The Return of the Tiki Cocktails

By Carlynn Woolsey, Foodable Contributor

Summer days may be drifting away, but if you find yourself craving a fruit-filled drink or need a little taste of the tropics as temperatures wind down, you are in luck!  Tiki culture is coming back in a big way, spurred by nostalgia and bartenders– who are reincarnating the classics with craft spirits.

Tiki History

The tiki bar concept originated with a man by the name of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later changed his name to Donn Beach,) in the early 1930s.  Gantt spent time working as a technical advisor on film sets in the Caribbean and South Pacific as a young man.  Upon returning to Hollywood, he purchased a vacated shop off of Hollywood Boulevard, which he turned into the now iconic Don the Beachcomber bar and restaurant. Gantt decorated the space with souvenirs from his travels and pieces of wrecked boats scavenged from the oceanfront.  He devised elaborate cocktails, composed of rum (often several varieties of rum, at that,) fruit juices and flavored syrups.  The food served at Don the Beachcomber was based loosely on a mix of Cantonese, Hawaiian, and Polynesian cuisines.  The establishment gained immediate popularity with locals and celebrities alike.  By the year 1950, Don the Beachcomber had grown to 16 locations nationwide, with many copycat franchises – notably Trader Vic’s out of Oakland, CA – following suit.

The tiki bar reached its peak following WWII, in the 1950s, as serviceman returned home from the South Pacific, recounting tales of their travels.  The musical South Pacific was a hit on Broadway and later at the box office.  Before the close of the decade, Hawaii would officially join the United States as well.  Americans were feeling a connection to the tropics and immersing themselves in tiki culture was a way to do that, on their own shores.   

Tiki to Tacky

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So what happened?  Like all fads, it is possible that this one just phased itself out, in place of something new. Some might also speculate that the experience went from tiki to tacky with the overuse kitschy décor and decline in the quality of drinks and the liqueur used to make them. Over time, the cocktail set leaned in to a more refined experience with simpler concoctions like a Dirty Martini or an Old Fashioned.  As is the case with those cocktails though, what is old is new again, and the tiki trend is no exception. Bartenders are bringing favorites back with a vengeance; this time laden with fresh fruit juices and unique imported rums.

What to Expect

At the heart of any good tiki cocktail is equally good rum, and in several cases a mix of both a dark and a light version. Minus the ‘Beachcomber,’ which you will typically find in a martini glass, tiki cocktails are served in tall glasses – likely to allow room for all of the libations inside!  Here are the drinks you can expect to see revived, in the coming months:

Zombie: The Zombie was created by Donn Beach himself, and is one of the most complex of the lot with dark and light rums, fruit juices, orange curacao, grenadine and bitters. It will definitely induce a sleep-like state!    

Mai Tai: The Mai Tai meanwhile, is the brainchild of Trader Vic’s creator Victor Bergeron, and is arguably the most popular tiki cocktail (Sorry, Donn!), with a mixture of rums, orange curacao, orgeat syrup and lime juice. 

Blue Hawaiian:  If the combinations above make you run for the hills, the Blue Hawaiian is a gentler approach, made with rum, blue curaçao, creme de coconut and pineapple juice.

You don't need a Hawaiian lei, to get your tiki on.