How Tiki Stays Hip in Modern Times

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How popular is the Tiki phenomenon, some 80 years after its inception? Opening weekends at the seasonal Tiki Bar at Solomons Island in Maryland attract a crowd of well over 10,000. 

At the dockside, outdoor venue, guests enjoy luaus, live music and cocktails. They lounge on trucked-in beach sand under palm trees amid tropical foliage imported from Florida. And they thrill to the sight of giant Polynesian statues shooting 30-ft. flames. 

“People come here for that whole tropical feeling, and of course, the drinks taste really good,” explains general manager Bill Martin. 

Why is Tiki still so popular? “Tiki concepts focus on the whole experience, not just what goes in the glass—the decor, music, fashion,” says Stefan Was, owner of the Porco Lounge & Tiki Room in Cleveland, OH. “It’s escapism without getting on a plane: Step into a Tiki bar and you are whisked away to paradise.”

Tiki has its origins in the 1930s with the opening of iconic Polynesian restaurants Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood by Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) and Trader Vic’s in Oakland, CA, by Victor Bergeron. Trader Vic’s morphed into a global chain and the Tiki trend took off in the 1940s and ’50s, with a flurry of entrants. 

Although it never really died out, Tiki experienced a resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s. Many observers say this second wave was less authentic, with a loose reading of recipes and a reliance on pre-mixes. 

At the end of the century, the movement got another boost from thoroughly researched writings and original recipes preserved by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. An author and Tiki historian, Berry opened Latitude 29 in New Orleans in 2014.   

Traditional or Riff?

The third (or fourth, depending upon whom you are talking to) wave of Tiki today is riding on the cocktail evolution. Bartenders are looking beyond pre-Prohibition classics to other eras for bibulous inspiration. 

Some dig deep into Tiki traditions seeking to replicate authentic recipes, others take Tiki standards as a starting point for exploration. Many bartenders push the envelope in both directions, and all are using top-quality ingredients and applying the latest techniques.

“Tiki’s comeback is due in part to the cocktail revolution. Bartenders are constantly researching and finding new avenues to explore, looking for something fresh to bring to the bar,” says Gavin Hatcher, general manager of The Saturn Room in Tulsa, OK. The Tiki bar pays homage to the classics, but also practices a modern take on the topic, Hatcher says.

“Half of our menu is made up of classics that you can find in traditional Tiki books, the other half is made up of our recreation of these classics,” says Eric Long, bar lead at the False Idol in San Diego (drinks pictured atop). The recently opened bar, hidden inside Craft & Commerce restaurant, is a partnership between San Diego-based, multiunit operator CH Projects and Tiki authority Martin Cate. Owner of Smuggler’s Cove (and gin bar Whitechapel) in San Francisco, Cate is involved in several other Tiki concepts, including Hale Pele in Portland, OR, Lost Lake in Chicago and the just-opened TikiCat in Kansas City.

“Our drink list would be considered both new wave and old school,” says Jim Finegan, owner of The Tiki Bar at Spring Mountain, a seasonal venue in Schwenksville, PA. “We use the traditional pineapple, cranberry and grapefruit juices, but add flavored rums and vodkas to our drinks.” 

False Idol in San Diego.

American Idols

It’s not just Tiki bars, either. Many craft cocktail bars and mainstream restaurants now offer a few Tiki variations on their drink lists.

“I like the irreverence that Tiki has,” says Nick Digiovanni, head bartender at Público, an upscale/casual restaurant in St. Louis, MO. “We serve great drinks and are serious about what we do, but try not to take ourselves too seriously.” 

Currently on Público’s list is a low-ABV Tiki drink: The Party Wine Excellent ($13) is made with Foursquare Port Cask rum, Swedish Punsch, Madeira, falernum, grapefruit and lime juices, honey syrup and nut bitters. The wine and juices keep the alcohol content much lower than other drinks on the menu. The Tiki-style presentation—it’s served in a ceramic coconut mug with a “crazy straw”—garners me-too sales. 

