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Assorted tiki drinks from Tonga Room in San Francisco.
Assorted tiki drinks from Tonga Room in San Francisco.
Tonga Room

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How Tiki Cocktails Returned to Rock the Party, Again

Looking back on the history of tiki and why its signature tropical libations are in vogue once more.


For most, the word "tiki" conjures a less than positive image: saccharine Mai Tais and Bahama Mamas served in chintzy glassware at chain restaurants and Disney World. In fact, most people under the age of 40 can’t even name a tiki cocktail, much less do they understand the provenance of these tropical drinks. Since the 1980s, tiki culture has largely been buried, dismissed by children of that era as square.

But now, decades later, tiki is having a momentagain. From the proliferation of tiki bars across the country to Don Draper drinking Mai Tais on the beach in Hawaii to Polynesian-themed clothing and furniture and, of course, the cocktails that ruled American pop-culture for much of the early-to-mid-20th century. Tiki is back in style. But what defines tiki culture, if not the syrupy-sweet umbrella drinks served in Hurricane glasses at Joe’s Crab Shack?

To fully understand tiki drinks and the culture that spread from its signature fruity, tropical creations first stirred by Don The Beachcomber in Hollywood, California, one must understand the cultural phenomenon that tiki became during in the 1930s.

Tiki's Heyday
According to tiki historian Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry, tiki originated in the throes of the Great Depression, following the end of Prohibition. Don The Beachcomber hit Hollywood in 1934 as a refuge for Donn Beachborn Ernest Raymond Beaumont Ganttto share his love of Polynesia, specifically Tahiti. Gantt had been a bootlegger during Prohibition and traveled widely in the South Pacific, even working as a beachcomber for a time in Tahiti. When he returned to the United States, the newly-christened Donn Beach opened the country’s first tiki bar as a place to display the artifacts collected during his travels.

For poor and out-of-work Americans, tiki offered an irresistible escape ...

During the mid-1930s, the rest of the country, too, was feeling the pull toward the islands. "The worse things got in the world, the better things got for tiki," says Berry. "It works because it’s a mini-vacation. People were hungry for a fantasy, and what little disposable income they had went to trying to forget all that stuff. All eyes went to the South Pacific, perceived as a place of exotic abandon, where you didn’t have to work for a living. It was the exact opposite of being in a U.S. city in the winter of 1934."

Tonga Room

A Mai Tai from Tonga Room in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Tonga Room.

For poor and out-of-work Americans, tiki offered an irresistible escape, so tiki culture continued to flourish into the 1940s as the United States entered World War II. Donn Beach himself went off to war, earning a Purple Heart for operating rest-and-recuperation facilities for war-weary soldiers. "Before the war, only the richest Americans could afford to get to the South Pacific, if they even had the inclination," says Berry. "Now, all these guys from Des Moines and Oklahoma City are going to Hawaii to serve in the military, and most of them had good memories of their time in Hawaii," he continues. "They went to this beautiful paradise that they never would have dreamed of if they’d not been drafted. When they got back to the States, they wanted to remember those experiences."

During this time, Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian-themed restaurant and tiki bar, was becoming the fastest-growing chain in the country. Victor Bergeron, the original Trader Vic, had picked Oakland, California as the home for his first tiki bar in 1934, launching the business under the name "Hinky Dinks." It's unclear why exactly he changed the restaurant's name, but the first franchised location of Trader Vic’s opened in 1940, and at the height of the tiki craze, there were more than 25 outlets across the country. From the $500 Bergeron spent to launch his initial bar, he was able to build a tiki-themed restaurant empire. Like Don The Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s claims to have invented the original Mai Tai.

Trader Vic's

Mai Tais from Trader Vic's and Don The Beachcomber in Los Angeles. Photos courtesy of Trader Vic's and Don The Beachcomber.

As much as Donn Beach loved the South Pacific, cocktails really weren’t part of island life.

Once World War II ended, the post-war economy created an environment suitable for tiki to flourish. Americans had more disposable income, but they also were contending with a pervasive fear of nuclear war thanks to the Red Scare. "The 1950s were not Happy Days. People were ... freaked out," says Berry. "Then, there was the stifling Eisenhower-era conservative morality. Again, the South Pacific provided a fantasy life. No one was going to judge you for going to a tiki bar for a couple of hours to escape."

