Aging Nick at Night viewers will remember that Brady Bunch episode in which Bobby ruins the family’s Hawaiian vacation by insisting a tiki statue he found is a good luck charm, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. His face almost gets cut in half by a piece of poorly hung hotel decor. Peter wakes up with a tarantula on his chest, Greg totally bites it in a surfing contest. All based around a little culturally ambiguous statue.
It was 1972. Island culture was on its way out, thanks to a nightly stream of napalm-infused jungle footage from Vietnam. But for the preceding four decades, and now again, four decades later, tiki cocktails topped the proverbial totem pole for one reason in particular: We all just want to escape to the beach.
According to tiki bar historian and authority Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry, the tiki bar was created by a former bootlegger named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Grant. This was back when the Depression was in full swing, but for the first time in 13 years, bars could sell booze.
Grant, who would actually legally change his name to Donn Beach years later, had opted out of Prohibition – first by selling illegal hooch in the States, and then taking to the open sea and traveling extensively in the South Pacific. When he returned to home waters he saw a population that desperately needed two things: a drink and an escape.
He opened Don the Beachcomber, the nation’s first tiki bar, in 1934 and filled it with artifacts from his travels. In the coming years, a franchise of Beachcombers and copycats would fill up with with flaming torches, wicker furniture, flower leis, “Polynesian” cuisine, and knockout rum cocktails borrowed and adapted from the Caribbean.
Not long after Don the Beachcomber introduced the down-and-out American populace to a little tropical escape, Victor Bergeron came on the scene. He opened a tiki bar in Oakland that he would then franchise in 1940 as Trader Vic’s, which is still going strong today as possibly the best-known tiki chain in history.
Tiki bars continued in relative popularity through World War II. American GIs, who would have likely never left the boundaries of their home states otherwise, were sent thousands of miles across the sea to a central US naval base in Hawaii, and outwards to Pacific islands they’d never heard of . When they came home, these proud members of the drinking class jumped on board – and added significantly to – the already humming tiki trend.
Circumstances continued to accommodate the craze: Hawaii gained statehood. Air travel was more accessible than ever. The boom of American commercialism in the sixties ensured that bars like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s became American institutions. Drinks were served in ceramic tiki statues that patrons could take home and collect. Branded swizzle sticks and playful voodoo images ensured that couples and families could drink in just enough of the exotic while remaining safely in the red, white and blue.
It’s tough to suss out who brought what to the torchlit table in terms of cocktail offerings, but both Don and Victor claimed to have invented the Mai Tai, which is the bedrock of all tiki cocktails. Regardless, the trend expanded until the country was awash with neon-colored, rum-based tickets out of the ordinary. The drinks were sweet but not saccharine, boozy but not belligerent, and just fruity enough to make you forget where you are for a night. Rum played the central role in most of them, but gin, Scotch and tequila made appearances as well.
They were strong, too. One of the lasting examples of the tiki glory days, The Zombie, combines four different kinds of rum (including 151-proof jet fuel), brandy, and fruit juice. As the story goes, Donn Beach served it to a hungover friend before a big business pitch, and the guy said he felt like the walking dead for four days. Eventually a two drink per customer policy had to be instated.
All of a sudden, the distracting mist and mystery of the tiki craze began to evaporate. Current events in the South Pacific bore a realism the American public couldn’t ignore, and unfortunately for those touting Mai Tais and Planter’s Punches, the tropics were no longer considered endearing.
Vietnam and the counterculture movement surrounding it rejected the white collars Madison Ave types and Hollywood crooners sipping rum out of plastic skulls. What used to be a fun distraction was now seen as willful blindness to the plight of indigenous people and a bitter reminder of the troubles that America had gotten itself into.
At the same time, American home bars started to simplify. As the seventies turned into the eighties, classic cocktails (including the tiki enclave) edged toward extinction in favor of ready-made mixes, blenders, and ungodly amounts of sugar. Like the song goes, if you like pina coladas... well, let’s hope you have a healthy pancreas.
As all things do, cocktail culture continued to rotate on its axis – what was once passé and tacky is now back in the limelight of American mixology.
According to Amy McCarthy and her fantastic article on the subject, Mad Men had as much to do with tiki cocktails’ modern resurgence as anything. And why not? The sight of Don Draper sipping a Mai Tai in Hawaii is enough to make anyone start slicing pineapples. Whatever the reason, the style is back in full swing, and what’s more, a discerning generation of drinkers and bartenders has determined the old junk ingredients won't do. Fresh juices, overproof rum, and naturally-reduced syrups with just a handful of ingredients all serve to make some of the most beautifully complex, sweet-yet-tart-yet-boozy drinks we’ve seen in half a century.
The past triumphs of Trader Vic and Donn Beach are being replicated, at least to some extent, by the likes of Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and Latitude 29 in New Orleans. They’re reviving many of the old classics, and using those bamboo-entwined roots to create exciting new takes on the tiki tradition, with a wink and a nod to the showy aesthetic that surrounds the style.
The style is kitschy, sure. But when done right, it's also sweetly delicious, strongly refreshing, and uniquely fun – regardless of how far away you are from the nearest beach.