The Tiki Cocktail

The History

Tiki is one of the most famous cocktail trends known to regular consumers.

For perhaps the majority of normal guests inexperienced in cocktails, the

imagery of tiki drinks – flashy, gaudy even, outrageously garnished and with

neon colours – is their image of cocktails as a whole. The tiki trend lasted

from 1934 until well into the 1970s, an incredible run of popularity. Today,

tiki cocktails are enjoying a renaissance with extremely

successful, modern tiki bars and restaurants opening in California,

Copenhagen and London to name a few.


The whole tiki movement begun when Ernest Raymond Beaumont- Gantt

opened a tiny 25-seat bar named “Don’s Beachcomber” in Hollywood,

California in 1934. A world traveller, Gantt decorated the bar in tropical style

– bamboo, tiki monoliths, lava rocks, fake volcanoes, corrugated tin roofs –

inspired by travels in the Caribbean, Polynesia and Hawaii.


The food he served  usually wasn’t authentic – mostly it was regular food re-named, or Cantonese/

Chinese, Gantt judging the authentic food of Polynesia as being not tasty

enough for Americans. And the drinks he served absolutely weren’t authentic.

Every significant tiki cocktail is in fact what tiki author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

calls “faux tropical”: tropically themed but invented in the USA.

Gantt later legally changed his name to Donn Beach as the popularity of tiki took

off. And it soared. Within a few short years, every city had more than one tiki

place and tiki restaurants with million-dollar budgets were being built with special

effects by Hollywood stunt designers. The most successful of Beach’s copycats

was Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, who built up a global chain of restaurants,

many still open to this day.


What Are Tiki Drinks?

Beach started at a time when an entire case of rum cost just a few cents, so

rum being (a) cheap and (b) tropical was a logical choice as the base for the

vast majority of his fake-tropical drinks. In short, tiki drinks tend to be

strong, elaborate longdrinks based around layers of flavour from using many

different rums, and featuring fresh tropical fruit and syrups such as falernum

and orgeat.

Perfecting Tiki Drinks

It’s all about the  details. The rums must be good quality, and you will need a wide

variety, from blanco to golden to Martinique (agricole) to Jamaican pot-still

style, to smooth aged rums. Many producers today are experimenting with

styles not traditional to their region, so you are better trying to match the

taste of the rum than being constrained by needing to use a rum that’s

actually from, say, Martinique - a modern Brazilian cachaca might well be

just the trick.

Because they’re more used and more important in tiki drinks, it’s best to

make syrups yourself. Falernum, grenadine and orgeat are all so different

now to how they were thirty years ago, that you’re better off home-cookin’

it. Juices and fruits must be fresh, and serving ware outrageous. Classic tiki

cups, treasure chests, monoliths, skulls and the like are all essential.

Staging Tiki Drinks

Tiki is, above all, fun. Hawaiian shirts, leis (the flowered necklaces), slouch

hats and groan-inducing bad puns for cocktails names are all de rigueur.

What great modern tiki bars such as Mahiki (London) and Forbidden Island

(California) do is to make the drinks superbly, right before your eyes.

Both Donn Beach and Trader Vic had the drinks made by (largely Filipino)

bartenders working behind the scenes, and most of the drinks were served

table-side. Modern tiki bars make excellent drinks right before your eyes,

with cheeky style and great mixology. Aloha!

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