The Birth, Death and Rebirth of Tiki

Tiki drinking first bloomed after Prohibition, and now—after a protracted decline—it has returned, integrated into the larger classic cocktail canon.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

No two cultural revivals are the same. Some flare like supernovas, casting everything else in shadow before swiftly burning themselves out. Others remain cool and dim as a distant LED, serving as a quiet beacon followed by a select few over decades.

And then there’s tiki. It embraces every form of revival, and then some.

Tiki is the catch-all term to describe both a style of cocktail and the subculture surrounding it. (It takes its name from Polynesian carved objects, which generally depicted supernatural beings.)

The first era of tiki began in 1934, the year after Prohibition was repealed, when a young man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt hatched the fine idea to open a small Los Angeles bar festooned with South Pacific masks and whatnot, much of which he’d collected during aimless wanderings abroad.

He served up exotic drinks, mostly made of rum and fruit juices. He called it Don the Beachcomber’s, and it rapidly attracted a small army of in-the-know celebrities and journalists.

And the movement soon went viral. The Polynesian pop style with its elaborate drinks started cropping up in cities large and small. Trader Vic’s, which was initially modeled on The Beachcomber, went full tiki in 1937, and launched franchises and expansions in the 1940s.

Tiki went into its supernova phase after World War II. Books like James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki launched a thousand thatch-roofed fantasies. Trader Vic’s exotic restaurants—found from Honolulu to Havana to Boston—went on to define haute drink and dining.

But then tiki’s flaring star went dark and cold. Tiki faded in the 1970s, relegated to strip-mall establishments, which used tiny umbrellas to distract patrons from the overly sweet, wholly undrinkable abominations. These drinks were essentially photocopies of photocopies of the original drinks.

The death knell? In 1989, Donald Trump closed Trader Vic’s at his Plaza Hotel in New York, declaring that it had “gotten tacky.”

Tiki hung on in a few feral establishments—notably the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale—and then came the rediscovery. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, tiki’s roots were sought by a cadre of “urban archeologists,” mostly based in California. They turned up kava bowls and tiki-head ceramic mugs at thrift shops, and sought to piece together the culture that spawned them. Muumuu-styling, flaming pineapples, and slide guitar tropical ballads suitable for a luau returned, although often swaddled in a thick layer of kitsch.

And then came the serious tiki drink scholarship.

The lead professor in the tiki drinks revival was Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who assiduously tracked down original recipes, which he published in a half-dozen volumes. Craft cocktail bars began to serve credible recreations of the classics based on his research, and a new generation of tiki-inspired bars opened up, including Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, and Beachbum Berry’s own Latitude 29 in New Orleans.

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And today? We’re now seeing the outlines of Tiki’s golden years, a time when tiki is no longer a separate and exotic culture, but integrated into the larger classic cocktail canon. Tiki is today cropping up everywhere—smaller cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Portland, Maine, are now home to serious new tiki bars. Even bars defined by dark Victorian mahogany or Mad Men Martini swank now serve drinks in faux coconut shells and flaming volcano bowls, the Mai Tais are cheek by jowl with Manhattans. And serious home bartenders who prided themselves on knowing their way around 19th century cocktail guides have now become fluent in Trader Vic.

Tiki, in short, has gone mainstream. And it’s here to stay.

Happily, the modern tiki era now has its own Magna Carta: Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, which comes out tomorrow and he wrote with his wife, Rebecca Cate.

It’s a lavishly illustrated, seriously researched, 350-page tome with more than 100 recipes, along with a well-written history and sketches of some of the lesser known tiki lights, like Stephen Crane, who launched the Kon-Tiki chain in 1959.

“We tried to put the drinks in context.” said Cate. “The complete experience is having the drinks under thatched roof next to a waterfall under the sinister gaze of a tiki.”

Cate, who with his wife opened Smuggler’s Cove seven years ago, finds it rewarding that drinkers have been increasingly appreciative of tiki drinks for reasons beyond an attraction to all things kitsch.

“The drinks are approachable and accessible, but complex enough to be interesting,” he says. “And we’re also rediscovering what we’ve known for half a century: when you set a mug in front of a guest with an elaborate garnish, you get a widening eye and a whoa! and a smile in a way you don’t when serving a vaguely bitter drink in an austere Nick and Nora glass.”

Both Jeff Berry and Martin Cate have noted that the original tiki drinks dreamed up eight decades ago were, in fact, the proto-craft cocktails—made with top-shelf spirits (the original Mai Tai called for 17-year-old rum), fresh citrus, and homemade syrups. Historically accurate tiki drinks (and their modern variations) were able to merge into the fast lane of the contemporary craft cocktail movement without nary a tap of the brakes.

Cate insists there’s still room for tiki to grow. The tiki revival blossomed first in Great Britain, and now about two dozen quality tiki bars are thriving in England, a number that has held steady for several years. “It appears they’ve reached their market saturation level,” he says, but he sees plenty of room for these specialized bars to grow in small- and mid-sized markets across the pond in the United States.

But he’s quick to note that tiki certainly won’t return to the heady days of America’s Polynesian mania, when Chicago had six major tiki palaces within walking distance of one another. “It’s 2016, and we’re in a world now with so many other distractions and entertainment and culinary options,” Cate says.

Yet when a tiki drink with its floral garnish and exotic aromas is set in front of you, it still can offer a brief escape like no other drink style. “It’s like a peek through the looking glass,” Cate says. “And bartenders are eager to offer it to their guests for the same reason it was poplar the first time around. It’s a chance to loosen your tie and forget about the outside world.”