Tropical Cocktails: Vacation in a Glass

In our world we know that one sip of a cocktail can evoke memories, transport you to a time or place and just well, make ya happy! In the case of tropical cocktails,  a single sip of a tropical tipple can whisk you straight to a sun-drenched island and make you believe there’s sand under your toes and waves gently crashing on the shore .

A vacation in a glass–does it get any better? We’ve pulled together a few of our favorite tropical cocktail recipes and included a little of the history behind them, because all great vacations should have some stories  (these drinks sure do)!

 

Why not just call Tropical Cocktails Tiki?

The Abridged Version

Trad'r Sam sign...a historical spot for tropical drinks

Much like vacations, the Tiki movement was created as an escape from the humdrum day to day: Prohibition had finally ended and we were pulling ourselves out of the Great Depression.

Tiki cocktails were meant to be vacations in a glass and the bars themselves were built to transport you to another time and place. Places like Don’s Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, Trad’R Sam’s (established in 1937), and the more modern Smuggler’s Cove, Three Dots and a Dash, and Fuchsia (which you might remember from our Hudson Valley guide) sprang out of a purely American movement that began in the 1930s.

Tiki culture, tiki cocktails, and tiki bars take inspiration from just about every exotic, tropical, island nation (primarily Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian cultures) under the sun and blend it together in what has been referred to as “Polynesian Pop.” And, while the flavors, spirits, and ambiance of far off places can be used for inspiration, using religious totems and certain depictions of cultures is problematic.

We try to do our best always to give credit where credit is due and respect the cultures of the cocktails we feature, and that is just what we’re going to do with these tropical libations!

Daiquiri

Let’s begin our island voyage with the OG of tropical tipples, the recipe from which countless classics have sprung: the Daiquiri. The first ever recorded recipe is signed by one Jennings Cox, 1896 in Cuba.

Legend has it that while trying to mix a punch for his guests, Cox ran out of gin and subbed in rum, thus inventing an instant classic. We’d like to point out that simply because the gentleman wrote it down, does not mean he invented this delightful drink.

Rum, citrus, sugar, and water had long been mixed together on sailing vessels as the water onboard wasn’t safe to consume and the citrus prevented scurvy (this beverage was known as “grog“). 

Tropical cocktail, Tom Khacktail on a beach background

The Daiquiri is also strikingly similar to another Cuban classic, the Mojito, as well as Martinique’s Ti’Punch and Brazil’s Caipirinha. Mixing lime, sugar, and rum together makes sense! The Daiquiri made it’s way to the U.S. in the early 1900s, where it was rather popular in Washington D.C. at the Army & Navy club, a few years later Emilio “El Maragato” Gonzalez of Havana’s Hotel Plaza perfected the tipple by serving it up and on the drier side, but this tropical cocktail really hit its stride at La Floridita Bar in Havana in the 1920s to the tune of shaved ice and an electric blender. The blended bevvy was so fantastic that Ernest Hemmingway downed 15 in a sitting (we do not recommend attempting this).

Want a twist on a Daiquiri with a little heat and a lot of layers? Try our Thai inspired Tom Khacktail shown here! 

Mai Tai

Another tropical cocktail with a contested history, both Trader Vic (Victor Jules Bergeron) and Donn Beach (Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt)  lay claim to the Mai Tai.

Mai Tai tropical cocktail with mint and crushed ice

According to Vic, in 1944 he crafted this jazzed up Daiquiri riff for a few friends visiting from Tahiti and when they tasted it they exclaimed “Maita’i roa a’e” meaning “out of this world, the best!” and anybody who says he didn’t create this Tiki drink is “a dirty rotten stinker.” The “stinker” in question happened to be Donn Beach, who alleged that Vic stole his cocktail recipe. The Mai Tai origin story was so hotly contested that it actually went to court, causing Vic to have to reveal his recipe and subsequently publish a seven page release on the tropical cocktail. He ultimately won the case and the right to say the Mai Tai was indeed invented by Trader Vic. Talk about shaking things up!

Fun Fact: this tropical cocktail was so popular in the 1950s that it caused a rum shortage!

If you’re looking for all the flavors of a Mai Tai and none of the booze, look no further than my Nautical Nonsense

Painkiller

Another tropical cocktail with a contested history, both Trader Vic (Victor Jules Bergeron) and Donn Beach (Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt)  lay claim to the Mai Tai.

painkiller cocktail - our founder's favorite tropical cocktail

The Painkiller cocktail was originally concocted by Daphne Henderson at the Soggy Dollar bar in the British Virgin Islands circa 1971, it was so amazing that Pusser’s slapped a trademark on it in the 1980’s! Own a bar and want a Painkiller on your menu? You’d better be making that libation with Pusser’s lest you get sued. It’s not an empty threat btw, Pusser’s actually forced an NYC bar to change its name and menu.  

The Painkiller is a direct relative of my favorite vacation in a glass: The Piña Colada! Meaning “strained pineapple” this penultimate tropical cocktail was crafted in 1954 by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero at the Caribe Hilton.

It was declared the official drink of Puerto Rico in 1978!

A Taste of the Tropics

tropical cocktails at Trad'r Sam

Now that we’ve set sail on this tropical adventure, there’s no going back! Seriously, once the weather heats up all I dream of is bright citrus and coconut cream laced with rich and delicious rum. I can hear the waves in the distance over the gentle whir of my blender (ok, fine I’m still in NYC and it’s 90 degrees but a gal can dream).

Each of these tropical cocktail recipes is fantastic and, best of all, they are all easy to execute!  Round up your crew and raise those glasses: vacations in a glass and tropical cocktails for all!  Go forth and find your oasis, even if it happens to be an umbrella cocktail in a kiddie pool.

 

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