Friday, March 16, 2012

Learning the secrets of tiki drinks at Tammy's Tastings

I recently had the extreme privileged of a complementary class at Tammy's Tasting, a monthly liquor tasting and cocktail crafting class. This is my story.

Rum. Rum was the first alcohol I got drunk on. It was the summer after my senior year in high school and my older cousin was in town. He had developed quite the taste for booze while he was in college. One warm August night, he procured a bottle of Captain Morgan's which we consumed mixed with Faygo Rock & Rye. Remembering the saccharine sweet taste still makes my enamel hurt. Entering college, rum (Captain Morgan's specifically) became my drink of choice. Not that I had much choice, but when we did find a senior to buy for us, it's what I would get. Rum was great, Captain Morgan's was better. Why? Because it had a pirate on it. By my sophomore year though, I'd abandoned rum; it was a kiddie drink for high schoolers and first years. I was sophisticated and drank great drinks like 5 O'Clock Vodka, nameless handles of whiskey and PBR. For me rum had fallen from grace.

I was excited when Tammy invited me to attend one of her cocktail crafting classes. Browsing the class listings, I hoped to find a class on whiskey, because well, whiskey is what real men drink. Unfortunately, I had missed the January Whiskey tasting, so instead I settled on tiki drinks. Tiki seems like something from a bygone era, and maybe it is. It conjures images of the new middle class throwing tiki themed cocktail parties, punch bowls and modern furniture.

The evening started off with a tasting of 5 rums. Did you know the language spoken in a rum's country of origin correlates with the process used to make that rum and thus the rum's character? I didn't.
We tasted Spanish (fermented from sugar - clear flavor), English (fermented from molasses - more caramel notes), and French (fermented from cane juice - more earthy, less rummy) rums. My favorite was the El Dorado 5 Year, an English rum from Guyana followed closely by La Favorite Vieux, a French rum from Martinique. The former was smooth and smokey, while the latter had a bouquet that was slightly sweet and reminiscent of apple cider vinegar. After our sampling or rums, it was time to move on to mixed drinks.

The first drink we mixed was the classic Mai Tai. Mai Tais were invented by Trader Vic, though his nemesis Don the Beachcomber also claims to have developed the drink. The cocktail was made to showcase a special limited run rum. Today Mai Tais, like many rum cocktails, call for two types of rum to approximate the flavor of Trader Vic's original. Each of the 6 tables at the tasting event made Mai Tais with different rum combinations which allowed all of us to see how the rums we had previously tasted mixed in cocktails. Brilliant. I thought my Mai Tai was the best, but pretty much everyone else disagreed. My table-mates were kind enough to let me finish off the remainder of Mai Tai.

Look it's @TeacherPatti and friends. meg.goes.nom.nom was also at Serious Tiki Drinks, you can read her account here.
After downing the Mai Tai, we moved to the Ancient Mariner which uses spicy allspice dram to add flavor described as both "Christmas-y" and "medicine-y" by participants. Personally, I liked the cocktail. But I have to confess, I accidentally used passion fruit syrup instead of grapefruit syrup, so it wasn't exactly a true Ancient Mariner. This brings me to a good point though. Tiki drinks are complicated. Most feature two or more rums, other liquors, liqueurs, exotic fruit juices and weird ingredients you can't buy in the US anymore (allspice dram, orgeat). This goes back to the birth of tiki culture and the battle between Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. The exotic juices added to the exoticism of the cocktails. The complex recipes and odd ingredients made it difficult for others to copy "proprietary" cocktail recipes.

As the evening progressed, my table-mates kept feeding me the lion's share of the leftover cocktails and my notes get a little sketchier. This I do remember clearly: my favorite cocktail was the Saturn, a gin based drink with citrus and passion fruit. It was refreshing and mighty tasty.

Bottom line: I had a great time at the class, both making cocktails and hanging out with the other students. The class size, about 20 or so was perfect for a lively atmosphere but also small enough to make sure nobody was neglected. I learned a great deal about rum, tiki culture and cocktail mixing and now feel confident in my ability to throw a tiki themed party. I think a class at Tammy's Tastings could be a great date night or a fun evening out on the town if you want to get a little more intimate with your cocktails. While the classes do run $35, you and I both know we've easily dropped that much on a night out drinking. Just saying.

Tammy Coxen offers a variety of food and drink related events in the Ann Arbor area including Tammy's Tastings at the Ravens Club on the second Monday of each month. There is a special repeat of Serious Tiki Drinks this coming Monday, March 19th. If you are interested in trying your hand at crafting tiki drinks, you can sign up here.


  1. Too much fun!

    You guys at Damn Arbor have all the fun in Ann Arbor. You gotta save some fun for the rest of us.

  2. It was so great to meet you in person, Ben! I hope you go again next month and we can hang with you! It's always a fun time and yes, I can easily spend $35 (or more) on a night out at the bar :)

    (PS: That's Boyfriend Ken and our friend Lester with me in the picture) :)

  3. Thanks for coming out! It was great to meet you. Maybe I'll see you at the Whiskey class in May?