Tiki 101: A Beginner's Guide

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[Photo: Jessica Leibowitz]

Imagine an entire subculture of cocktails named Adam.

"What do you want to do tonight, honey?"

"Oh, maybe we can try that new Adam bar that just opened in SoHo! I hear they have the coolest Adam decor and mugs."

In a sense, that's what tiki is. The word is derived from Māori mythology about the first man—their equivalent to Adam in the Eden story.

Now, you might have heard rumors about the death of the tiki trend, but I believe those rumors are untrue. As Robert Simonson wrote for Punch last month, tiki is more than a passing fad, no matter how many tiki bars might have shuttered in the last couple of years. Simonson's argument, which I agree with, is that tiki has gone sort of mainstream. While, tiki bars continue to thrive in San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, and L.A., in other cities (NYC most notably), tiki is just another category of drink on the menu at many cocktail bars, alongside classic cocktails and modern creations.

Today we won't be chatting about dedicated tiki bars or kitschy faux-Polynesian decor and attire. Instead, I want to provide a brief history of tiki, talk about what sets tiki cocktails apart from other cocktails, and get you started stocking up your home tiki bar.

Tiki History

Zombie Punch

Zombies, anyone? [Photo: Jessica Leibowitz]

Tiki started 80 years ago, with Don the Beachcomber (both the man and the restaurant) in Hollywood. The restaurant was the work of a man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who later in life legally changed his name to Donn Beach. Gantt spent time as a young man in the Caribbean and South Pacific and came home with a head full of tropical notions and suitcases laden with souvenirs from his travels, including a collection of South Pacific artifacts that he loaned out to movie productions for props. Gantt devised the idea of making drinks from rum, flavored syrups, and fruit juices, and then pairing them with foods based loosely on Cantonese, Hawaiian, and Polynesian cuisines.

A few years after Don the Beachcomber opened, Victor Bergeron opened the first of his many Trader Vic's restaurants, in Oakland, California, after visiting Gantt's place. Bergeron and Gantt had very different career paths. Trader Vic had tuberculosis in the knee as a child; as a result, his leg was amputated when he was six. Later in life, he told all sorts of tall tales about losing his leg in heroic endeavors in exotic locales.

Don the Beachcomber, on the other hand, was able of body, and when World War II started, he went off to Europe, where he used his restaurant experience to run rest-and-recreation centers for servicemen. While he was away, his wife expanded his empire to 16 locations of Don the Beachcomber. They later divorced, though, and his ex-wife retained control of the company and, in the United States, control of the Don the Beachcomber name. Beach took the concept to Hawaii in the 1940s, prior to its statehood, where he could legally open his own Don the Beachcomber bar. Beach remained in Hawaii until he died in 1989.

Bergeron spent the war years franchising the Trader Vic's name, starting with a Seattle franchise in 1940. Eventually, the Trader Vic's line grew to 25 tiki bars around the world. At his death in 1984, the Trader Vic's empire was a multimillion-dollar business.

Don the Beachcomber's restaurant was popular with Hollywood celebrities in the late 1930s and 1940s, and his success was eventually copied by many other restaurateurs, not just Victor Bergeron. Tiki was huge in the 1950s, as servicemen returning from the South Pacific brought back tales of their travels. The post-war economy was booming, and some families had the budget for travel to tropical destinations—or at least feel that exotic vacations were within reach. The musical South Pacific was a hit on Broadway and then later at the movies. Hawaii joined the U.S. in 1959, and shortly after, Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii.

Americans developed a romanticized obsession with the tropics, and tiki bars helped them to get their fix at home.

Decline and Revival

Tiki began to fall away in the 1960s and '70s. It's unclear why, exactly, but maybe it was just the passing of a fad, maybe folks go tired of it all. The Swingers era of the 1990s helped to revive the style—the funny mugs, the coconuts, the ersatz palm trees, the bright clothing, and even the Exotica style of music—but it's not clear that the drinks of those days were very good.

The revival in tiki cocktails, as a form to treat with respect (as opposed to Mai Tai mixes and bottled Hurricanes) arose in the Naughts, as the craft-cocktail scene began to emerge. The man who led the way was Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, perhaps the world's biggest tiki fan. He's written several books on tiki, and he's planning to open his own tiki bar later this year. Berry wore out dozens of pairs of shoes, talking to bartenders from Don the Beachcomber and the original Trader Vic's locations, prying from them recipes and formulas long thought forever lost. Berry consults on cocktail menus, leads talks and seminars on tiki history, and has a tiki wardrobe you can't believe.

The kitsch of tiki might come and go, or it might remain popular in some cities and wane in others, but I think the fundamentals of great tiki cocktails are here to stay.

Tiki Fundamentals

You want to make great tiki drinks? First, start with rum. Not every tiki drink is rum-based; you'll find recipes that call for gin, Scotch and other whiskies, pisco and other brandies, and tequila, just to name a few. But tiki is inspired by the tropics, and rum's the winner in the tropics, so start with rum. You can always branch out to other base spirits later.

