Is It Tiki Time?

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

In Sunday’s New York Times, drinks writer Jonathan Miles pulls up a chair at Elettaria and gets friendly with that timeless tiki tipple, the Navy Grog.

He’s hardly alone. As has recently been noted by writers ranging from New York to San Francisco, tiki is on the upswing. Earlier this month, the soft opening of the nautical-themed Rusty Knot—like Elettaria, staffed at least in part by bartenders seasoned at some of New York’s most renowned cocktail establishments—was apparently so popular that owners remained closed the following days to let the hype cool down.

On the West Coast, this enthusiasm is nothing new: for the past few years, Forbidden Island near San Francisco has been pouring Fog Cutters and Nui Nuis for a growing crowd of happy customers. Last weekend I visited Teardrop Lounge in Portland, which hosts Tiki Third Tuesdays, serving drinks such as the Cobra’s Fang and the Test Pilot alongside plates of bacon-wrapped chicken livers. And in a tiny, tiny spot in West Hollywood, second- and third-generation descendants of Ray Buhen—one of the original bartenders at Don the Beachcomber, the Polynesian palace that launched a thousand imitators—carry on the rum-soaked tradition at Tiki-Ti.

Why the lasting love for a style that fizzled out more than 30 years ago? "Fun" is the short answer, but that’s not the only thing. The painstakingly researched books from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry have sparked many a mixologist’s imagination, and as Miles notes in his column, dipping into the tiki well may also be a response to the increasingly serious approach adopted by many of today’s cutting-edge cocktail bars.

Whatever the reason, now there are more places to pull up a Scorpion Bowl and sit back and contemplate the island life. What do you think: is tiki’s renewal timely or tacky?

Related: The History of Tiki [American Heritage]