Short of jetting off to an island paradise, sipping on a Tiki cocktail has to be one of the easiest forms of escapism on offer in the modern bar scene. In our July/August issue, Joe Sinagra explored the Tiki revival in recent years, the fundamentals of Tiki culture, and how you can apply them in your bar. The following is an excerpt from that feature.
Tiki has been on the comeback for many years now. Its revival has excited many bartenders keen to throw off the suspenders and flat caps in favour of colourful Hawaiian shirts.
Guests too are excited by the Tiki movement; bored by classic cocktails, they seek a more exciting and stimulating environment provided by the modern Tiki bar.
To be successful, the modern Tiki bar must capture the true essence of what the godfathers of Tiki set out to create, like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic who created true paradises in areas that needed them.
TIKI HISTORY: A CRASH COURSE
Tiki started with Don the Beachcomber. In the mid-1930s, Earnest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt was building himself a reputation tending bar and creating amazing rum based cocktails. These ‘Rum Rhapsodies’ gained him fame and he used that fame to launch his own Polynesian themed restaurant.
Don had hit upon a winning idea: giving people an escape, and a place to go and forget about the real world for a while. This is the true magic of Tiki. Not only was his idea great, but teamed up with his expertise with rum cocktails and his flair for exciting and intriguing names (like the Missionary’s Downfall) he gave the people what they needed, a tropical themed escape where they could hide from the doldrums of the Great Depression.
While Don may be the father of Tiki, Victor Bergeron, who went by Trader Vic, took it to the next level. Vic was a born showman who took his sense of theatre and really applied it to the Tiki model that Don had created. He began to create Tiki myths and legends – starting with himself of course – and created the character of Trader Vic, telling tall tales about losing his leg to a shark and inviting guests to stab his wooden leg for a laugh. In reality he had lost his leg to Tuberculosis as a child.
The Trader set out to provide his guests with unending entertainment and excitement obviously through his drinks but also in the way he intersected with his guests.
RUM AND TIKI’S RELATIONSHIP OF CONVENIENCE
When asked about Tiki culture today, most people’s first association would be rum – but Tiki is far more than just rum. In fact, rum’s association with Tiki began out of necessity, the spirit being cheap and plentiful just as Tiki was beginning to find its feet.
It was far cheaper for a bar owner to purchase quality rum than a whisky or other spirit of similar quality, so Tiki bartenders became rum experts and learnt to layer flavours to create stunning and complex drinks.
True tiki bartenders are experts at layering flavours within drinks, and their drinks are balanced masterpieces that showcase the sum of the ingredients used. This began to change in the 1970s as consumer habits changed and cheaper, mass-produced, low-quality ingredients like sour mix were flooding the market, with bars starting to serve overly sweet and fruity drinks and trying to pass them off as Tiki.
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