht Club is clearly Asheville’s port of call for traditional tiki drinks, other venues in town are taking the tried-and-true tropical recipes and putting their own unique spins on them. At the Imperial Life Lounge, every Tuesday is Tiki Tuesday with a range of creative tropical drinks on offer for just $5 each. Whereas the heart of most tiki drinks is rum, Imperial Life offers two cocktails that involve clear spirits: the Tabu, which adds vodka to rum, pineapple and lemon; and the Singapore Sling, which mixes gin with cherry brandy, Benedictine, pineapple, lemon, grenadine and bitters.
Unlike the supersugary version of the Sling that I’ve had in the alleged home of its invention — the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel in Singapore — this version was light and floral, like drinking a hibiscus flower. Part of the reason might be, according to bartender Russell Knighten, the bar makes its own grenadine from pomegranates. Another standout was the Planter’s Punch, which emerged as a complex remake of the typically juice-laden drink thanks in large part to the house-made falernum, a syrup consisting of lime zest, almonds, clove, ginger and possibly a blessing from the tiki gods themselves.
The final harbor I explored on my search to find colorful warming drinks in the middle of the cold, gray winter was Ben’s Tune Up. The bartenders there just revamped their drink menu at the end of January to include plenty of fresh takes on the tiki tradition. The Bermuda Triangle teases your tongue with two types of warmth: first from the fresh ginger beer and then from jalapeños, both of which play tasty tricks when mixed with Goslings and lime.
The Ninja Kick takes bourbon on vacation by shaking it up with fresh ginger purée, lime and island spices, while the Paloma De Ben invites tequila to the party, mixes it with grapefruit and serves it in a glass ringed with Szechuan peppercorns and salt. Never a place to take itself seriously, the mother of all tiki drinks at Ben’s is the Zombie for Two, a drink served in a “flaming love boat.” It takes the traditional Zombie in a decidedly Asian direction thanks to the lychee sake that’s mixed with Bacardi 151 and fresh-squeezed juices. It’s the perfect tiki tipple to drink with a friend before you sail off into a night where banjos might just sound like ukuleles and magnolia trees might resemble palms swaying in a tropical breeze. Aloha!
Asheville Yacht Club, 87 Patton Ave. Open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. ashevilleyachtclub.com
The Imperial Life, 48 College St. Open 4:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Sunday-Thursday and 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. 254-8980
Ben’s Tune Up, 195 Hilliard Ave. Open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. benstuneup.com