We’ll Drink to That: Tiki cocktails
This is what comes to almost everyone’s mind upon hearing the words tiki drink: neon-colored concoctions in tacky vessels loaded with cheap booze and cloying, sticky juice, quaffed at sunny tourist traps by desperate vacationers trying to shake off bad weather or maybe the other fifty weeks of their miserable year.
That’s far from the truth, however. While tiki cocktails and the culture that accompanies them have innate mid-twentieth century kitsch with a touch of fun built in (think South Pacific, Gilligan’s Island, Don Ho, etc.), they deserve more respect than they receive.
Tiki drinks have gotten a bum rap, and, appropriately, a bum has come to their rescue, rehabbing the reputation of these usually rum-based drinks. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is the world’s leading tiki expert, though he is not quick to take credit for it.
“The tiki revival was on a parallel track with the craft cocktail renaissance of the early 2000s,” he says. “When they finally converged, each really helped feed and grow the other.”
Through his books, articles, website, speaking appearances, and even iPhone apps, Berry is reviving appreciation of a cocktail style that had become a punch line. He’s helped coax the true sophistication out of tiki—even though he does it wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
“A well-crafted tiki drink is a high-wire balancing act, juggling sweet and sour, strong and light, fruity and dry, providing new layers of taste that keep the flavor evolving from the opening notes to the mid-palate to the finish,” explains Berry. “The best of them throw your palate a curveball with unexpected, unidentifiable layers of taste, usually accomplished through the sly use of syrups that non-tropical bars tend to ignore: orgeat, passion fruit, vanilla, falernum, and cinnamon.”
Berry’s fanaticism for potent rum drinks and his diligence for tracking down lost recipes with archaeological vigor have led him all over the world, but his efforts almost always circle back to the grandaddys of tiki: Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic.
“Don Beach” was born Ernest Gantt in New Orleans just after the turn of the twentieth century and opened a Hollywood watering hole called Don the Beachcomber. It featured a rum-centric menu and South Pacific décor. Within a year, just up the Pacific Coast Highway in San Francisco, Victor “Vic” Bergeron Jr. opened a similar “Polynesian” restaurant he called Hinky Dinks (which he later changed, self-referentially, to Trader Vic’s). And the tiki era was born.
Beachcomber and Vic expanded, turning their bar/restaurants into national chains that eventually extended across the globe. Soon thousands of other tiki bars were popping up around the world, copying their thatched hut rum-running styles.
And this is where tiki—both figuratively and literally—became diluted. The clones started serving what they called tiki drinks, but, as Berry points out, were actually “sweet, syrupy, cruise-ship drinks” that were not at all the powerful, nuanced, dimensional cocktails developed by the trend’s originators.
Berry has hunted down old books and aging bartenders in order to unearth the original drink recipes. Among Berry’s findings are three radically different variants of Beachcomber’s vaunted Zombie—a powerhouse potable so heavy duty that customers were limited to two per visit.
Tiki has come back—as Berry points out—somewhat in tandem with the craft cocktail boom. Its faux tropicalia and boozy allure has been growing as adventurous drinkers begin to venture beyond the staid confines of typical bar menus. Interestingly, it’s for the same reason that folks in the mid-twentieth century flocked to these kinds of drinks in the first place. Those tired of the craft beers or the plethora of strangely flavored vodkas can now take joy in an exotic drink that boasts a unique flavor profile, packs a wallop, and has its own history.
While full bore tiki-exclusive places aren’t everywhere, the best bars are adding these old school rum and citrus-based drinks to the rotation. New York City boasts joints like PKNY and Otto’s Shrunken Head, while Los Angeles has the Purple Orchid, along with classics like Don the Beachcomber and Tiki-Ti. This isn’t to say that tiki is going to take over every corner, but the revival is growing.
As for Beachbum Berry, his next adventure will not have him traveling the world to hunt down tiki classics. Instead, he’ll be hanging back in the French Quarter, the birth place of Don the Beachcomber, where he is due to open his own tiki outpost later this year.
Three essential tiki drinks
(Taken from Jeff Berry’s brand new Total Tiki app available on iTunes and found in his books Grog Log, Beachbum Berry Remixed, and Intoxica!)
(Trader Vic, 1950s)
6 ounces orange juice
4 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 ½ ounces orgeat syrup
6 ounces light Puerto Rican rum
1 ounce brandy
16 ounces crushed ice
Put everything in a blender. Blend for up to ten seconds. Pour unstrained into a tiki bowl. Garnish with a gardenia. (Serves two to four people.)
(Don the Beachcomber, 1937)
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce sugar syrup
½ ounce gold Jamaican rum
½ ounce dark Jamaican rum
1 ounce gold Virgin Islands rum
½ teaspoon grenadine
½ teaspoon falernum
2 dashes Angostura bitters
6 ounces crushed ice
Add all ingredients to a blender. Blend on high speed for no more than five seconds. Pour the blender’s contents, unstrained, into a tall glass. If necessary, add more ice to fill glass.
(Trader Vic, 1944)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce orange Curacao
¼ ounce orgeat syrup
¼ ounce sugar syrup
1 ounce aged Jamaican rum
1 ounce aged Martinique rum
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake well. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lime and a mint sprig.
Donny Kutzbach writes about cocktails for Buffalo Spree.