Taste Of Tiki, Whiskey Cocktail Style

| July 30, 2021

The laid-back Polynesian vibes of tiki bars, which have gained a foothold since their 1950’s Hollywood launch, have helped many a person imbibe in style. But in terms of spirits, rum is the favored addition to tiki cocktails. Just look at Serious Eats’ Tiki 101: A Beginner’s Guide, which states, “You want to make great tiki drinks? First, start with rum. Not every tiki drink is rum-based; you’ll find recipes that call for gin, Scotch and other whiskies, pisco and other brandies, and tequila, just to name a few. But tiki is inspired by the tropics, and rum’s the winner in the tropics, so start with rum.” 

Even though rum is number one in terms of tiki, to help celebrate this summer season, we scoured the US for some tiki-inspired gems that use our go-to spirit, whisk(e)y. Read on for three winners, all tiki cocktails that let whiskey shine. 

First up, I chatted with Rico Wisner, the manager at Washington DC legend Tiki on 18th, who has over two decades of industry experience. Wisner shared that his favorite whiskey cocktail (which is also featured on the menu at Tiki on 18th) is the Port Light. It features bourbon, lemon juice, passion fruit, and grenadine. According to the bartending pro, these ingredients play together beautifully.

“Our house grenadine has a bit of cardamom which gives it an extra little pop of flavor. I really enjoy nerding out and looking into the history of where and who created these drinks,” Wisner explained. “This cocktail, like many tiki drinks, has a varied past. There are [two] variations. Trader Vic put one in his 1972 edition of his book as an original, but in 1961, Sandro Conti had his version on the menu at Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio. The version I go with is Conti’s.”  

Port Light cocktail

Port Light (image via Rico Wisner)

Port Light

  • 1.5 ounces Bourbon
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • .5 ounces passion fruit syrup
  • .5 ounces grenadine
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Blend with pebble ice in a spindle style drink mixer (or aggressive shaking works). Pour into a Collins glass and top with more ice. Garnish with a lemon, cherry, and mint sprig.

Up next, we journey to the Four Seasons Resort Maui, a fitting island stop on our whiskey + tiki journey. Resort sommelier Brendan O’Leary, who has been in the industry for over twenty years, with the property for six, and a sommelier for three years, shared his favorite tiki cocktail from the Lobby Lounge Menu, the Noa Noa.

“Noa Noa is a modern tropical cocktail crafted with the substitution of whiskey for rum as a base spirit which offers a similar flavor profile and added depth,” said O’Leary. “It’s meant to be sipped as you watch the sun slowly set below the horizon looking out at the beautiful Noa Noa, which means “Paradise” in Tahitian.”

Noa Noa

Noa Noa (image via Four Seasons Maui)

Noa Noa

  • 1.5oz Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
  • 0.5oz Yellow Chartreuse
  • 0.5oz Pandan-Infused Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • dash of Orange Bitters
  • dash of Angostura Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir. Pour over a large cube of ice in your desired glass, garnish with an orange peel, and enjoy!

A final Rocky Mountain stop rounds out our exploration of whiskey in tiki cocktails. Enter Denver’s Brass Tacks, which boasts the Turtles All the Way Down drink featuring Scotch whisky. The creator of this concoction is Stuart Jensen, the beverage director and one of the owners of Brass Tacks.  “The inspiration for the cocktail was a classic cocktail from Trader Vic called the “Tortuga” (Spanish for turtle – also the inspiration for the name of the cocktail which is a nod to the original Trader Vic drink and the name of a song by Sturgill Simpson that is frequently in my musical rotation)” shared Jensen.

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“It has a couple of different rums, sweet vermouth, and creme de cacao. We really wanted to accentuate the rich, sherry cask flavors of the Macallan 12 and Brugal 1888- cocoa, coffee, butterscotch, and ripe fruits-while adding some complementary tropical flavors. I think that the cocktail is successful because it really highlights and reinforces the base spirits.”

Turtles All The Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down (image via Hard Knock PR)

Turtles All the Way Down

  • 1 oz Macallan 12yr Whisky
  • .5 oz Brugal 1888 Rum
  • .5 oz Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
  • .5 oz Banana Liqueur (Tempus Fugit)
  • .25 oz Creme de Cacao (Tempus Fugit)
  • .25 oz Borghetti Espresso Liqueur
  • .25 oz Pedro Ximenez Sherry
  • 1.5 oz Pineapple Juice
  • .75 oz Lemon Juice
  • 1 bsp Demerara Syrup
  • 2 dash Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters

Combine ingredients, whip shake with pebble ice, serve in a chilled tiki glass and garnish with grated nutmeg, pineapple fronds, cherry, lemon wheel, umbrella and cocktail stirrer.

Though these three cocktails are each incredible in their own right, this is just the beginning in terms of tiki innovation featuring whiskey/whisky. The future is bright for creative mixologists who can think outside the traditional tiki box and embrace the tasty stylings of whiskey as a base spirit for tiki drinks. 


Katy Spratte Joyce

Katy is a freelance food, beverage, and travel journalist based in the Midwest. Besides The Whiskey Wash, she has written for The New York Times, Chilled Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Lonely Planet, Popular Science, and more. Her passions include drinking her way around the globe, thrifting, and spending time at...