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 br>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!