How The Test Pilot Drink Helped Inspire The Rise Of Jet Age Tiki Cocktails

The Mid-20th century is often referred to as the Jet Age. At the time, aviation was taking off (pun intended), pilots were exploring skies, testing the limits of flights, and tweaking aircraft to set new records. Test flights during this time were often conducted publicly, and audiences could watch in awe as pilots challenged the limits of altitude and speed.

This age of exploration also happened to coincide with the rise of tiki bars and Tiki-style cocktails in the 1930s, an expressive result of Americans who'd traveled abroad for war. World War II vet Ernest Gantt opened Don the Beachcomber in 1934 and decorated the establishment with items he collected on beaches in the South Pacific. "They were an attempt to re-create the sense of escape and paradise of the islands on American soil," Martin Cate, the author of "Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki," told Men's Journal of the themed watering hole. 

Gantt sought to honor the energy and bravery of pilots with the 1941 creation he named Test Pilot, a blended drink of lime juice, Falernum, rum, Cointreau, Angostura bitters, and Pernod. A speared cherry garnished the old-fashioned glass in which the concoction was served, and a new era of drinks was born. The cocktail would eventually inspire other tiki drink recipes like Space Pilot, Jet Pilot, and the Astronaut. As Gantt's tropical drinks and test flights captured the attention of Americans, themed drinks provided a temporary escape.

Spinoffs of the Test Pilot

Gantt's tiki drinks and his tropical-themed bar became so popular that the man eventually changed his name to Donn Beach. His beverages delighted customers with strong recipes blended with rum, syrup, fruit juice, other mixers, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. They were garnished with an umbrella or cut pieces of fruit. Though Beach's drinks grew in popularity, he was secretive about what exactly went into each cocktail. A series of codes and numbers on the bottles at Beach's bar confused those looking for clues for some of the syrups and fruity additions used in the tiki drinks. The gimmick only heightened their appeal.

Made with blended lime and grapefruit juice, rum, Angostura bitters, Pernod, Falernu, and cinnamon with ice,  the Jet Pilot, like the Test Pilot,  found popularity among bar-goers. The Jet Pilot may be one of the most well-known derivations of the Test Pilot and, like many of Beach's recipes, uses two overproof rums and a milder gold rum to create a significant wallop of a drink that is punctuated with absinthe, Angostura bitters, and the almond spice flavors of Falernum. However, it wasn't the only tiki drink to come out of this era, and it's only one of many that you can still enjoy today, whether you're in a bar or want to try your hand at tropical drinks at home. 

Making tiki cocktails at home

Maybe start with an Astronaut — a similar drink made with Caribbean flavors like rum, lime juice, triple sec, bitters, Pernod, and Falernum. Watch the blender carefully as you make your own Test Pilot, Jet Pilot, and Astronaut cocktails at home. The idea is to blend the ingredients to combine them, but not to overdo it and turn your alcoholic drink into a smoothie. The boozy drink should be more like a slushie in texture, with a crushed-ice appeal that will send you on a temporary vacation without requiring you to board a plane. 

As you sip any of these libations, you can think about the brave 1940s pilots who gazed longingly into the skies and tested the limits of aviation technology, with Beach cheering them on with tropical drinks and decorations gathered from the islands. Perhaps you may even be inspired to invent your own travel-themed drink recipe at home.