The story behind Tiki cocktails

The story behind Tiki cocktails

Tiki cocktails, a style of cocktails loved and enjoyed by many. A style of cocktails that has many faces as well. From the tiki purists that sticks to their classic recipes and make their own orgeat and secret zombie mix, to the big tiki restaurant chains that serve drinks in big swimming pool-shaped glasses made by bartenders wearing Hawaii shirts and those often use flower leises. Tiki can mean many things to many different people. In this article we are diving in to the origin of tiki and try to find out how it got so many different faces.

The history of Tiki Cocktails

A book that has helped us a lot to identify tiki and its origin is ‘Tiki Modern’ by Steven A. Kirsten. A must read for everyone interested in tiki cocktails. He dates the origin back to an increase in popularity of Asian and -African art in the United States in the beginning and mid 20th century. In the 40’s and 50’s it became more and more popular to have African and Asian art in your house and more and more people started collecting. It became a lifestyle for many and even restaurants and hotels started to decorate their bars, restaurants and lobbys with African and Asian art. If you look at the first Trader Vic restaurants for instance, you don’t see much Hawaiian hula girls or flower leises. The restaurants are decorated with masks, totems and Asian furniture. Drinks weren’t called Tiki back then.

In the mid 50’s you see a chance in decoration, not in drinks. They have been rum based from the beginning. Think about classic drinks like the mai tai and the zombie. Check out our blog on classic tiki drinks for some great recipes. Two important events caused a switch from Asian and African art to Hawaiian/Polynesian.

In 1959, Hawaii was granted statehood as the 50th state of the United States of America. An increase in American tourists visiting the islands followed quickly after this and they got acquainted to the Hawaiian lifestyle and traditions. This increased popularity didn’t go unnoticed by bar- and restaurant owners and the African and Asian that wasn’t as popular as ten years ago was slowly replaced by the iconic Hawaiian and Polynesian art, that we now see so often on mugs and in bars. This figure is called ‘Tiki’ and represents man’s unbridled creative force. In Polynesian mythology, Tiki was the name of a half-god, the first man. The Polynesian version of Adam. The hula dancers joined Tiki as a symbol for the tiki culture.


The increased popularity of Hawaii and the Polynesian culture led to a massive growth in tiki restaurants, tiki bars and even tiki hotels. In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s it was tiki that dominated the American bar and restaurant scene. A bar in those days was almost unimaginable without hawaii shirts, hula skirts and flower leises.

The 80’s saw a big drop in popularity of tiki. Drinks changed drastically in those days. The 80’s are largely responsible for the amaretto and pineapple juice we find in our mai tai’s in some bars. The tiki culture changed from a livestyle originated in art with beautiful and classic drinks, into a tacky and commercial proposition, almost gimmicky. Tiki drinks were served in big glasses with a cocktail umbrella and the classic recipes were transformed from rum dominant cocktails into sweet drinks with juices and liqueurs.

The cocktail renaissance that started at the beginning of the 21st century, we saw a renewed interest in the classic tiki cocktails and -culture. Bars like smugglers cove and dirty dicks brought back the tiki vibe and drinks from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and more and more bars followed. If you want to experience the true tiki culture and -drinks, we definitely advice you to visit one of these bars and ‘drown’ yourself in the tiki lifestyle and -cocktails.

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