Tiki is one of those mysterious and exotic sub-cultures of the cocktail world that is not only misunderstood, but has also been misrepresented for far too long. Tiki is more than just coconuts and hula girls: Tiki is a whole culture and way of life, and for a while it had a lot of Americans swept away in a glorious love affair. I couldn’t be more excited to take on this new Tiki adventure and unearth Tiki traditions and twists on old classics.
You can’t talk Tiki history without mentioning two men: Don the Beachcomber (Raymond Beaumont Gantt) and Trader Vic (Victor Bergeron). After traveling the world, spending a lot of time soaking up the islands of the Caribbean and South Pacific, Don Beach became a bootlegger during Prohibition and then moved to Hollywood in the 1930s and in 1933 opened the first Tiki bar called Don the Beachcomber’s cafe. He served boozy rum cocktails and exotic Polynesian fare in a tropical backdrop unlike anything patrons had ever experienced. In 1934, Trader Vic opened his first location in Oakland CA. While the first location originally started as a sandwich shop, (inspired a trip to Cuba and all it’s beautiful rum, and a trip to Hawaii with it’s exotic ingredients and decor) the concept morphed it into something completely different. When Trader Vic visited Don the Beachcomber, he knew he was onto something huge. Both Don Beach and Trader Vic capitalized on a culture that brought escapism and a break from the monotony that other restaurant and bar experiences offered. They also created huge franchises of each of their respective restaurants. Don Beach and Trader Vic weren’t just restaurateurs, they were skilled cocktail constructionists, creating flavor combinations that blew away the palates of the jazzy gin devotees of the Prohibition era. Hollywood celebrities were always spotted in Don Beach’s restaurants in the late 1930s and 1940s, which of course made this concept more appealing to the masses and soon tiki bars began popping up all over the country. The Tiki craze only gained steam in the 1950s, as servicemen returning from the South Pacific chose to bring back tales of romance in exotic lands, rather than cumbersome memories of war. The post-war economy was booming, and commercial air travel made tropical destinations a more tangible reality. Tiki bars in American cities flourished because people just weren’t ready to leave vacation on the islands. The 60’s and 70’s saw Tiki take a slow paddle board ride into the sunset, and sometime in the 80’s and early 90’s, all that remained of Tiki culture was just the overly sweet, over simplified mutant-Mcdonald’s-versions of the beautiful cocktails that once were. As the cocktail world got its head out of the bottle of premixed sour mix, and the revival of craft bar tending began to pick up steam, the beautiful Tiki culture of yesterday slowly began to be excavated from a tomb of plastic coconuts, and empty grenadine bottles. Can I get an AMEN!?
I will admit, my first two experiences with Tiki cocktails were not the best. My first bartending gig was at an awesome oceanfront restaurant right by where I went to college. We made all these crazy, beautiful looking cocktails that I’d never heard of, one of which was the Mai Tai. I remember pre-mixing giant vats of the Mai Tai mix: bottles of orange curacao, grenadine, pineapple juice and a myriad of other ingredients. I sure thought I was fancy. No – really I did. Like my friend Oprah says, “When you know better you do better.” And well, me and that Mai Tai recipe, we just didn’t know better. My second experience with Tiki was when I was 21 we went to the Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills (what I now know to be a cornerstone of American cocktail culture) and me being all 21 and so sophisticated I ordered a dirty vodka martini. I also wore platform flip flops on a daily basis, so clearly my judgement was not to be trusted. Tiki cocktails sure have taken a hit over the years, and we should mourn because they are some of the most beautiful cocktails in the seven seas. Tiny umbrellas aside, Tiki cocktails pack a punch and can be some of the most difficult to construct because of the amount of ingredients and flavor profiles. Don Beach used to write his cocktail recipes in code because those less skilled at Tiki construction simply stole his recipes or poached his staff to re-create his cocktails. The Tiki cocktails of yesterday and the proper cocktails of today rely on fresh juices, and layered combinations of spices, multiple spirits and liqueurs to create balanced boozy cocktails, not a sugar shark attack on your taste buds (I’m looking at you T.G.I., you know who you are) . The reason some Tiki cocktails are actually blended or use crushed ice is for dilution of the potent spirits one uses in so many of these recipes. While not all Tiki cocktails are rum based, the majority are, and as my Tiki education continues a whole new world of rum has been opened up to me. Rum has so many different variations and depending on what region of the world the rum is made can drastically change flavor profile and character.
If you ever want to dive into a new genre of cocktails, or are trying out a new spirit, my best advice is to always start with the classic. There is nothing more classic to Tiki cocktails than the Mai Tai, and as I mentioned before, I spent many years doing a disservice to this beauty. As repentance, this was first Tiki cocktail I really wanted to make correctly. No pineapple juice? No grenadine? Go on! Please don’t get me wrong – the Mai Tai I made in college was delicious, albeit a Halloween night’s worth of sugar, but it just wasn’t what a true Mai Tai is meant to be. Of course, both Trader Vic and Don Beach take credit for creating the Mai Tai, but regardless of who is responsible, I promise after your first sip of a true Mai Tai your heart will surely start to pitter patter for Tiki.
CLASSIC MAI TAI
1 oz. amber Martinique rum
1 oz. aged Jamaican rum
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1/2 oz. orange curaçao
1/4 oz. orgeat
1/4 oz. simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a shaker and add crushed ice. Shake for 10 seconds and pour into a rocks glass, add ice and garnish with a mint sprig.
Ingredient translation: I know it’s pretty intimidating when you get a cocktail recipe and are unsure of some of the ingredients, but don’t worry: we’ll drink our way through this together. Martinique rum, or rhum agricole, is made with fresh pressed free-running sugar cane juice and has grassy notes that aren’t overly sweet like a lot of molasses-based rums. Jamiacan rum will add a rich sweetness to the cocktail, along with the orange curacao which is an orange liqueur that has brandy it its base. And if it’s blue, just go ahead and pass on that bottle. Orgeat is a syrup made from almonds and orange blossom water and will add the missing element to your Mai Tai. It seems like a lot of ingredients, so make sure it’s a cocktail you’ll want to recreate at home by ordering it at a bar that already has all the fixings and then see if you’d want to order a second.
I know it seems like a lot of serious talk for cocktails with teeny tiny umbrellas, but it is awesome to be able to discover and pay homage to a legitimate cocktail movement from our past, and now, thankfully, our present. For this month’s cocktail class we’ll wade into the cool tropical waters of Tiki together. I’m really looking forward to this class, and there will be lots to cover, classics and new concoctions alike! We’re looking to have fun with this one, and encourage everyone to dress in their tiki finest! Who doesn’t love a good theme party? Let’s embrace the kooky kitsch of Tiki and sip on some serious cocktails! Tiki is all about being taken away to romantic lands where all one has to worry about is how many cocktails you can squeeze into a lazy afternoon. So, join me Sunday July 26th, and let’s sit back to the strums of ukeleles and waves lapping on the shore as we nestle our toes in the sand and sip all our worries away.
MAHALO and cheers,
Your neighborhood cocktail student and teacher,