First Reads: Minimalist Tiki from the Cocktail Wonk

By B.E. Mintz |

Full Disclosure: Matt Pietrek and Carrie Smith, the authors of Minimalist Tiki, are my friends. So, when Matt asked me to write about their new, self published book, I was a little concerned. When Matt invited me out for cocktails so he could personally walk me through Minimalist Tiki, my journalistic ethics radar went really started beeping. There were more red flags here than Moscow on May Day; I felt the earth tremble as Ben Bradlee spun in his grave.

Fortunately, the gods (in this case: Kū, Kāne, Lono, and Kanaloa) granted me a subtle salvation. After a second, solitary reading of Minimalist Tiki, I discovered that the book is–well, excellent. Sincerely impressed with the work, I decided to write about it.

Despite the Donald Judd sounding title, there is little minimalist about the actual volume. Weighing in at nearly 300 large, glossy pages, Minimalist Tiki is a formidable work. The pages within are Tetris puzzles of informational blocks. Pietrek, known for his Cocktail Wonk blog, is well regarded within the rum community for his extensive research into spirits and drinks. The book represents his attempt to pack years of digital work into pulp and print—at times, it feels overwhelming.

However, the core concept is simple. Tiki can be complicated, too complicated for home bars or even some craft spots. Obscure syrups, liqueurs, and cordials are required and even stocking the right rums can be a challenge. But, it doesn’t need to be this way! Pietrek and Smith attempt to demystify the genre by first codifying and then simplifying tiki.

The first three sections, roughly half of the volume, are dedicated to developing a taxonomy of tiki, creating a user-manual in the process. Here. the Cocktail Wonk’s background in tech is apparent via his methodical approach to the task. 

In the first section, the writers identify the most popular tiki drinks and chart their specs. Then, they spotlight common denominators in ingredients, gear, and garnishes. The section concludes with a dive into details and recommendations for the basics. In the second section, the duo dig deeper, exploring topics like making syrups and some of those flashy camera-ready garnishes. The writing stays structured and technical–yet accessible– stylistically evocative of Kenji López-Alt.

In the following portion, the experts attempt to apply the same formula to rums. First, we get an in-depth explanation of distillation. Stuff like this is really Pietrek’s forté, literally wonky. The casual reader might be disinterested in this material and the expert already informed. The info is laid out in an ordered fashion perfect for the cane-curious in between these categories.

With this knowledge in hand, the writers attempt to create hierarchies for rum, no easy task. Should the spirit be broken down by color? Nation? Colonizing power? MT addresses each of these options and more before offering their own system. Of course, creating a comprehensive categorization system for rum is basically a Sisyphean task; still, Smith and Pietrek manage to leave their own respectable mark on the debate before that rock rolls down the hill.

With that hot potato behind us, the writers move on to the friendlier pastures of recipes in the book’s second half. Here, we are treated to more typical fare. Dozens of bartenders and venues receive two page spreads comprised of a short profile and a big pic. The following pages feature some recipes from the person or establishment. Honestly, this section could have been it’s own book, but I respect the writers’ desire to provide projects after building a toolkit in the early pages.

Of note, these recipes are (mostly) designed to work with the Wonk system outlined earlier in the book. So, the specs are all relatively easy to execute even in a home bar. More significantly, the recipes are unique. (Check out three recipes from the book below.)

The authors understand that most readers already own a copy of Potions of the Caribbean. Their goal is to bring us new, simple drinks not to repackage the Donn the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s classics. (Being a completist, Pietrek still can’t help but include a final, unillustrated appendix of 30 classic recipes and a nice nod to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. Yet, this  collection feels tacked-on like an afterthought.) For the most part, the recipe section does a good job at spotlighting the vibrant tiki and proto-tiki scenes that emerged in the 21st century.

The volume concludes with an insanely detailed index that allows reference by ingredient, drink name, or ol’ fashioned topic. The minutiae in this parting blow provides an apt metaphor for the work.

Sure, there are the requisite photos of drinks with flames and dry ice, but Minimalist Tiki is about information, parsing as much data as possible in the simplest fashion possible. MT can be read cover to cover, but it covers so much. The final product from Pietrek and Smith is like Larousse Gastronomique for tiki. Chances are readers will be using that index often. However, perusing that index will be a labor of love just as writing Minimalist Tiki was clearly a labor of love for the Wonks.

You can pick up copies of Minimalist Tiki here..

Angostura Colada

The Angostura Colada is the creation of Zac Overman from L’Oursin in Seattle, WA. Think of it as a Trinidad Sour meets a Pina Colada. Or just think of it as delicious.

Print Recipe
Angostura Colada
Servings
Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Build ingredients in shaker.
  2. Shake with crushed ice, pour into a snifter glass. Fill with fresh crushed ice.
  3. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg, an orange slice, and pineapple fronds.

Commando Grog

Commando Grog is the creation of Jason Alexander of Devil’s Reed in Tacoma, Washington. The drink offers lots of baking spice-leaning tiki flavors and packs a punch with an ounce and a half of O.F.T.D. in the mix, it packs a punch.

Print Recipe
Commando Grog
Servings
Servings
Instructions
  1. Build ingredients in shaker.
  2. Flash blend or shake with crushed ice, pour into a large snifter. Fill with fresh crushed ice.
  3. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Passion Grove Swizzle

The PSG is an original from Pietrek himself, dispelling the notion that writers can’t make drinks.

Print Recipe
Passion Grove Swizzle
Servings
Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Build ingredients in a tall cooler glass. Fill nearly full with fresh crushed ice.
  2. Swizzle vigorously with a swizzle stick or bar spoon. Top up with more crushed ice.
  3. Garnish with a pineapple frond and an orchid.
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