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.
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.