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One Mai Tai, Hold the Colonialism Please

The next generation of bartenders is working to undo the original sin of tiki

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No drink conjures a blue ocean, hot sand, and swaying palm trees more vividly than the pina colada. There are no pithy Hemingway or Mencken bromides about the consummate blend of pineapple, coconut, and white rum, but Beyoncé has sung about “pina colada-in’.” There’s also that song, which manages to sound how it feels to drink one — if admittedly more curbside Middle America than beachside Caribbean. The pina colada is often considered a tiki classic, even being hailed by some as “the most beloved cocktail to emerge from the tiki era.”

But the pina colada is not a tiki drink. It did not originate in the fevered island fantasia of an erstwhile Texan or through the relentless cocktail experimentation of a savvy bar mogul. It was definitively born, even in its most fantastic creation myth — which involves the folk hero pirate Roberto Cofresí in the early 1800s — in Puerto Rico. And though there multiple competing claims to its origin, the most generally accepted one for the drink as we know it is the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, where it was created by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez in 1954, using local Don Q rum and Coco Lopez canned cream of coconut. It is distinctly a tropical drink.

It might seem like a matter of semantics whether the paper umbrella under which the pina colada falls is “tiki” or “tropical.” But the two are not synonymous. “Tiki drinks refer to the ‘rhum rhapsodies’ of Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, and their descendants,” says Rafa García Febles, a Puerto Rican-born, New York-based bartender. “And historically, they were made by U.S. Americans or their immigrant bartenders to sell a made-up vision of Polynesia, the Caribbean, and ‘the tropics’ to other Americans.”

“Tropical” is a looser genre, defined largely by drinks that were developed in the tropics — mojitos and daiquiris in Cuba, and the pina colada in Puerto Rico — and which are stylistically distinct from tiki. While a tiki drink can be composed of up to 10 different ingredients, and generally requires sweet, sour, spiced, and strong components, tropical drinks are generally constructed à la minute with fresh ingredients that primarily balance acid, sugar, and alcohol.

“The pina colada is a natively Puerto Rican drink,” García Febles says, meaning that it was created in Puerto Rico, with Puerto Rican ingredients, by a Puerto Rican. “It became associated with ‘the tropics’ at the same time tiki was commodifying the concept and was sold to tourists, hence the confusion.”

The subsuming of anything with a hint of rum and fruit under the category of tiki is a misappropriation that has persisted precisely because of tiki’s original sin: What gave birth to it was a far-reaching act of cultural pillage, one that swiped broadly and unabashedly from Caribbean drinking traditions, then forced them into a pastiche molded by Polynesian aesthetics, all for U.S. consumers.

With the modern tiki revival, bartenders are working to undo that original sin, or at least toward some form of absolution — to hang on to the fun and the orgeat, just without the appropriation. But what does it mean to create a distinct sense of place when that place is not your own?

The Polynesian aesthetic that comes to mind when someone says “tiki bar” was established in 1933 by Donn Beach (born in Texas as Ernest Gantt) with his Hollywood bar Don’s Beachcomber. Trader Vic’s soon followed in Oakland a few years later, after a restaurateur named Victor Bergeron visited and decided he could “do it better.” The tiki bar’s heyday arrived with the end of World War II, when soldiers returned home from the South Pacific in search of distraction.

The look of tiki solidified around elaborate ceramic mugs modeled on Polynesian statues, along with flamingos, palm trees, and pineapples, all of which evoke — from a mainland U.S.-centric point of view — an escape from reality. The word “tiki” itself was taken from Maori mythology, where it’s the name of the first man ever created, and refers to the carved statues of humans prevalent throughout Polynesia.

The postwar tiki moment managed to stretch on into the 1970s, which is impressively long-lived as far as trends go. Boredom, over-expansion, and declining quality — prefab sour mixes replaced fresh juice, while bland, generic rums were subbed in for high-quality, distinctive spirits — led to a hard die-off. By 1982, Gael Greene was asking in the pages of New York, “Does anyone know or care that Trader Vic’s still exists, duskily dim, in the netherworld of The Plaza?” The Zombie gave way to the cosmopolitan and fruit-flavored martinis.

In the aughts, we were collectively reminded — extremely sternly, and frequently by men in vests and suspenders and interesting facial hair — that in a time before tiki and World War II and Prohibition, drinks were once made differently. That the Old Fashioned did not contain club soda or half an orange tree, martinis should not taste like fruit, and ice cubes the size of boulders should be carved by a rugged, calloused hand. It was extremely exhausting.

So, a few years ago, people wondered what it would be like if drinking cocktails were fun again. When Shelby Allison, one of the partners behind Chicago’s famed Lost Lake, and fellow bartender Paul McGee decided to do “something stupid” for a cocktail book club project in 2011, she accidentally fell in love with tiki drinks, which had not yet been revisited with the same reverence as the pre-Prohibition classics.

“Like most people, I thought of rum- and fruit-forward cocktails as being sickly sweet, unsophisticated, flat pool drinks,” she says. But opening up Jeff Berry’s Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, she found “beautiful, complex, wonderful, historically significant contributions to the cocktail canon.”

The craft cocktail movement, for all its dogma, had in fact laid bare the way for a tiki revival — restoring pride of place to meticulous preparation, fresh ingredients, and quality spirits, built on a respect for time-honored drink traditions. But with the return of tiki, bartenders were confronted with a dilemma: They loved the mood that tiki projected and, of course, the intricate drinks, but also knew they shouldn’t serve cocktails in the hollowed-out heads of Maori deities. “Like any cultural or cocktail or culinary moment in our history,” Allison says, “we can be more sensitive and open to marginalized people.”

