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The Tiki Phenomenon Is Back, Apparently Kitsch-Free

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Photograph from Tubes. on Flickr

It may be premature to invest in Hawaiian-shirt futures just yet, but if it's in the Wall Street Journal, chances are it's official: the once (and still sometimes) kitschy topic of tiki is on the resurgence.

Last week, in a piece called "Tiki Doesn't Have to Be Tacky," Eric Felten tackles what I acknowledged a while back: "The time seems ripe for a Polynesian Pop revival--and, in fact, it's already under way."

But if the tiki renaissance was already in progress, now it has even more reason to blossom. As Felten notes, the original era of tiki style began in 1934, during the Great Depression, and tiki's heyday was in the 1950s and early '60s, during the post-war and Cold War era.

Today, with our global financial turmoil and engagement in more wars overseas, more people may be searching for good, old-fashioned escapism. As Felten writes, today "there's a new allure to the escape it promises. What are we escaping now? The financial woes may be the best excuse of the moment, but tiki provides an escape somewhat more fundamental, a vacation from the everyday, even if today's bears little resemblance to the everyday of the '50s."

To witness the contemporary embrace of tiki, look no further than San Francisco, where, this week, dozens of Scorpion Bowl-imbibing enthusiasts are engaging in Tiki Crawl 2008, an event organized by Tiki Central. Participants orchestrate a coordinated, and no-doubt colorful, assault on some of the Bay Area's tiki institutions, ranging from the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel to today's new capital of tiki, Forbidden Island in Alameda.

Owned by Martin Cate, Forbidden Island has helped drive the growing interest in tiki by preparing classic and classic-style exotic drinks with fresh ingredients and an approach emphasizing quality and balance (rather than sheer alcoholic musclepower). Cate has earned accolades for his work to revive the art of exotic drink preparation, and his presentations at the recent Tales of the Cocktail were some of the most energized and highly attended of the event.

Felten acknowledges Forbidden Island's impact, writing "Will the tiki-revival flourish? Perhaps, especially if more places follow the lead of Mr. Cate and his Forbidden Island crew, concocting compelling drinks that can't be found anywhere but at a tiki bar."

Of course, the original tiki phenomenon, which lasted the better part of four decades, collapsed in a weight of kitsch and tacky tribute in the late 1960s and early '70s. Does the current tiki revival have staying power?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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