Donn Beach stocked nearly 140 different rums at Don the Beachcomber. You won't need that many, but if you're serious about this, you should have probably three:

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  • One should be either a rich Demerara-style rum from Guyana, or a funky rhum agricole from Martinique.
  • Also choose a rich Jamaican rum.
  • Finally, I'd suggest a crisp rum in a Cuban/Puerto Rican style. For this, pick up something like Brugal White, from the Dominican Republic, or Old New Orleans Crystal, from Louisiana.

Second, you need fresh juice. Trader Vic insisted on it, and so should you. For a dark time mid-century, tiki bartenders were the only booze-mongers who bothered working with fresh ingredients. They helped keep alive a tradition started by pre-Prohibition bartenders, one that was mostly forgotten until the classic-cocktail revival of the past 12 or so years.

A third fundamental of tiki drinks is layered flavor. Donn and Vic would both start devising new drinks by finding the perfect blend of two or more rums, and then slowly add nuance with fruit juices, liqueurs, bitters, and other ingredients.

Fourth, you want spice or other flavor accents. Syrups and liqueurs flavored with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, almond, and pomegranate are crucial in many tiki drinks for providing the layered flavor I mentioned just a minute ago.

Stocking a Home Tiki Bar

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

My approach to stocking a home bar is not to go to the liquor store and spend your entire paycheck on one of everything. Instead, start by choosing a drink or two that you want to explore—a Sidecar, perhaps, or a Manhattan. You get everything you need for that drink, and then you build the bar out from there.

I think I know the perfect tiki drink to use for this approach: the Mai Tai. Trader Vic's Mai Tai called for a 17-year-old rum from J. Wray & Nephew, which is no longer available. "The flavor of this great rum," Vic intoned, "wasn't meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings." A well-made Mai Tai highlights the flavors of the base spirit, complementing them and pushing them to the fore, in the same way the sugar and bitters pushes the whiskey in an Old Fashioned front and center.

To approximate the rich, complex flavors of the long-gone Wray & Nephew, modern tikiphiles use a blend of rums, usually two. The tiki writer Jeff "Beachbum" Berry suggests Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum and Appleton Estate Extra 12-year-old dark Jamaican rum. Rum-fiend Matt "Rumdood" Robold even went so far as to taste his way through a month of Mai Tais (poor fellow) before picking his favorite blend, which—SPOILER ALERT—also happens to be Clément and Appleton Extra 12.

Now, as it happens, I mentioned earlier that for a well-stocked tiki bar, you should have a Demarara rum or an agricole, and a Jamaican rum, in addition to a crisp Puerto Rican rum, and if you're still paying attention, you'll see that the Berry/Robold recipe calls for the agricole and the Jamaican, so if you get those you're off to a great start.

What else do you need for the Mai Tai, aside from the rums?

First you'll need a couple of things you probably already have, or that you can grab easily: limes and simple syrup. For the syrup, I'd mix up some rich Demerara sugar with water (1:1 ratio) in a saucepan over low heat. Stir to dissolve and let it cool before using.

Then you'll just need a couple of things you might not normally have around: orgeat syrup and curaçao. The first requires some explanation. Orgeat is an almond-based syrup from France. You can make it yourself or order it online. If you're serious about tiki, you'll appreciate either the time you spend making it or the money you spend buying it, because orgeat is a classic ingredient in a number of tiki cocktails. ("Beachbum" Berry's Tiki+ app, for iOS, contains 28 recipes that call for orgeat, including such classics as the Fog Cutter, the Cocoanut Grove Cooler, the Royal Hawaiian, and the infamous Scorpion Bowl.)

So consider orgeat a staple of the well-stocked tiki bar, in the same way you'd consider canned tomatoes or dried beans the staple of a well-stocked pantry. Get it or make it, because you'll need it.

Next, the curaçao. Get something good here; don't get junk. And for the love of Lono, the tiki god of fertility and peace, don't even think of buying anything that's blue.

I suggest Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, but Cointreau will also do. Rumdood Robold likes Clément Créole Shrubb. (The Clément Créole Shrubb is made with Clément's rhum agricole, so it has a healthy hint of funk that you won't find in most curaçao.) For the sake of stocking a versatile bar, I'd start with the curaçao, because you can use it a variety of drinks—Sidecars, Margaritas, and other sours—in addition to the Mai Tai. But then if you want to grab a bottle of Shrubb and try it in this, to see how you like it compared to the curaçao, that could be a fun experiment.

Next Steps

So what do you do next? I have a few suggestions.

  1. Check out Jeff Berry's books: Beachbum Berry Remixed is a good place to start. He also has a new title, Beachbum Berry's Potions of the Caribbean.
  2. If you're on iOS, try the Tiki+ app I mentioned earlier; it's handy to have cocktail recipes right there on your phone.
  3. Go shopping! The recipes in either the books or the app will point you toward other rums and ingredients you might not already have. Have fun with those.

About the author: Michael Dietsch lives with his wife and kids in Brooklyn. His first book, Shrubs, is due in October 2014. You can reach him on twitter at @dietsch.

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