Let's Have a Tiki
If there's one cocktail craze that continues to stand the test of time, it's the tiki trend. Give us a mai tai or a Painkiller any day, and we're happy as a clam. So what is it about tiki bars and hurricanes (the tropical cocktail, not the storm) that continue to inspire imbibers and bartenders alike, year after year, decade after decade?
As Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove bar and author of a recent book by the same name, says, "It's popular for the same reasons it always has been: The drinks themselves are complex but always approachable, and that they provide a portal through which a guest can forget their troubles and take a mini vacation."
Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who's penned six books on tiki culture and drinks, and owns the Latitude 29 bar in New Orleans, agrees. A verifiable scholar on the subject, Berry explains that tiki hit the scene in the 1930s when Don the Beachcomber opened his eponymous L.A. bar for the enjoyment of Americans looking for a reprieve from the uncertainty and hardships of wartime. And the tiki bar, with its exotic drinks and playful decor, offered just that.
As such, tiki has proved an enduring staple in American drinking culture. In the last decade, the country has seen another major revival, and just in the last three years, it's taken off everywhere from Oklahoma City to Tacoma, Washington. Cate praises new haunts like TikiCat in Kansas City and Clifton's Pacific Seas in L.A. as "striving to incorporate the art and design of the era to remind guests that the tiki bar is an experiential destination."
It's not just in the U.S., either. Berry points to tiki bars in Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and Bologna that are bringing locals and tourists alike together over tropical cocktails. And no wonder. The allure of getting away from it all feels more urgent than ever.
But there's more to these cocktails than just escapism.
"They are truly delicious drinks. No matter how good the atmosphere is, [the tiki movement] wouldn't have lasted this long if the drinks sucked," Berry points out. Despite popular belief, a good tiki drink isn't just a sweet one—it's balanced with the right mix of sour and sweet, strong and weak. The sour usually comes from citrus, the sweet from simple syrup, the strong from rum and the weak from a fruit juice, like orange or pineapple.
Increasingly, however, bartenders are experimenting with all four elements, subbing in agave for simple syrup, for example, or gin for rum, the traditional booze of choice. Brian Miller at NYC's Pouring Ribbons makes his gin zombie with three types of gin on Tiki Mondays. And Garret Richard uses vodka in his Pacific Ocean Blue Cocktail (see the recipe) at NYC's Slowly Shirley.
However they come, tiki cocktails are nothing if not approachable. "If you're intimidated by the scholarship scene," Berry says, referring to the rise of seemingly academic mixology over the last few years, "they're much more approachable. It's hard to get too serious when you're serving something in a scorpion bowl."
So in the interest of having the most fun possible this summer, we have the scoop on building your own tiki bar at home.
Set the Stage
Creating a mood is just as important as collecting the right cocktail ingredients, both Cate and Berry agree. "The best tiki bars have no windows: You've got this perfectly orchestrated movie set," Berry says.
Cate suggests blacking out your windows and getting rid of any white wall space, either by covering your walls in woven mats or at least painting them. If you don't want to convert an entire room, pick up some wall decor, festive sculptures or lighting from sites like Oceanic Arts or Tiki Objects by Bosko, Berry suggests. And if you're throwing an outdoor party, that means string lights and bamboo torches.
Rum for Your Money
As for the booze, you'll want a variety of rums, including a white Spanish-style rum, a dark Jamaican rum, a rhum agricole and what Berry calls the secret weapon: a demerara rum—something that ranges from 80 to 151 proof and gives you a smoky, charred taste. "Those are crucial and not easy to find," Berry says, "but they're go-tos for drinks like the zombie or the Jet Pilot, and you can order them from Hamilton or El Dorado."
Freshly squeezed lime juice is another essential (store bought will never taste as good), as is simple syrup. And from there, Berry suggests picking a cocktail book, as well as a few other ingredients that interest you, like a Orgeat syrup or fun garnishes, and seeing what you can come up with.
Ready to get away from it all? See below for our guide to tiki essentials; that mini vacation is only a cocktail away.