Sipping from opposite sides of a cocktail served in a hollowed-out pineapple, a young couple poses for a photo by a waterfall. This isn’t a scene from a Hawaiian vacation in the 1960s, but one I observed earlier this year at Smuggler’s Cove, a buzzing new San Francisco bar. This establishment, and the many others just like it springing up across the country, is a tiki lounge, serving classic Polynesian-themed cocktails. These once-out-of-favor joints and their kitschy cocktails, like the mai tai, zombie, and planter’s punch, are making quite a comeback.
So what makes a cocktail a tiki cocktail? These drinks have several common characteristics. They often call for more than one kind of the same spirit. For example, the infamous zombie combines rum from three islands. Tiki drinks also balance several juices, such as lime, grapefruit, and passion fruit. In addition, there is usually an exotic syrup or liqueur in the mix, such as falernum or orgeat. Finally, tiki drinks can have upwards of 10 ingredients (not including the multiple garnishes), compared with three or four for most other cocktails.
From the 1940s to the ’70s, the tiki phenomenon was all the rage. But by the mid-’80s, these unashamedly garish drinks had developed a reputation as vehicles for cheap white rum and sickly sweet fruit punches. Still, beneath all the flower garnishes and flair lies a rich history and some of the most nuanced, complex, and delicious cocktails ever invented—and today’s tiki aficionados are out to prove it.
Check out the Guide to Drinks & Entertaining for more fun summer drink recipes.
The first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, was opened in Los Angeles in 1934, shortly after the end of Prohibition, by Donn Beach. Soon after, Don the Beachcomber inspired what was to become the world’s most famous tiki chain, Trader Vic’s, which was started by Victor Bergeron in Oakland, California. Much like the cosmo and its starring role in Sex and the City, tiki drinks had some help from Hollywood. Both Donn’s and Vic’s bars were frequented by Charlie Chaplin and other celebrities of the day.
Like movie sets, tiki palaces were filled with a hodgepodge of South Seas-style decor, indoor rivers, palm trees, and bric-a-brac from various island cultures, partially supplied by (and appealing to) WWII veterans returning home from the Philippines and other tropical locations. Though the cocktails had no genuine Polynesian associations, they were wildly exotic and inspired creations—and their fans became legion.
Trouble in paradise
At the height of the tiki craze, to avoid losing customers to rival establishments, Donn and Vic became secretive about the drinks that had made them famous. New bar owners attempted to poach bartenders from them to gain access to the recipes; in turn, Donn and Vic protected their stakes by creating secret ingredients like Spices #2 and Don’s Mix. Such secrecy bred false imitation. As every tiki bar was expected to serve a zombie, mai tai, and scorpion bowl, copycat bar owners made their own versions, which often had nothing in common with the originals, except for the names. Imitation drinks abounded, quality went downhill, and customers soon forgot (or never knew) that tiki drinks were delicious—not merely oversize and overly garnished.
Glory days again
The tiki revival, which has really taken off in the last two years, has been fueled by both lovers of retro kitsch and of classic cocktails. These revivalists have created their own online community (tikicentral.com), started a tiki bar rating site (critiki.com), and organized annual conventions in several cities around the United States.
Joining them at the bar are the cocktail enthusiasts who live to research and recreate classic cocktails. Historians like author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry have studied lost recipes and hounded original Don the Beachcomber bartenders to learn the details behind the secret ingredients. Entrepreneurs like Blair “Trader Tiki” Reynolds are creating and selling ingredients specific to tiki drinks, including a recreation of Don’s Mix. Bar owners like “Shoeless” Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove are building exotic new hideaways in which to serve authentic tiki cocktails along with some modern updates, like the new drinks here.
If these tiki advocates have anything to do with it, you’ll still enjoy the gloriously retro appeal of waterfalls, volcanos, and flower garnishes, but what you’ll take away (in addition to the paper umbrella, of course) is how delicious these cocktails truly are.
Tiki drinks are still served in ceramic volcano bowls and tiki mugs, garnished with orchids and oversize swizzle sticks, and set on fire. There’s a good reason for this: All the dark rum mixed with citrus juice makes most tiki drinks an unappetizing brown that’s best hidden beneath a garden of garnish.
For more fun drink recipes, visit our Drinks & Entertaining page.