Tiki culture may have burned out by the end of the 1950s if it weren’t for one major development: Hawaii joined the United States. Americans now had a domestic vacation option that was also a tropical paradise. Coincidentally, commercial air travel also debuted in 1959, which enabled people to visit Hawaii and bring memories of luaus and Polynesian culture back home.

Travel to Hawaii fueled the height of the tiki boom in the mid-1960s, which was marked by bamboo furniture and backyard luau parties. Gilligan’s Island was the most popular show on television, and The Beach Boys were a global musical sensation. At this point, tiki had become much more than just Mai Tais and Painkillersit was dominant culture.

Tiki Drinks
Tiki cocktails, surprisingly, are not at all Polynesian. As much as Donn Beach loved the South Pacific, cocktails really weren’t part of island life. "In French Polynesia, people just drank French table wine," says Berry. "In Hawaii, people drank okolehao, which is a sort of moonshine made from the root of the ti plant. It wasn’t really anything that any American would ever want to drink in a tiki bar." So, Don The Beachcomber looked to another tropical part of the worldthe Caribbean. From there, he would take the region’s flavor fundamentalsrum, sugar and lime, and transform them into the tiki cocktails, or "rhum rhapsodies" as he called them, that we know today.

The Three Dots and a Dash cocktail from Chicago's namesake bar. Photo by Anjali Pinto.

But he didn’t just stop with those three basic ingredients. "These simple cocktails became twelve-ingredient fantasias," says Berry. "They were craft cocktails, the first post-Prohibition, culinary-inspired cocktails that came more than seventy years before those terms existed. They weren’t Polynesian, but they were revolutionary." Don The Beachcomber set a standard with the first tiki drinks, making them with fresh juices, bespoke syrups that went beyond just the orgeat in his Mai Tai recipe.

Don The Beachcomber set a standard with the first tiki drinks, making them with fresh juices, bespoke syrups that went beyond just the orgeat in his Mai Tai recipe.

From Don The Beachcomber’s inspiration, tiki drinks became a sort of free for all. Bartenders across the country began creating their own recipes, like the Painkiller, developed by a bartender on the Dutch-founded Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands during the 1970s. Bartenders also put their own twists on Don The Beachcomber originals, mixed first by the man himself, like the Zombie, originally made with four different rums, apricot brandy and lime juice. There is no exhaustive list of tiki cocktails, but rather hundreds of recipes for dozens of drinks that still endure in cocktail books and on restaurant menus.

Tiki’s Downfall
By the 1970s, tiki culture fell out of style thanks to counter-culture proliferation. As young people started to turn against the ideologies and traditions of their parents, tiki cocktails, and cocktails in general, became "square." Per Berry, "The kids didn’t drink cocktails after protesting the Vietnam War at a rally. That’s what Nixon and his people were doing, drinking cocktails." The disaffected youth of the 1970s had moved on from recreational drinking to recreational drugs, which meant that cocktail culture as a whole, not just tiki culture, began to vanish.

Into the 1980s, massive food conglomerates saw a market in providing bottled cocktail mixes and other "labor-saving" products to bars and restaurants. It is these companies, like Sunkist and General Foods, that Berry blames for the terrible, syrupy reputation which tiki cocktails assumed, not to mention the sugary cocktails that exploded in the aftermath. "Cocktails sucked in the 1980s, I couldn’t understand why people drank them," says Berry. "I couldn’t figure out why anyone would drink a daiquiri. What was Hemingway’s problem?"

Of course, these drinks were superseded with equally sweet Cosmopolitans and Lemon Drops and vodka-cranberry spritzers. By the time the craft cocktail renaissance came along in the early-2000s in New York City, fueled by Sex and the City, many bartenders scoffed at tiki drinks, much like their counter-culture predecessors. "If you came of age in the 1980s or 1990s, you were seeing the fall out from tiki," says Berry. "The only tiki bars that were left were these low-overhead, low-end places that never made good drinks in the first place. That’s why there’s this perception of tiki drinks as syrupy, sugary cruise-ship drinks."

Clockwise from top left: Jaguar from Lei Low in Houston, Poipu Beach Boogie Board (by Jeff Marini), Aku Aku Lapu and Bikinis After Dark all from Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. Photos courtesy of Lei Low and by Anjali Pinto.

