Let the master of obscure syrups, sticky citrus and rare rums take you to a faraway island.
Every Thursday, Brian Matulis, the bar manager at Timber & Salt in Redwood City, offers his customers a “vacation in a glass.” For one night a week, on “Tiki Thursday,” Matulis serves cocktails of his choosing from the broad category of tiki; a genre of drinks that holds no strict definition, but that he describes as classic cocktail meets “beach drink.”
These tiki cocktails — based mostly on rum and citrus, and often inspired by the Polynesian, South Pacific and Caribbean islands — are an escapist antidote to the Bay Area’s current stay-at-home orders, and a reprieve from most of the cocktails that Matulis’ customers are likely to mix for themselves while bars are closed.
“If you want to make a Manhattan, you’ve probably got a bottle of bourbon and vermouth,” Matulis said, adding that tiki cocktails are, “the stuff that people aren’t gonna make at home,” like the Port-au-Prince. It’s a drink made with rum from its namesake (the Haitian capital), falernum, pineapple and lime juices, grenadine and bitters.
So while Timber & Salt’s patrons remain stuck at home, Matulis continues his tradition of serving weekly tiki specials for takeout and delivery to customers who have few other ways to get their tiki fix on the Peninsula.
Bay Area island
Tiki has a long history in the Bay Area. The mai tai — perhaps the most well-known of all tiki cocktails — is said to have originated in 1944 at Trader Vic’s, an Oakland bar that has since relocated to Emeryville and spawned a number of locations worldwide. In the years since then, though other tiki bars have popped up across the region, drinkers on the Peninsula have been out of luck if they want to get their hands on tiki, relegated to commuting to San Francisco, Oakland or Emeryville for a taste of some.
So why are there so few options for tiki on the Peninsula? Matulis chalks it up to a lack of knowledge on the subject, and to the fact that tiki cocktails require a lot of effort. “And it can be sticky,” Matulis said with a laugh when asked. “It’s not a sexy bartender job.”
The stickiness doesn’t seem to bother Matulis (who loves tiki) and Tiki Thursday is, in some ways, a reflection of his own tastes. “When we go to the city…if I can get to Smuggler’s Cove, that’s usually super exciting for me,” he said, referring to the award-winning San Francisco tiki bar, bemoaning, “There’s no tiki down here.”
So, in 2018, Matulis dreamed up Tiki Thursday at Timber & Salt as a way to bring tiki to the Peninsula and to do something fun on one of the bar’s quieter nights. “Thursday was our slowest night that we had two bartenders here,” he said, leaving the staff more time and an extra set of hands to engage in side projects.
Those extra hands come in handy because, “tiki can be labor intensive,” according to Matulis, due to the sheer number of ingredients, or the way the cocktails are made. Don’s Own Grog, for example, is a drink comprising three types of rum, Combier Crème de Mûre blackberry liqueur, lime juice, Demerara syrup and bitters, served over ice that bartenders have to crush to order with a mallet and a Lewis bag (a canvas sack that holds larger cubes of ice together so the mallet can get the job done).
Beyond keeping his bartenders busy, Matulis also wanted to offer a change of scenery for his regulars, many of whom have drunk their way through the entire list of house cocktails over the course of their visits. “Immediately, we built a Thursday crew,” Matulis said when asked how customers first responded to Tiki Thursday. “People get excited,” he said, noting that, like Pavlov’s conditioned dogs, when Thursday comes around, his customers are quick to ask about what the night’s offering is. “I get phone calls, like, ‘Hey, what’s the tiki tonight?’”
Tinkering with tiki
Matulis often adapts the tiki cocktails he serves, imbuing a bit of Timber & Salt’s overarching spirit-forward craft cocktail philosophy. “We’ll pretty much always tinker a little bit,” he said, describing how the bar interprets classic tiki recipes.
Matulis’ preferred way to modify his tiki drinks is to experiment with different rums. “It really makes a big difference,” he said, calling rum the “building block” of tiki cocktails. “My favorite rums [to use] in tiki would be the pot still rums,” he said, referring to a category of rum made in the same type of still used for Scotch whisky, which produces smaller batches with more body, nuance and flavor. Matulis prefers Jamaican pot still rums in many tiki drinks, and said that the rum’s notes of black olive, banana and clove can make important structural contributions to a drink in small amounts. He said, “Using just a half ounce of that in a drink will change it,” owing to the rum’s intensity of flavor.
A number of relatively obscure liqueurs and “weird oddball ingredients,” as Matulis calls them, also feature heavily in many tiki recipes — things not often stocked at cocktail bars (like syrups made from tropical fruits, or orgeat, a sweet and lightly floral almond syrup). While some of these ingredients are just difficult to source, others are more readily available, but industrially produced and of questionable quality. For these reasons, Matulis opts to make some of these mixers himself. He noted that ingredient obscurity may also be a contributing factor to the lack of tiki options on the Peninsula, and said, “You can’t just go to a [sales] rep and say, ‘Yeah, I need a case of this, I want to open a tiki bar.’”
One of those ingredients, falernum, is a spiced liqueur originating in Barbados. Although it sometimes appears in bars as a non-alcoholic syrup, falernum is used in Timber & Salt’s tiki cocktails as a rum-based version with ginger, clove and lime. Matulis enjoys taking a culinary approach to making his house falernum, viewing it, and other mixers, as “seasoning” for cocktails, and his job as that of a cook. On balancing cocktails, he said that, like cooking, “you can be heavy handed with salt, and you can go way too heavy on a syrup.”
Also of note in Timber & Salt’s repertoire of house-made tiki ingredients is a syrup called fassionola. “Everyone describes it as like a liquid Hawaiian punchy kind of thing,” Matulis said, explaining how the secretive nature of early tiki pioneer Don the Beachcomber, who used the ingredient extensively in his drinks in the 1930s and 1940s, meant that there were no definitive recipes to be found. Through tinkering, Matulis landed on a maceration of blueberries, raspberries, pineapple, citrus fruits, passion fruit purée and sugar to yield a concentrated syrup whose tart fruitiness adds rich notes of berry to drinks like The Cobra’s Fang (which also contains dark rum, overproof rum, lime and orange juices, falernum, absinthe and bitters).
Timber & Salt has continued the tradition of Tiki Thursday even as the bar and restaurant has shifted to offering only takeout and delivery, alerting their customers to the weekly specials on Instagram.
Customers seem to have responded in kind, and Matulis said that Thursdays “tend to be one of our bigger nights.”
Timber & Salt also hopes to use Tiki Thursday as a way to stay connected with its customers, “just to… have them kind of remember us,” Matulis said. Beyond that, faced with a bar devoid of the usual customer interaction, Matulis mentioned that he’s grateful for the routine, and the structure it provides amidst the monotony of bottling cocktails for takeout in an empty bar.
It’s hard to say when Timber & Salt’s guests will be able to enjoy Tiki Thursday in-person again, but the bar has partitions and distance markers already set up indoors. As for the future of tiki on the Peninsula, and whether we might be able to get good tiki cocktails on nights other than Thursday? Matulis said, “If we opened another concept here, it would definitely be tiki.” Peninsula drinkers can only hope.
Timber & Salt// 881 Middlefield Rd., Redwood City; (650) 362–3777
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