Exploration of tiki can be be a little daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Depending on your focus, you can work your way through simpler recipes while growing your inventory, or select a drink you love and endeavor to collect everything you need. Either way, it takes an effort to get to a point where you can mix an eight or nine ingredient masterpiece without substitution or omission and enjoy the process as much as the result.
There are plenty of examples that will have you chasing down rums or mixing DIY syrups, and the 1937 version of the Cobra’s Fang is no exception. But, part of the pleasure in constructing complex tropical treats is recognizing the deliberate contribution of each ingredient to build an ensemble of flavor. The selection of base spirits, their origin, the fruit, the herbs, the spice—it’s all relevant, and at this level, either you are making it correctly, or you are making something else. That’s not to say you cannot substitute or adjust a proportion—it’s your cocktail—but when you do, the balance and delicate interplay of flavors often falls short of the recipe’s historical intent.
One way to avoid such challenges is to visit the local tiki bar. That’s how we have always enjoyed the Cobra’s Fang. It is a go-to choice because it has so many flavors we love, and with a long list of ingredients, we don’t mind letting someone else do all the work. These days, however, COVID-19 has ensured that we aren’t heading to Hale Pele anytime soon. Fortunately, it just so happens that we have everything we need to make one of these at home, and we can steer you toward the same situation.
Cobra’s Fang (1937 version)
1.5 oz 151-proof Demerara rum (Lemon Hart)
.5 oz lime juice
.5 oz orange juice
.5 oz passion fruit syrup
.25 oz falernum
6 drops absinthe
1 dash Angostura bitters
8 oz crushed ice
Add all ingredients to a blender adding the ice last. Pulse to mix and chill, then pour everything into a Pilsner glass and add additional crushed ice to fill as needed. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
You Need The Right Rum
This drink calls for 151-proof Demerara rum, and options are limited. In fact, you need to locate a bottle of Lemon Hart or Hamilton. This is not like Bacardi 151 (no longer made) or some gold-toned rocket fuel equivalent. It’s not Goslings 151 or Wray & Nephew Overproof. You cannot just sub any strong rum and call it good. What you want is a specific style of of rum from Guyana that is dark, barrel-aged, and has a flavor sometimes described as burned, caramelized sugar, cinnamon, apricots and raisins.
While that sounds pretty intense, it will come in handy. There are several other important tiki recipes that call for Demerara overproof either by brand name or description, and you cannot adequately explore the genre without it. Yet, despite owning the market, Demerara Distillers has faced challenges putting this product on shelves. The Lemon Hart brand has changed hands over the past few years, so the bottle has undergone several design changes. With production starting and stopping, it seems what’s in the bottle has also changed. When that is happening, availability can be sketchy, and it is sad to have to deal with so much uncertainty around such an important ingredient.
Your next best (better?) option is Hamilton 151. We have not tried it yet, but if you believe some reviews it is the better rum, having been distilled in the same facility and originally satisfied demand while Lemon Hart faced availability issues. Some tiki aficionados prefer its flavor and we have to applaud Ed Hamilton for taking a keen interest here and making such an effort and investment. Frankly, we are glad there are a couple of options and hope at least one of them endures. It is certainly a rewarding adventure to track this down, but without the right rum for these cocktails, we are sorry to say it—you should cut your losses and make something else.
Assuming you can get the rum, the next obstacle is getting your hands on the exotic syrups. These are easier to procure than the rum, as you can buy them or make both at home (and let’s face it, the homemade option is always best). For the passion fruit, we recommend BG Reynolds if you don’t want to take the DIY route, but if you do make your own and you don’t live someplace tropical, you need to source passion fruit puree. Making syrup out of that is trivial. Here’s how to do it.
The oddly-named falernum is a bit more involved, but this too has a commercial alternative to homemade. John D Taylor’s Velvet Falernum from Barbados is available in the liqueur section of most liquor stores these days but the ingredients are easy to get and you can make a delicious homemade version overnight. Falernum is featured in at least one of our favorite cocktails of all time and it is a staple in many tiki recipes having flavors of clove, ginger, almond and lime. We make big batches and freeze most of it, bottling only what we can use in a short period of time.
Next, you will need an orange and a lime, neither of which present a problem. The lime/orange combo works better than orange by itself as we have seen with lemon in the Lapu Lapu, especially with the dilution that comes with crushed ice and blending. Absinthe, however, is not in everyone’s cabinet. It is easy to find a bottle which is a better situation than the rum, and there are many good brands to choose from including several craft distilleries making it now. But at just 6 drops, you might be tempted to skip it. The thing is, absinthe is extremely aromatic. It relies on its high-proof to carry the botanicals, but once it hits something cold and dilute, it turns cloudy— a louche effect of those botanical essential oils coming out of solution. The same thing happens when you rinse the glass of a Sazerac and chill it with ice. You would not even think of mixing that drink without the absinthe rinse. It may be a small amount, but it is not a minor ingredient. Now, you can sub with a pastis like Herbsaint, Pernod, or possibly even ouzo, but this small detail is just another example (eleven ingredient 1934 Zombie anyone?) of the effort required to make a Don the Beachcomber recipe at home.
Finally, a dash Angostura bitters helps to bring all of these ingredients together like a spice seasoning for the drink. But wait—you are wondering: where’s the cinnamon stick? Isn’t that supposed to be the garnish? After all of this, you are subbing the garnish? We are. We don’t have long sticks of cinnamon so we subbed a sprig of mint. It seemed like a good swap, but maybe we should have topped it with a pinch of ground cinnamon. Hey, even we had to compromise to make this one.
We don’t often bring out the blender, opting to shake drinks like this with crushed ice. That can work fine, just give it a hard shake until the tin is nice and frosty, then pour the whole works into a tall glass. In this case, we did use the blender and merely pulsed it a few times to break down some of the larger chunks of ice and whip everything into a nice, chilly mix. Aeration releases a wonderful aroma, and the small format ice melts quickly as you shake and frost will quickly appear on the glass. The effective benefit of small ice is quick cooling with added dilution, and we need the ice to shed water in order to tame the high-proof rum.
Sipping this drink seems like such a far-off destination when you start out and an indulgence once you finish. We think the reward is worth the effort. This is why we horde our Demerara, and as strong as this rum can be, we understand why it is used, as other spirits would get lost. The lime and orange are barely detectable with everything else going on, but the passion fruit shines with an tartness that works so nicely against the spicy caramel backdrop of the rum. We can detect ginger, and clove from the falernum, plus so many other flavors rushing past that is hard to describe the complexity. It’s a wonderful drink if you have the patience to pull it off, and these days, what else are you going to do?