Tiki is escapism, in the purest most unironic sense, it’s a get away from the troubled world, a one way ticket to Polynesia, Hawaii or a Caribbean island. It’s vintage kitsch and travel and sunshine and yes, it’s umbrella garnishes and carved mugs and flaming drinks and rum. Bucket loads of rum. But it’s much more than the trappings of a Zombie – it’s a state of mind. And it’s an important ingredient in today’s cocktail world. Without that first bar, those first layered rum drinks, the very theatre of today’s bars would be miserably lacking.
And while entrances flanked with statues of exotic gods, fire pits and hula dancers may be few and far between nowadays, Tiki’s best drinks and escapism mentality have truly survived into our pared-back cocktail society. Tiki is alive and responsible for some of the best classic cocktails, and if you think otherwise then you’re just not looking in the right places.
Tiki: A Culture Is Born
Thanks to the flaming drinks and battered kitsch associated with Tiki, it’s an easy culture to dismiss as a trend. But the story behind the birth and beginnings of Tiki, including its rapid adoption by middle class America, to the point where people decorated their homes and cultivated a Tiki look and dress-style, show Tiki’s staying power. Rather than a 1930s fad which is occasionally revived in the same way we cyclically remember 80s taffeta and 90s choker necklaces, Tiki is a sub-culture of our society.
Unlike a lot of major drink styles, from punches to sours, Tiki’s history is relatively short, starting life the day the doors opened to Hollywood’s most glamorous drinking den circa 1934. After queuing for over an hour on the boulevard you might have been given the chance to step inside the windowless Don The Beachcomber’s where a scene crafted from the tropics met imagination, littered with Caribbean flotsam and Polynesian jetsam. Your fellow drinkers would have included Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Joan Crawford and Buster Keaton while presiding over it all was the engaging story teller Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, better known as Donn the Beachcomber.
The grandfather of Tiki, Donn “wove together the illusion of travel to far-flung lands together with cocktails that were actually inspired by the Caribbean,” says Peter Holland of The Floating Rum Shack. “Travel to those magical islands of the South Seas was adventurer material only. Normal people didn’t do that – but they hankered for the perception of paradise, and so the stage on which Donn the Beachcomber played out his fantasy was designed to play up to this desire. Add in the potent rum cocktails and the other key ingredient: a wonderful host (and Donn Beach was a wonderful host, who’d travelled the world, seeking out the South Seas, the far east and the Caribbean) and you’ve a world that no one would want to leave. The escapism element transports you from the hard realities of life – if only for a little while.”
Serving up blends of multiple rums, citrus juices and spices, from cinnamon to clove, nutmeg and allspice, Donn’s drinks were always a closely-guarded secret, adding to the theatre, mystery and danger of Tiki. From the infamous Zombie, which was limited to two per person to his Suffering Bastard, Tiger Shark or Luau Grog there was flair and staggering amounts of rum to everything Donn put his hand to. And as Jeff Berry points out in his 2007 Sippin’ Safari, Donn was clever enough to price the drinks so the female office workers in the area could afford them, because then the men would come.
With such a party on his hands it wasn’t long before Donn inspired others to open their own Tiki ventures, and after an impressionable Victor Jules Bergeron visited Don the Beachcomber’s in 1937 that’s exactly what he did. Trader Vic’s first opened in Oakland but before long there were outposts in Seattle and San Francisco. Bergeron also took on his bar’s moniker, surviving through history, thanks to his famous cocktails which include the Mai Tai, the Scorpion and the Fog Cutter, as Trader Vic.
As Tiki chains started to spread out across suburban America they were an escape from a life of cars, babies and jobs – done well the Tiki bar transported people out of the everyday and landed them in paradise, a place which suggested that fantastic, otherworldly things could happen. “The idea of building your own idea of paradise, somewhere to retreat to, developed and maintained the craze for some fifty years. It became a lifestyle choice. You could come home from work, take off the suit and slip on an Hawaiian shirt, play some exotica on the stereo, make yourself a Mai Tai and escape to another world – which in this case could be the fitted out basement, which to our eyes might be full of kitsch ‘junk’, but in reality just added to the theatre,” explains Peter.
