If I would show you a paper umbrella, there is a big chance you would immediately think of cocktails. Somehow the paper umbrella has become synonymous for cocktails. The origin of the cocktail umbrella is not a 100% clear and as with many cocktail stories there are several versions.
An exotic approach
We do know that decorative paper umbrellas have been used in Chinese art and culture for centuries (21 AD). From there it gradually spread throughout Asia, though in the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh sculptures depicting the use of umbrella’s have also been found. The word umbrella comes from the Latin word 'Umbra', meaning shade. So, we do know where it was used for in those days.
It is quite possible that soldiers stationed in the South Pacific brought the paper umbrella to the United States in the 20th century. Paper parasols were used in the South Pacific by the locals to protect them from the sun and warmth. This exotic approach was then brought to the states and used for the exotic drink that gained more and more popularity, the tiki-cocktail.
How did the umbrella make its way to the cocktail?
In a Bon Appétit magazine interview Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, Tiki expert and author of many cocktail books on Tiki, credits Harry Yee from the Hilton Waikiki with being the first to use the umbrella as a cocktail garnish in 1959. He used it to garnish his Tapa Punch.
Others credit Don the Beachcomber with starting the whole umbrella trend in his restaurants around 1932. One them is Joe Beregeron, the son of Victor ‘trader Vic’ Bergeron, who bought all of Don the Beachcomber’s Tiki stuff and restaurant. Joe said that amongst the stuff they bought from the Beachcomber, they found many umbrellas.
But why put an umbrella on your cocktail?
I think it has to do with the people in the South Pacific protecting themselves from the sun with an umbrella. How can we protect the ice in our exotic Tiki drinks from melting? Right, put an umbrella on it. It looks cool too!
Obviously, there is no science backing this theory. No paper umbrella will keep your ice from melting. We drink too fast for that anyway. But it does make your drink look good and it is a nice story to tell your friends when sipping on a Piña Colada.