Believe it or not, there was a time when the cocktail umbrella was a status symbol. In the 1930s, the tiki bar trend began spreading across the United States, infusing tropical tipples with movie-star glamour. Hollywood A-listers lounged under the palms at Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, sipping daiquiris and mai tais made from freshly squeezed juices and hand-spiced rum.
The cocktails retained their exotic cool for several decades, but by the 1970s, rum punches had become punch lines, ruined by bottled mixers and bargain-basement booze. No longer welcome at star-studded parties, zombies and Singapore slings were strictly for sloshed coeds on spring break.
But now, thanks to a new generation of retro-minded, rum-loving mixologists, the umbrella drink is finally getting another shot at respectability. And according to Frank Cisneros, beverage director at New York City's rum-centric bar Cienfuegos, taking the tacky out of tiki isn't complicated. "The best way to improve a rum cocktail is simply to use high-quality rum and fresh ingredients rather than mixes," he says.
Cisneros's sweet but sophisticated pina colada, for instance, forgoes slushy frozen premades in favor of fresh pineapple juice and coconut puree (he buys his from perfectpuree.com). To make his favorite, the mai tai, he uses both a high-end, richly flavored, aged rum and the more rustic blend known as rhum agricole. But even when blended with top-shelf ingredients, rum cocktails are meant to be fun, so Cisneros isn't above a bit of kitsch when it comes to presentation. "I'm happy to do an umbrella," he says, "as long as you're getting an excellent drink."
A Rum Primer
The first step to a better rum cocktail? Better rum. Below are Cisneros's picks.
White Rum is the most basic variety. Made from molasses, it is aged briefly and then filtered. Cisneros likes the sweet but clean-tasting Banks Five Island ($29 for 750 mL, banksrum.com).
Spiced Rum is rum infused with spices, such as cinnamon, allspice, and clove, and then aged. Cisneros recommends Sailor Jerry ($22 for 750 mL, sailorjerry.com), a version from the U.S. Virgin Islands that has notes of gingerbread.
Rhum Agricole, a rustic style made in the French West Indies from pressed sugar cane rather than molasses, has sweet, salty, and sour notes. Try Rhum JM Vieux V.S.O.P. ($55 for 750 mL, rhum-jm.com).
Dark Rum is inky black and tastes like boozy maple syrup. It's often mixed with ginger beer to make a dark and stormy. The best known is Gosling's Black Seal Bermuda 80 ($21 for 750 mL, goslingsrum.com).
Aged Rum can be sipped neat, like whisky. Often the numbers on the label indicate how many years the liquor has spent in oak barrels. Cisneros's choice: Zacapa Rum 23 ($45 for 750 mL, zacaparum.com).