Libby Winters’s passion for wine and spirits makes her an alluring instructor. She not only knows how to charm your pants off (from years of experience in bartending), but has an encyclopedic knowledge of the cultural history of cocktails that seamlessly drops from her mouth as she shakes and stirs.
This is why you should take her Tiki drinks class. Tiki drinks have a terrible reputation, but, when made properly, are sophisticated and refreshing. They’re related to sours and sippers, which you’ve probably had before (think daiquiri or a Collins fizz). We asked Libby to demystify our assumptions of tiny umbrellas and ceramic heads and skewered pineapples.
Can you give a brief history of tiki?
Tiki bars and tiki drinks rose in popularity in the 40s and 50s, especially in post WWII America when their escapist ambience offered people a break from the stresses of their daily lives. As Tiki culture grew in popularity and spread across the country, recipes were eventually dumbed down, sugary mixes were employed in the place of fresh juices, and the drinks became syrupy colorful concoctions that bore little resemblance to their sophisticated precursor — all in the name of mass production and efficiency. However, with the recent explosion of craft cocktail bars, tiki drinks are popping up on cocktail menus in their original, more nuanced and complex form.
Tiki drinks have a bad rap, what gives?
A proper tiki drink is a cocktail with layered flavors composed of a spirit, fruit (often citrus), spices and some kind of flavored simple syrup or sweetener. But the rules are pretty fast and loose. “Tiki” culture was invented in America by Don the Beachcomber in the 1930s when he mixed ingredients and flavors inspired by his travels in the Caribbean and South Pacific, and served them in a bar decorated accordingly. Tiki culture is Polynesian-themed drinks and food viewed through an American lens. But it’s not specifically Polynesian or Caribbean, and doesn’t even really require rum. Basically, if you have a cocktail that calls to mind the feeling of being on a beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze … you’ve made yourself a tiki drink. There are purists who will argue that to be called a “tiki drink,” the cocktail must have been invented in a tiki bar, designed to create a tropical atmosphere. We won’t worry about that in our class and will focus on making complex, layered cocktails.
What are five tiki essentials for your home bar?
1. Rum! This is the backbone of any at-home tiki bar. It’s a good idea to have a solid white rum and a darker rum on hand for adding depth to your cocktails. We can go over particular brands that you might like and can find easily in NYC.
2. A citrus squeezer. Because you’re going to have to make fresh lime juice. Part of the reason tiki drinks get a bad rap in the first place is that people are too lazy to use fresh fruit juices. Fresh citrus will take your cocktails to the next level. You turn your nose down at sour mix from here on out.
3. Demerrara sugar. This will be used to make a brown simple syrup which has more texture and depth of flavor than regular simple syrup.
4. Fresh fruit. Don’t know what cocktail you should make? Take a look in your fruit bowl and start there. Add some booze, a squeeze of lime, a splash of simple syrup, ice and shake. Boom. You just invented a tiki cocktail.
5. Angostura bitters. It’s true that with all that fruit and sugar, tiki cocktails risk skewing sweet. An easy fix to add complexity, herbaciousness and texture is a few dashes of Angostura bitters.
6. I know you asked for five, but if you want to get fancy and really add some flair to your cocktails and punches, get a Microplane to add fresh ground nutmeg or lemon zest as garnish to your drinks. It’s super easy and goes a long way in taking your drinks to the next level.
Why Take a Cocktail Class?
Have you ever ordered your favorite cocktail at a new bar and had it taste not quite right? Or wanted a cocktail that tasted spicy or herbal or super dry or floral but been too shy to describe what you want to the bartender? Most drinkers know what they like, but aren’t always able to articulate what they want, or don’t feel comfortable engaging in a dialogue with whoever is making their drinks. Cocktail classes are a great way to get to know the ingredients and techniques that best suit your personal taste so that you can feel confident ordering at a bar or making your own drinks at home. Drinking, much like eating, is one of life’s pleasures, so don’t skip right to getting drunk — learn to savor end enjoy the history and complexity of whatever it is you choose to imbibe.
What’s your favorite story about a cocktail?
Whenever people tell me they don’t like tiki drinks because they’re too sweet, I like to make them a Hemingway Daiquiri and tell the story about how Ernest Hemingway drank these because he was diabetic and needed something not too sweet. He was also known to drink six of these in each sitting which I don’t recommend.
If Libby could only drink one cocktail for the rest of her life, it would be a daiquiri. She writes about wine and cocktails for the blog Sipsters and currently bartends at Anfora and dell’anima, where she has several cocktails on both menus.
You can take her Sours and Sippers (aka Tiki Drinks) cocktail class on Friday, April 28.