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Tiki Culture Is Back, Here’s Everything You Need To Know

Tiki culture — which had its original heyday in the middle of the 20th century — is back. Bartenders around the country are experimenting with tiki classics like the mai tai again. Which begs the question: what the hell is “tiki culture”? Where did it go? And why is it back?

We asked Tacoma Cabana and Rum Bar’s owner Jason Alexander, winner of the 2014 Iron TikiTender, to help us navigate this sea of rum in a ship made of coconut husks and cocktail umbrellas. If you’re brand-new to the tiki scene — or extremely skeptical about its legitimacy — let this be your guide to the tiki drink revival: what to expect, what to order, what to make, and why it’s even relevant.

 

A SHOT OF HISTORY

What is the tiki subculture, exactly? Its inception is largely credited to a single man, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt — better known as Donn Beach — and the Polynesian-themed restaurant he opened in Hollywood in 1934: Don the Beachcomber. Prior to his Donn Beach days, Gantt lived a colorful life as a bootlegger, traveling to the Caribbean and Jamaica, where he sipped and mixed daiquiris and the Jamaican Planter’s Punch. In these drinks, he discovered the “holy trinity” of rum, sugar, and lime, the simple foundation upon which his tiki drinks would be built.

When prohibition was repealed, rum was widely available… only no one was drinking it. As the one spirit that had been widely and safely available during prohibition, it had gotten itself something of a bad reputation. The ease of access meant rum could be sold at cheaper prices than other spirits; eventually people started to view it as “cheap” in general. But at Don the Beachcomber, people gave it another chance. Beach knew rum, and he was taking it seriously in a way no one else had.

Jason Alexander explains, “He said ‘why one rum? Three rums can do what one can’t. Multiple levels of flavor. They each bring something unique to the table.’ Then he took the holy trinity and embellished it. ‘Why just sugar? Why not use cinnamon syrup? Why not use vanilla? Why just lime?’ His cocktails were transporting in flavor, strength, and ingenuity. They were like nothing anyone had ever tasted.”

Don the Beachcomber was an absolute hit, and the idea caught fire. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the American entertainment scene engaged in a love affair with the South Seas, or rather, with the idea of them, distilled into stiff rum drinks, and served up in a tropical, romantic atmosphere. Donn and the bartenders that followed him continued to riff on the trinity, introducing more and more unusual ingredients: Pineapple. Guava. Orgeat (almond-orange flower syrup). Falernum (almond-ginger-allspice syrup). Lilikoi (purple passion fruit). Coconut. Soon, there were tiki bartenders creating drinks with fourteen different ingredients.

The drinks must have seemed especially exotic when sipped inside the restaurants designed by Hollywood art directors. These tiki palaces took their guests to another world — a Pop Polynesian planet full of indoor waterfalls and carved idols, strings of glowing lanterns and flickering torches, and all set to the lazy-sweet sounds of the uke. As the tiki palaces grew more elaborate, so did the music that played in them; in fact, the culture spawned its very own genre: exotica. In the same way that bartenders riffed on the trinity, exotica riffed on jazz, adding Polynesian instruments, animal calls, and jungle sounds to create an atmospheric music just as unique as the drinks themselves.

So then…what happened? Where did all of these palaces go? And why is it that so many people today associate tiki drinks with a saccharine technicolor nightmare they had one time in Hawaii and swore “never again.”

Nooooooooooooo. You guys. This is not a mai tai. It's an abomination! But dibs on the cherry.
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Nooooooooooooo. This is not a mai tai. It's an abomination! But dibs on the cherry.

WHY IS THE RUM GONE?

From the 70s to the 90s, tiki bars declined, largely for two reasons. First, we saw the dawning of artificial sweeteners and flavors — boxed ingredients. These ingredients might have simplified the building process of the tiki cocktail, but they certainly didn’t improve it. Drinks once built from multiple fresh-squeezed juices, homemade syrups, and multiple rums, were boiled down to whatever rum was handy (rather than those carefully chosen by the bartender to create a specific flavor profile), pre-sweetened juices from concentrate, and syrups that tasted more of sugar than they did of the fruit or spice they were meant to evoke. The resulting drinks came off the bar quickly (in a good tiki bar, you have to be prepared to wait –quality takes time), but shared nothing in common with the tiki cocktails whose names they shared. Imagine eating a pizza pulled from a wood-fired oven in Naples versus a pizza pulled from the frozen aisle of Target. They’re both called pizza, but is it really the same thing?

Second, the generation that grew up drinking tiki cocktails in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, had kids that wanted drinks and identities of their own. They didn’t want to carry the tradition on. And while we can probably all sympathize with that, it’s pretty fascinating to see tiki making a comeback, thanks to a small and passionate group of enthusiasts, whose numbers are growing steadily.

A TASTE OF THE TROPICS

For some of us, dipping a toe into the tiki waters can be a little daunting. The menus are large, the ingredients plenty, and if we ever got drunk on an overly syrupy sweet concoction, our memories last far longer than our hangovers.

So where do you start? Here are Jason’s favorite drinks for beginners:

  • A well made Mai Tai. This is the classic tiki drink. Its name means “out of this world,” and if you get one made right, you’ll understand why. There is some debate as to who created the original mai tai — our man Donn, or the equally tiki-famous “Trader” Vic Bergeron — but either gentleman’s recipe is delicious. If it has orange juice and/or grenadine, it is neither man’s recipe, and you should run.
  • 1934 Don the Beachcomber Zombie Punch. “The king of all tiki drinks,” Jason calls it. “Not overly sweet. Rum driven. Tons of depth.”

If you’d like to try your own hand at tiki-tending, Jason recommends:

  • The Mai Tai. Two kinds of rum, lime, cointreau, and orgeat make for a drink that will send you into orbit and then back to the bar for another round.
  • Painkiller. Rum, pineapple, orange, coconut, and nutmeg. If you don’t have these ingredients in your kitchen now, you can have them by tomorrow. That’s one quick trip to paradise!
  • Navy Grog. a straightforward, strong cocktail with lots of flavor, made with lime, grapefruit, and rum. Limit yourself to two if you work the next morning, sailor.

If you’d rather pay for someone else to do the work, Jason puts these three bars on his “visit-before-you-die” list:

  • The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale,Florida. Featuring the longest running Polynesian show in the United States.
  • The Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles. Offering a menu 94 drinks deep.
  • The Tonga Hut, also in Los Angeles. Where regulars store their personal tiki mugs in a glass case, and you’re welcome to bring your own.

It’s also worth re-shouting Tacoma Cabana in Tacoma, Washington, Jason’s love letter to all that is tiki. This delightful downtown oasis offers everything from the classic cocktails to new riffs on the trinity. Try the Golden Shellback, one of Jason’s original recipes.

Tiki drinks have a history in the US as rich as their flavors. In today’s craft cocktail friendly climate, the tide is ripe for a comeback, and there’s no time better than for you to join an illustrious crew of fans (Howard Hughes, Joan Crawford, and Charlie Chaplin all enjoyed tiki culture in its heyday).

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