There’s usually a Tiki-style option on the menu at Porchlight in New York, part of the Union Square Hospitality Group. Head bartender Nicholas Bennett tailored the Low Country Mai Tai ($15) to fit the bar’s Southern accent, using house-made pecan orgeat and Virgil Kane Robber Barron rye—both from South Carolina—with Cruzan black strap rum, Copper & Kings vapor distilled citrus absinthe, Cointreau, lemon juice and bitters.

The Low Country Mai Tai is served in a glass shaped like an old tin can. “The end result is something entirely Tiki and Southern at the same time,” says Bennett.

Tinkering with Tiki

Rum—all kinds of rum—is at the heart of most Tiki drinks. “Part of Tiki’s popularity is that rum is coming into the spotlight in a big way,” says Digiovanni at Público. 

But not all traditional Tiki drinks are made with rum. Innovative bartenders are experimenting with other bases, as well as fortified wine and amari to add complexity.  

“There’s a misconception that Tiki drinks all have rum and fruit juice and are overly sweet,” says Was. “That’s not the case. Many use different spirits than rum.” 

For instance, Was notes, “the Singapore Sling doesn’t have an ounce of rum in it.” He also points out that Donn the Beachcomber used a number of different rums in a single drink. 

“There’s a misconception that Tiki drinks all have rum and fruit juice and are overly sweet,” says Was. “That’s not the case. Many use different spirits than rum.” 

Porco’s take on the Zombie is Tiki Bob’s Concussion, consisting of 9½ oz. of spirits—three of which are two different kinds of 151 rum. The house limit is one drink per customer per night.

Some of Porco’s drinks are based on gin or even bourbon. “We use vermouth in some drinks, which people might not associate with Tiki, but there was lots of experimentation going on back then,” adds Was.

“Rum is one of the best spirits to split with other spirits,” says Long, and False Idol boasts a collection of 200-plus rare and vintage rums. The bar’s Mai Tai variation uses Madeira wine with Jamaican rum. “Additions like amari and fortified wines are a huge component in our bar program at False Idol.”

Long says this is a prime example of using various techniques and blending them with Tiki trends and flavors. 

“It does contribute to an ‘update’ in Tiki trends, but I think of it as another road to explore, because we still are after the same Tiki-focused goal, but adding in a layer of creativity and complexity,” he adds.

At the Saturn Room, two of the most popular cocktails are not rum-based. The Macadamia Nut Chi-chi, for one, has a vodka base, with macadamia nut liqueur, pineapple juice, and house-made coconut cream; it’s blended and served Pina Colada style. 

Chairman Mao’s Revival starts with Szechwan peppercorn gin and adds coffee and ginger liqueurs, blackstrap rum, falernum, and lime, lemon and grapefruit juices with absinthe and bitters. Some of the Saturn Room’s cocktails also play with current bartender faves such as mezcal and Chartreuse. Drinks are priced at $10 to $11.

Mug Love

Exotic trappings from serviceware to decor are key to Tiki mystique. Ornate ceramic mugs in iconic shapes from Tiki idols to coconuts and pineapples are de rigueur. 

“Part of the allure of Tiki cocktails is the glassware and the garnish,” says Hatcher. “Customers love to sip out of a cool-looking Tiki mug.” 

Because the Saturn Room makes its own coconut cream and pineapple juice, some cocktails are served in the coconut and pineapple shells. “It’s important that drinks are visually pleasing,” Hatcher says.

“We have an amazing collection of Tiki mugs from numerous different artists,” says Long. An in-house designer created False Idol’s volcano mug, and some staff members have contributed mugs from personal collections. “We even have mugs from regulars who leave them at the bar to drink out of when they come in.”

The Tiki Bar at Solomons Island naturally serves its drinks in Tiki mugs. But guests can also buy limited-edition artisanal mugs at the bar’s Everything Tiki gift shop to take home, as well as souvenir T-shirts and Polynesian knickknacks. The shop is an extra source of revenue, Martin says. 

