Georgi Radev: taking tropical cocktails beyond tiki

The co-founder of Islington’s Laki Kane discusses the infinite possibilities of rum and offers an alternative to some of the embarrassing and culturally uncomfortable (but always delicious) aspects of tiki cocktails

Food and Drink 26 Apr 2023

Georgi Radev straining a cocktail
Radev presents a refreshing cocktail
Radev uses the full range of Ron Santiago de Cuba rums, which are suited to different classic cocktails
Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo 11 Años

For those who don’t know, what is the history of tiki?

Well, the first tiki bars were opened in 1930s California, first Don’s Beachcomber, then Trader Vic’s. But it goes back a lot further… the punch that originated in 17th-century Indonesia and India, with arrack as the base, is not separate from the Planter’s Punch and so on people know from the Caribbean. The connection is England – taking the idea from Asia and making it almost a national drink back home. The milk punch was an English invention – because before punch, most cocktails had milk and egg in them – just as they added milk to tea. The English took punch to the Caribbean and to America. After independence, American bartenders did what Americans do and started playing with the recipes. By the time Jerry Thomas published the first cocktail book in 1862, it starts with 59 punch recipes before we even go to any other cocktail – but they were classic recipes, not particularly tropical – and up until Prohibition, rum from the Caribbean was a major ingredient. After Prohibition, Don the Beachcomber had the idea of reviving those rum punches and combining it with the fashion for Hawaii, which was regarded as a tropical paradise – and so tiki bars, tiki culture.

Cocktail drinkers have had a strange, if not strained, relationship with tiki over the decades. It can be regarded as only for holidays, a guilty pleasure, or even just rejected as plain naff. Where do we stand at the moment?

When tiki started, it was about the way the drinks tasted, not just about the way they look. It was when it slowly moved towards disco drinks with lots of juices and syrups, that’s when tiki drinks got a bad name. I am actually working on an idea that is a new interpretation of tiki, using the exciting flavours but making the drinks more spirit-forward, in line with modern tastes for drinks like negronis and Manhattans. I call it tropical speakeasy.

Not “tikeasy” then?

Here at Laki Kane, what we do is broader than tiki – it’s tropical escape. I try to include lots of different cultures which influence the flavours and ingredients of these drinks. Tiki culture is supposed to be Polynesian, but the décor and drinks are influenced by Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. So our tables are themed – Bali, Thailand, etc etc. And we use all sorts of spirits from these regions – tequila, mezcal, pisco as well as rum. Anyway, actually it’s wrong to use the term “tiki” – it’s a part of Polynesian religion, so it’s cultural appropriation, really – but of course no one thought about that in the 1930s! It’s the equivalent of a bar culture based around drinking wine out of cups shaped like Jesus.

You mentioned agave and grape spirits… is rum not as central to your tropical style then?

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I use a lot of rum. In fact, the first place that pushed spirit-forward rum drinks was Cuba. Before the 1920s, cocktails in the Caribbean were always a twist on rum punch. When Prohibition hit the US, Americans went to Cuba to drink freely. And they created a demand for bars. A lot of European and American bartenders want to live in Cuba and open bars there. Places like La Bodeguita, El Floridita, the Hotel Nacional hotel, Sloppy Joe’s, were opened by great bartenders, and these great bartenders, what did they have? They had the recipes of the classic drinks – Manhattans, mint juleps, sours. And what did they do? Adapt them to the spirit they had to hand – rum. El Presidente is basically a twist on a Manhattan. And a mojito was a mint julep with rum and a splash of soda because it’s hot in the Caribbean, so it was made a longer drink. That was actually the birth of the concept of tropical speakeasy, which I’m trying to take forward.

So what sort of thing are you experimenting with in your new tropical speakeasy style?

What it means is that I can take classic tiki recipes or even the sillier ones and make them more at home in a London bar. Take a Miami Vice, for example. Named after the TV show, it’s a real guilty pleasure drink… you basically are pouring from two blenders – one with frozen strawberry daiquiri, the other with piña colada – into the same glass, so one side is red, the other white, before you swirl it to make a pink hurricane effect. What I did was heat coconut milk with oolong tea till it curdles, add strawberry syrup and pineapple coconut rum and let that marinate for a couple of hours, then clarify it through a coffee filter so you’re left with a lovely clear pink drink. I then served that with an ice block, with the top dipped in coconut butter so it solidifies. And there’s the white element to the visual. So that’s taken a fun beach drink and made it work in a city bar setting, but refining those bold flavours.

What’s unusual about tropical drinks is that bartenders often combine different styles of rum in one cocktail. Why is that?

Rum is the only spirit you can play around with to that extent… even Jerry Thomas’s recipes in the middle of the 19th century specified what combination of two or three rums to use. Don the Beachcomber didn’t call his drinks cocktails; he called them “rum rhapsodies” – many of his recipes had similar ingredients, but tasted different by manipulating ratios of different rums. For example, a light, nutty Puerto Rican rum vs a light Cuban rum that has more grassy notes. Or a full-flavoured fruity Jamaican rum vs the funky, high-ester notes of a rhum agricole from Martinique.

And do you find different uses for different rums even from one brand?

I use a lot of Ron Santiago de Cuba. When it comes to their aged rums, the Añejo 8 Years Old is perfect for cocktails, because the fruity notes have developed in wood. There is a hint of passion fruit and green pineapple, then also cacao and vanilla. In the Extra Añejo 11 Years Old, those fruit notes have turned into pineapple jam, and there are raisin notes, so I use that in a rum milk punch, where I combine it with a cane rum, vermouth, chocolate wine and sarsaparilla, infused overnight and clarified. The Extra Añejo 12 Years Old is delicious, more of a sipping rum – a lot more wood-influenced.

Do you use an aged rum instead of white rum in things like daiquiris or mojitos to add a touch of luxury?

White rum in general is underrated, but especially Santiago de Cuba’s Carta Blanca, because it’s not unaged rum. Cuban rum has a particular character because of history… after 1959, because of the revolution and US sanctions, they could no longer buy ex-bourbon barrels to age rum. So they have to reuse older barrels. They are able to get hold of some casks from Scotland or Ireland, and the rum ages in those younger barrels for a minimum of two years, before new distillate is added for a secondary ageing in older barrels – and it’s only then that the clock starts on the age. So, on top of that, Santiago de Cuba Carta Blanca is a three-year-old rum which has had colour filtered out. So it still has fresh, grassy notes, but is silky too, with butterscotch and tropical fruit notes.  But if you want to use an aged rum in a daiquiri, go ahead… the sugar and lime elevate the rum. A daiquiri is the benchmark of quality for rum – and if a brand’s white rum is good, then its aged rum will be good. And vice versa.