How to Read a Tiki Bar Menu Like a Bartender

Tiki drinks at Pepita Cantina. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Why is it suddenly tiki time? The fruity drinks, dating to the 1930s, are considered the final frontier of classic American cocktails for barkeeps, who have spent the last decade reimagining pre-Prohibition libations such as Manhattans. That’s not to say the tiki trend is a too-serious endeavor. “Tiki is the ultimate backswing,” says Owen Thomson of DC’s Archipelago. “Cocktails got really fancy, and bartenders got really snobby. But you don’t have to care about cocktails to like drinking out of a pineapple.”

Here are the tiki drink ingredients you’ll likely see:

Coco Lopez

Puerto Rico’s first piña coladas (circa 1954) are rumored to have been blended with this canned “cream of coco-nut,” and bartenders—even from-scratch devotees—have sworn by it since.

Crushed ice

The workhorse of any tiki bar. Pebble-size shards chill drinks quickly and have a higher dilution rate, which helps soften the blow of the potent concoctions.


Forget the electric-blue stuff. Dry curaçao—which boasts a pretty, golden hue—is a fragrant orange liqueur that adds floral notes.

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A Caribbean syrup redolent with baking spices, ginger, and lime. House-made versions are the new norm.


A misunderstood ingredient (thanks, Shirley Temple). Traditionally, it’s a dark—not bright—red pomegranate syrup.


A sweet, milky almond syrup with hints of orange or rose blossom—crucial to any mai tai.

Rhum agricole

This earthy, complex rum is a protected product of Martinique and, to bear the name, must be produced under specific conditions, with geographically specific sugar cane.


Light, amber, dark—you’re likely to find all three in a single tiki drink. It’s not all about amping up the booze: Different styles play off each other, creating nuanced flavor.

This article appears in our July 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.