Tiki Bar at Solomons Island also boasts a cigar bar and lounge. Thanks to the outdoor setting, guests can light up and enjoy fine cigars and pair them with an extensive selection of spirits and craft beers.

“We serve our drinks in a fine plastic cup, because our drinks speak for themselves, not the fancy glass,” says Finegan at the Tiki Bar at Spring Mountain. Disposables are also more practical in this outdoor venue.

The Volcano Bowl, with151 Demerara rum, Jamaican rum, Puerto Rican rum, grapefruit, lime, maple and simple syrup, is one of four drinks for sharing at The Saturn Room in Tulsa, OK.

Bowls of Fire & Ice

Punches served in scorpion bowls or volcanoes—often dramatized with fire or smoke—are also emblematic of Tiki.  

At Porco Lounge, a number of drinks get the smoke effect with dry ice. “We refer to it as Tiki magic,” says Was. “It creates those Instagrammable moments.” 

For instance, the Suffering Bastard cocktail, with gin, brandy, lime juice, bitters and ginger beer, is topped with a few cubes of dry ice. Flaming is limited to communal drinks like Scorpion Bowls for safety reasons, Was says: “We don’t want guests walking around with flaming glasses.” 

Also on the shared drinks menu is The Navy Voyage, for two to four people. The rum punch is served in a giant, metal, pineapple-shaped vessel with a bottle of Champagne upended. The Botany Bay, which serves a minimum of eight guests, comes in a 10-liter barrel and includes a bottle of Goslings Reserve rum and a bottle of Champagne. It’s priced at $200.

“Our staff encourages big groups to order a punch bowl so they have something to drink besides water while they look over the menu,” says Hatcher. Most popular at The Saturn Room are the Scorpion Bowl and Blood Of Kapu Tiki (rum, bitters, absinthe, lime, grapefruit and orange juices and grenadine). The Tropical Itch is a strong punch of Puerto Rican rum, vodka, Jamaican rum, Grand Mariner, mango, lime juice and bitters. Drink prices range from $35 to $50. 

False Idol offers a traditional Luau Scorpion Bowl that combines Jamaican rum, gin and brandy. “We also offer our own version called Alkala the Fierce, which has two different aged rums and house-made, chai-infused bourbon,” notes Long. Both sell for $45 each. 

When either punch is ordered, the False Idol volcano erupts with cracks of thunder and lightning and the banquette seats rumble and shake. 

Tiki Tacky

Call it kitsch, but Tiki fans love the elaborate decor motifs. Rattan furniture, flaming (or fake) torches, fishing net ceilings filled with glass buoys, petrified pufferfish, wooden totems, idols carved from stone and the like.  

False Idol has a speakeasy vibe: guests enter the 1,000-sq.-ft. bar through a walk-in cooler in Craft & Commerce restaurant. The owners enlisted a team of Tiki artists to adorn the interior, notably Bosko Hrnjak and Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez. 

“The bar top itself looks like a small museum exhibit with a glass enclosure of memorabilia from local Tiki establishments,” says Long.

“You want a Tiki bar to be as dark as possible—but still be able to read the menu,” says Was. Porco Lounge is decorated with outrigger canoes, giant statues, lamps and other original memorabilia from the now-defunct Kon Tiki Restaurant chain that came from a local collector; he is now deceased but his cremains rest in a Tiki statue on the lounge’s backbar.

Legacy Lives On

The Tiki wave rolls on and on—helped by proselytizing of its practitioners and adherents. The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL, one of authentic Polynesian restaurants from the Tiki’s Golden Age, celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

Tiki is worshiped at conferences and seminars around the country. One of the biggest conventions is Tiki Oasis, scheduled for Aug. 10 to 13 this year in San Diego. “We expect to see a ton of enthusiasts at False Idol, and we’re really excited about the convention,” says Long.

Was and his team from the Porco Lounge regularly travel the country to do Tiki pop-ups, including a stint this summer in New York. “The Tiki trend has been around for over 80 years,” points out Was. “I don’t think it will ever disappear.”  

Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.

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