Allison hopes to leave “topless native babes” and other hallmarks of “colonial fetishization” in the past, which is why Lost Lake brands itself as “tropical cocktail bar,” not a tiki bar. “With this new wave of tiki,” Allison says, “we have an opportunity to distill down Don the Beachcomber’s original intent, which is to take people out of their miserable lives to somewhere they’ve never been.”

But to continue to use people and places that are real — and that increasingly experience suffer from a precarious existence, owing to climate change, among other calamities — as inspirations for a fantasy reinforces the colonialist idea that they are politically or culturally different, and therefore worth less, than the people who are doing the “escaping.” For instance, the word “exotic,” which connotes and denotes foreignness, continues to be employed in headlines, restaurant reviews, menus, and even in the subtitle of Martin Cate’s James Beard Award–winning book Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. This allows escapism to remain a highlight of tiki for some. Who’s allowed to escape, though, and from where? What about the people for whom palm trees and pineapples aren’t somewhere else, they’re just... home?

A nondescript bar in North Dakota selling pina coladas and Mai Tais in the dead of winter isn’t necessarily making a comment on another culture, but when those drinks are packaged into something that more closely resembles an improvised vacation, the lines are murkier. It reminds me of a common refrain in my (new) home of San Juan: “I live where you vacation,” which a friend recently reversed to the more apt, “You vacation where I live.” The latter puts an onus on visitors — whether actual or metaphorical, through aesthetics or flavor — to consider the reality of tropical life and the people who live it. Many face precarious environmental or economic situations exacerbated, if not created, by the very countries where these visitors originate.

Allison is aware of this friction and how it plays out at her bar — that it’s not always possible to focus on just the nitty-gritty of assembling a well-balanced cocktail. “I’m a white person who owns a bar that plays music from the Caribbean and other rum-producing places,” Allison says. “I serve cocktails that are inspired by or directly from islands in the Caribbean or other tropical places. It’s complicated, for sure.”

It is perhaps possible to both complicate and lean into exoticism by reclaiming the heritage of drinks that make up the modern escapist canon. That’s what Leslie Cofresí and Roberto Berdecía are attempting with JungleBird, their San Juan tiki bar, which is named for the Campari-spiked rum cocktail. “JungleBird as a project began from a soul-searching exercise of, ‘How can we define our tropical origin without falling into tiki?’” Cofresí, who opened JungleBird after the success of his other San Juan bar, La Factoría, told me. “It’s a search to build our own language and not to be defined by the outside looking in. While trying to fight it, we discovered a way to embrace it.”

To do that, Confresí and Berdecía went back to the iconography of the Taíno, an indigenous people who lived throughout the Caribbean. That imagery allowed them to rebuild some specific tiki visual elements in a style that’s rooted in the bar’s home, rather than replicating the classic Polynesian style. “If there was to be a tiki bar in Puerto Rico, it should reflect who we are,” Cofresí says. That includes, in a cheeky reversal of the cocktail genre’s usual power structure, having an illustration of “the Drowning of Diego Salcedo,” which depicts a folk story in which a Spanish colonizer is killed by the Taíno, on the wall.

The JungleBird menu makes clear distinctions between tropical and tiki drinks on their menu, but Cofresí doesn’t necessarily see it as problematic that tropical has been “jammed into” tiki. “You can be a purist all you want, and that’ll sell a lot of books, but we are in the service industry and we sell drinks and experiences,” he says. “When you look at what projects like Baba Au Rum in Athens started 10 years ago, and what Broken Shaker has done in five years, you have to acknowledge that playing along those gray areas has sparked people’s interest in cocktails and cocktail bars. Tiki has been hitching a ride. It has grown out of its own skin with a very sexy and sophisticated tropicality, very different from the caricature of the Polynesian dream, into an ultra-contemporary definition of ‘drinking is fun,’ which is tiki’s essence anyway.”

Tiki’s essence is also, as everyone has noted, undeniably delicious drinks, which is why no one wants to put down their ceramic parrot with the little paper umbrella forever. “When you look back at what Don Beach was doing, it was about flavors,” Shannon Mustipher, the author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Drink, tells me. Her book goes back to what she sees as the culinary roots of the style, which is another way of side-stepping the cultural issues that invariably arise when discussing the genre. “Multiple spirits, hand-pressed juices, weird, custom syrups — really hands-on. You’re not just taking products that are given to you,” Mustipher says. “You don’t see that in other styles to the degree that you see it in tiki, and I think that’s been overlooked.”

That’s what this recent tiki-tropical boom has generally been about: an attempt to separate the drinks from the culture — or, if you’re JungleBird, rewriting the culture in your own image. There’s enough awareness in drinks culture, broadly speaking, that it’s become uncool to dip one’s toes too deep into colonialist kitsch when working with tropical and tiki flavors. Very slowly, maybe, distinctions are being learned: The pina colada, like the mojito, is not a tiki beverage; the aesthetic of a “escape” is not the same around the world; and the appropriative pastiche established by Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s belongs in the waste sink of history, even if they gave us delicious drinks that stand the test of time.

“It’s not about ostracizing anyone or putting them on blast. It’s just, let’s be critical and thoughtful. Let’s give equal weight to what we’re doing means in its cultural context,” García Febles says. “You wouldn’t open a Prohibition-era speakeasy and have a bunch of Al Jolson stuff in it. Treat it with similar weight and care.”

Alicia Kennedy is a writer and recipe developer currently based in San Juan.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist based in Brooklyn.