From domination and fantastic, theatrical drinks, Tiki began its slow slide into near extinction from the mid 1960s. In a large part this came from over-franchising, as drinks became standardised and the element of secrecy and glamour was lost. By 1980 you could still catch a few bars serving umbrella-garnished drinks but these were as far from true Tiki cocktails as a Sidecar or Manhattan would be. Tiki lived on as a niche in the basement of a few fans, in the photos from its heyday and in the lingering memories of those who had once queued to drink Zombies in Hollywood.
What Does Tiki Look Like Today?
As cocktails shrugged off the shackles of the 1990s, and decided to put the years of purees and sour mix behind them, bartenders around the world started to trace their roots. Classic boozy drinks were the first to enjoy a revival, but eventually, and thanks to a few pioneering fans and writers, Tiki re-emerged.
It was subtle, small steps – a well made Mai Tai appearing on a menu, a nod to Tiki garnishes, some pared down Polynesian decor. Then, over the course of ten or so years, dedicated bars started to open; Smugglers Cove in San Francisco, Trailer Happiness in London, Dirty Dicks in Paris, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. Books hit the press as old drinks were remembered, most notably from Jeff Berry. A whole culture had seemingly emerged from the ashes.
Tiki’s comeback was so gently done that you’ve probably drunk some of its most well-known classics and not realised it was Donn’s Zombie you ordered or Trader Vic’s famous Mai Tai. Tiki drinks are the type you order in a bar after seeing a flaming, banana garnished cocktail whizzing past your table and cry I’ll have one of those. Their fun is infectious.
Today Tiki looks entirely different depending on where you live. Some cities, such as Manchester, have fallen head over heels for the rum-laced cocktails and escapist bars. In the US, Chicago and San Francisco are similarly holding up great Tiki scenes pioneered by world class venues. The story in New York and London is a little different though.
In the world’s cocktail capitals Tiki bars have found it a little harder to latch on. 2010 saw New York open three Tiki-themed bars, Lain Kai, Painkiller and Hurricane Club. By 2014 all three had closed. London had a bit more success with Mahiki and Trailer Happiness, still open today (the latter of which is a Tiki bar in the mid-century lounge sense rather than Polynesian themed), but for a huge captial city which claims to be a leader of cocktail culture there haven't been many successful Tiki ventures. Yet Tiki hasn’t ceased to exist in these huge cities, rather it’s become integrated into the fabric of everyday drinks. You can sit at the bar of any of London’s top venues and order a Sidecar or a Jungle Bird, a dry gin Martini or a Scorpion. Both will be perfectly executed.
Today Tiki no longer has to look like a bamboo door, a thatched roof or a Hawaiian shirt. And while Tiki bars are still a fantastic place, with an ongoing relevance for today’s drinkers – as Peter puts it “we may have the ability to study all elements of the world via the internet, and long haul travel is relatively straight forward these days, but the lure of escapism is still there. The threat of terrorism, the terror of modern day politics, the politics of the day-job office in which so many people struggle through on a daily basis just to pay the bills… Who doesn’t want to escape to paradise?” – if the drinks style is to survive its integration to classic cocktails is the best possible outcome.
Tiki: The Future of Umbrella Cocktails
One of the main fears for Tiki’s future is over-popularisation will once again kill it off. When sickly-sweet, badly-made fish bowl cocktails garnished with an umbrella are labelled Tiki and become the norm drinkers will start to shy away.
“Mass market equals corner cutting, cheap ingredients, badly done and ultimately anyone coming to it for the first time will go “Wow - what’s the fuss all about? This drink sucks”. It will be a re-enactment of one of the reasons that Tiki finally disappeared from the mainstream in the 1970s and 80s,” says Peter.
Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom, and while we should certainly be shying away from poorly made drinks, bartenders around the world are busy inventing a new cannon of cocktails which take the best elements of Tiki and combine them with classic drinks. Italian amaros are being introduced to orgeat, the Negroni is flirting with pineapple juice and Chartreuse is putting on a lei. No longer hemmed in by definitive Tiki rules, this second revival could promise an exciting future for innovation. So long as we don’t all go mad with cocktail umbrellas.