Ever since the first Tiki bar opened 80 years ago, people have been fascinated by the concept. “Tiki is about the adaptation of the look and feel of Polynesian culture without any authenticity,” according to Martin Cate, owner/designer of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. It’s also about killer rum drinks.
Cate discussed the rise and fall and budding resurgence of the Tiki bar in a Feb. 16 session at Arizona Cocktail Week. He credited Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who opened Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1934, with starting the Tiki craze.
Gantt had travelled with his grandfather for years, collecting souvenirs and learning about spices and spirits, particularly rum. His drinks adhered to the punch recipe: “One of sour (citrus), two of sweet (sugar) three of strong (spirits) four of weak (juice),” then he added “five of spice to make it nice.”
Nobody was using baking spices in cocktails at that time, Cate said, and Gantt also experimented with using different kinds of citrus and juices and honey and syrup in place of sugar. The Zombie is one of Gantt’s most famous creations; he made it with four different kinds of rum. “Nobody would think to do this—you never saw a Martini with four gins,” Cate said.
People had never seen anything like the exotic drinks and island decor at Don the Beachcomber. Gantt became so entrenched with Don the Beachcomber that he legally changed his name to Donn Beach.
Another key figure in Tiki’s rise is Victor Jules Bergeron, who opened Hinky Dink’s in Oakland, CA, with a ski-lodge theme in 1934. Bergeron started to learn about exotic spirits through travel, and he became fascinated with Tiki after visiting Don the Beachcomber. The menu and decor at Hinky Dink’s began to take on a tropical flair, and it was renamed Trader Vic’s in 1937.
Trader Vic’s, which later moved to San Francisco, was the most important place in that city for 40 years, Cate said. Orgeat was Vic’s secret cocktail ingredient, he noted, “and drink presentation was very important.” Vic was inspired by Polynesian punch parties and created the communal drinking bowl for libations like Volcanos and Scorpion Bowls sipped with long straws.
Tiki enjoyed a long run—more than 30 years as a cocktail trend–but it had become tacky by the 1970s. Its popularity had been fueled by mid-century naiveté, Cate said. Back in 1943, “Americans didn’t travel and they didn’t know that much about the South Pacific,” so Tiki bars were about escapism, fun and danger.
As Tiki fell out of favor, many of the long-time Tiki bars closed, and much of the Polynesian-style architecture disappeared as well. There are a few still authentic spots left, said Cate, such as Tucson, AZ-based Kon Tiki—which is celebrating its 50th anniversary on April 5—and Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, FL
And Cate, who opened Smuggler’s Cove in late 2009, notes that Tiki is coming back. Three Dots and a Dash opened last year in Chicago, for instance, and Phoenix has two locations of a modern Tiki concept called Hula’s.
What’s driving Tiki’s return? It’s an affordable luxury, Cate said. You may not be able to take a trip to Tahiti, but you can enjoy a Tiki cocktail in a relaxed tropical setting. “It’s a $12 vacation,” he noted.