The Mad Men Effect
Of course, trends are cyclical, and eventually tiki culture had to find its way back to the mainstream, if in an unlikely vehicle. At present, there is undoubtedly a renewed interest in the culture of mid-century America, which one can largely attribute to one single (if massive) cultural phenomenon: Mad Men. The exploits of Don Draper and Peggy Olsen had quickly turned the American public back on to the mid-century aesthetic. Herman Miller chairs began flying off the shelves, skinny ties were in fashion again and, as a result, tiki cocktails (and culture) were back on the radar of Middle America.

But Berry doesn’t attribute the full mid-century revival to television. "Aesthetically, I think this country just hit a high point in the 1950s," he says. "Look at the architecture, the design, the fashion. Everything just looked really cool and unique, a lot more so than it does now." As fans saw Don Draper sipping tiki cocktails and Old Fashioneds alike, the interest in cocktail culture as a whole began to grow. "I think that show was a big cultural touchstone and got people interested in things they’d never heard of. Or would have ever been interested in before it."

A Pearl Diver from Latitude 29 in New Orleans and a Painkiller from Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago.  Photos courtesy of Latitude 29 and Three Dots and a Dash.

What's Next
At the moment, as bartenders unearth vintage tiki recipes and experiment with those that are familiar, tropical drinks continue to be firmly intertwined with the craft cocktail movement. Now though, they’re not just limited to one or two options on the menu of a bar that is otherwise serving Prohibition-era drinks. Tiki-devoted bars are having their own resurgence, popping up across the country.

There is no exhaustive list of tiki cocktails, but rather hundreds of recipes for dozens of drinks that still endure in cocktail books and on restaurant menus.

Tiki legend Paul McGee crafted the opening menu for Chicago's two-year-old Three Dots and a Dash (named after the Morse Code for "victory"). And when he decamped to open his own tiki bar earlier this year, Diane Corcoran took over.

"Three Dots and a Dash was popular from day one, and we knew that it was going to be," says Corcoran, who has has been affiliated with the restaurant since its debut. "There was so much hype and excitement leading to its opening." Corcoran thinks that guests first visit Three Dots for its unique Polynesian-themed atmosphere, unlike any other in the city. But what keeps them coming back is the stellar drinks and service, which have always been a trademark of tiki.

The best-sellers on the menu are Three Dots' impressive selection of Painkiller drinks, made with a base of Virgin Islands and Jamaican rums, then customized with tropical fruits like coconut, pineapple, passion fruit and blood orange. There is a Mai Tai, of course, and a rotating frozen tiki cocktail each week. The "Modern" section of the menu is where the bar team puts contemporary twists on vintage tiki recipes, creating off-the-wall cocktails like the Poipu Peach Boogie Board, made with rye whiskey, rum, guava and Maraschino.

Lei Low's Zombie, Jaguar, and Piña Colada.

For the last year and a half Houston has been home to Lei Low, a tiki bar decorated with original Trader Vic’s decor from the city’s outpost that closed in the 1980s. The bar here focuses largely on rum, though some cocktails are made with gin, whiskey and other spirits. Lei Low's version of a "Painkilla," built from rum infused with flavors in a Zombie cocktail, is a truly meta take on tiki.

"Beach Bum" Berry’s own tiki bar, New Orleans’ Latitude 29, is widely considered one of the best in the country even though it just opened last year. His menu features a "lost" recipe from Don The Beachcomber for Lapu Lapu, a diabolical tiki punch made with high-proof rum that is designed for a minimum of two drinkers, along with other tiki standards, like the Zombie and a Trader Vic’s recipe from 1944 for a Mai Tai. The Navy Grog, Frank Sinatra’s favorite tiki drink according to the menu, is a stout blend of Jamaican and Demerara rums, with flavors of allspice, grapefruit and lime.

No longer just "umbrella drinks" or "boat cocktails," tiki has planted its flag in the broader cocktail world, and rightly so. To separate the two is to ignore the foundations of tiki and what this bizarrely endearing culture has contributed to the cocktails that we sip today, from the fresh juices to fancy presentations. Perhaps this time tiki's moment in the sun will continue to shine.

Three Dots and a Dash

435 North Clark Street, , IL 60654 (312) 610-4220 Visit Website
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