There I was, perusing the cocktail menu at Key West’s The Other Side cocktail bar, thinking I might be in the wrong town. There was the Blue Blazer, a cocktail circa 1862 with 16 year-old Glenlivet Nadurra scotch, simple syrup, hot water and “fire.”
“The Royal Daiquiri” was a mix of Black Tot rum, lime and sugar. At $200, it contained some of what Black Tot claims is the last remaining stock of the original British Royal Navy rum reserves.
I have mostly come to expect the same standard, subpar fare in tropical destinations. While on a trip to Hawaii pretty recently, just about every hotel in Waikiki had a Mai Tai on the menu, but when I asked a server at one of them if they used fresh juices, they said no, even in a place with abundant resources.
I had to go off the tourist track to Honolulu’s delightfully tiki-kitschy La Mariana Sailing Club, which opened in 1957, for a Mai Tai that didn’t give me a headache just by smelling it.
Though several iconic classic cocktails were inspired by tropical destinations (like the Mai Tai, which was created by legendary barman “Trader Vic” Bergeron in San Francisco and inspired by the South Pacific), they have largely failed to be embraced and made in the places by which they were inspired.
“The reason why most tropical vacation resorts don’t serve well-crafted drinks with fresh ingredients and premium liquor is simple: they don’t have to,” explains Jeff “the Beachbum” Berry, a tiki historian, author of Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean, and owner of Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans. “People on vacation in ‘paradise’ will book a stay if the hotel bar is good or bad. They’re not there for craft cocktails; they’re there for the sun, sea and sand. Most tourists don’t know the difference anyway, so why spend the time and money doing craft cocktails at your high-volume poolside bar?”
Part of the reason is that “you need a demanding clientele, top flight ingredients and top flight bartending talent, and you’re at the end of a long supply chain,” Wondrich tells me, but also because the whole “tropical drink thing we know it” is kind of a sham.
Mainland Americans invented our favorite tiki drinks we credit to the tropics and in tropical destinations, with the exception of Cuba, these drinks are meant to cater to tourists. Still, I wonder why the islands and beach resorts didn’t ever “own” and hone them?
In the 1940s, during World War II and shortly afterward, famous bartenders like Vic Bergeron and Don the Beachcomber in the Bay Area were creating romanticized versions via the form of drinks, of the tropical places where soldiers were stationed.
The cocktails they popularized—like the Zombie, Planter’s Punch, and Daiquiri—were not what the locals were actually drinking, but what mainland cocktail creators thought they should be.
By the 1970s, “when recreational drinking was killed off by recreational drugs,” Berry says, these “old school cocktails were square, how your parents got high. Also, the growth of processed premixes in bottles and cans happened around then too.”
Enter fake red, sugary daiquiris and canned pineapple juice coladas. Even the luxury Raffles Singapore Hotel now pours its famous Singapore Sling from a soda gun (Wondrich says the Raffles’ story that one of their barmen created the drink in 1915 is a marketing myth).
To get a good drink in a tropical destination, you’ll need to drink what the locals drink. That is, something simple and fresh.
“If you go out drinking with your bartender from the resort, he or she will be drinking rum and coconut water,” Wondrich says. “It’s delicious. That’s the real drink of the tropics.”
Hence my surprise when I showed up in Key West, home to party central on Duval Street, and found cocktails worth drinking any time, any place, beach or not. Some destinations like Key West are experiencing a turning point for tipples because more sophisticated customers are coming from big American cities with big city expectations, says Karim Lakhani, executive vice president for food and beverage for Northwood Hospitality.
The company owns and operates several Florida resorts, including the Marker in Key West, which I visited with my mother when it opened last month and where I imbibed at The Other Side. They’re “owning” the original drinks meant to represent their piece of paradise.
Putting together the drinks menu for The Marker required striking a balance between using fresh, local ingredients and classic techniques, and incorporating the local vibe. “We needed to do some research locally, and see what flavors would work and use them,” Lakhani says. “I never want to be cutting edge, but I want to be leading edge.”
That’s why on the menu there is the crowd-pleasing “Conch Cosmo” of Ketel One Citron vodka, Cointreau, fresh lime and cranberry juices and simple syrup—alongside the traditional Hemingway Daiquiri with Key West Legal Rum, maraschino liquor, grapefruit, fresh lime and simple syrup (author Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote for a time on Key West).
The daiquiri was superb—I drank it poolside and was even able to woo my mother away from her usual frozen piña colada. Consider the ante upped.
If you find yourself in a tropical place, create the demand for a well-crafted drink by asking for one. As Wondrich suggests, stay away from the ones with the cutesy names (sorry, Bahama Mama lovers). Those hotels, bars, and restaurants that can and will make good, simple and fresh drinks will surely win your sun-kissed heart. And those that don’t, well, there’s always beer.
Classic, fresh tropical drinks you can make at home
Courtesy of Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean:
2 ounces white Cuban-style rum (I use Caña Brava)¾ ounce fresh lime juiceRounded teaspoon of sugar
In the bottom of your cocktail shaker, dissolve sugar in lime juice. Add rum, fill with ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail coupe.
Level tablespoon of sugar1 ounce fresh lime juice1½ ounce black tea or orange pekoe tea, chilled2 ounces dark Jamaican rum
Dissolve sugar in lime juice at bottom of a tall glass. Add tea and rum, fill with crushed ice and swizzle. The ice will settle after swizzling, so add more to fill.
Juice of one lime (a full ounce works best)½ ounce orange curaçao½ ounce orgeat syrup2 ounces aged Jamaican rum
Shake well with plenty of crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a double Old Fashioned glass. Sink your spent lime shell into drink. Garnish with a mint sprig.