Tiki: An Introduction

I’ve recently become obsessed with tiki drinks. I’ve fallen in love with everything about them: the spirits, the flavours, the styles and even the mugs. If you think tiki is fruity summer drinks served in pineapples with ridiculous garnishes – then you would be correct! But that would be selling it short.

Tiki has had something of a resurgence recently and if you live in a big city you may even have a dedicated tiki bar. However, it’s more likely that your regular cocktail bar has a small section or a few cocktails in the tiki style. I hope to help you bring some of that flavour home and maybe put a few spins on it yourself.

Photos by ADV Photography

Although tiki is a lot of fun and can appear a little comical in appearance, the cocktails are no joke. Tiki enthusiasts are carefree, but start talking about the origin of the Mai Tai or the best rum for a Navy Grog and you’ll undoubtedly have a serious debate on your hands.

In this installment of the tiki series, I’m going to explore what I consider to be its essential aspects. Entire books have been written on the history and lore of the tiki subculture, so I won’t be able to cover everything, but I think it’s important to have an idea of how it all started.

The advent of tiki can be traced back to a man named “Don the Beachcomber,” or less interestingly, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (he later legally changed his name to Donn Beach). Often referred to as the founding father of tiki, he was born in 1907 in the great state of Texas.

During prohibition, Don was a bootlegger and spent many years traveling the Caribbean and South Pacific for rum. When he finally settled down in the United States in 1933, he looked to apply his knowledge of the Caribbean and opened the world’s first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, in Los Angeles.

Tiki bars are about as authentic to the South Pacific as fortune cookies are to China, but Don used everything he liked to create a place with a no-worry attitude, dangerously potent rum cocktails, and exotic cuisine. It was an overnight sensation. Soon after in 1934, “Trader” Vic Bergeron opened a similar bar in Oakland. A fad was developing.

As soldiers returned home from the South Pacific in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, tropical shirts and rum in tow, the tiki movement gained mainstream popularity. Tiki culture was everywhere and fueled the two chains and numerous copycats. Although the economy was strong, it was much easier to spend a night at a local tiki hotspot than take the family on a five hour flight to the Pacific islands.

By the 1960s however, tiki bars started falling out of the public eye. Drinking out of a ceramic mug stopped being cool. Why? Maybe it was Vietnam. Maybe it was a generational shift. Nobody really knows.

People just didn’t want it anymore. Personally, I think tiki became a bit too expensive for the average person. Like all high quality cocktails, great tiki requires having a wide variety of fresh juice, spirits and rums. Between the 60’s and 90’s, the popularity of high quality cocktails was waning – and tiki wasn’t spared.

It did experience limited popularity boost in the 90’s, but it wasn’t until the 2000’s that tiki made a full comeback. You can now find a Mai Tai or a rum punch next to the Manhattan and Negroni on most cocktail menus. What changed? I think the broader cocktail revival has much to do with tiki’s resurgence. People have come to appreciate a cocktail as a small-scale event and they’re willing to wait a few minutes more for something special, made with good ingredients and with care.

I think it’s popular today for the same reason it was popular when it first hit the scene – escapism. We all have stress in our lives and it’s nice to forget our worries, not take ourselves too seriously, and enjoy some delicious yet potent cocktails. It’s hard not to smile when drinking out of a hollowed pineapple garnished with flowers and paper umbrellas.

On this blog, we’ve already covered the most iconic tiki cocktail – the Mai Tai. In my opinion, the Mai Tai is to Rum, what the Margarita is to Tequila – the perfect cocktail to highlight the base spirit.

Let me tell you, if you haven’t been down the rabbit hole of rum, there is a lot to explore. It’s safe to say that rum is the most diverse spirit in the world. You can look forward to a more in depth discussion of the essential tiki rums in our next installment.

There’s an entire world of tiki cocktails and if you haven’t explored outside the usual suspects, you’re in for a treat. The following cocktail is called the Port-Au-Prince and dates back to one of Don the Beachcombers menus in the 30’s. The version listed below is from the book Smuggler’s Cove by Martin Cate, one of the most famous tiki revivalists.

The original recipe used a blend of two rums, but Martin felt that since the drink is named after the capital of Haiti, the rum featured should also be from there. Either way, it’s delicious.

The Port-Au-Prince

1 ½ oz Rum Barbancourt Five Star
½ oz lime juice
½ oz pineapple juice
¼ oz demerara simple syrup
¼ oz Falernum
1 dash of grenadine
1 dash of Angostura Bitters

To a shaker, add 10 oz of crushed ice and a few large cubes. Add all the other ingredients. Shake well and pour directly into your favorite Tiki mug or pilsner glass. Garnish to your heart’s content with a combination of pineapple, mint, lime, and umbrellas.

A few notes: Demerara syrup is simply simple syrup made with demerara sugar (I like half and half). Falernum can be purchased or made. I plan to cover an essential list of all of the tiki syrups in the near future. It’s important to measure your crushed ice to control the dilution of your drink – you don’t need to be exact but you also don’t want to render your drink bland – tiki drinks are generally quite strong and mastering the use of ice is important to a positive drinking experience.

So now that you know the brief history of tiki, do yourself a favour and take the plunge. Pick up some funky mugs, garnish with a few paper umbrellas, and escape to a world of cocktails that is more diverse and delicious than you can possibly imagine!

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