Don’t call it a comeback. Tiki culture, the island-centric cocktail and fashion craze, never really left. It just hit a rough patch for the past three decades. Sugary drink mixes, chintzy raffia decor and the dreaded slushie machine cheapened what pioneers like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic established in the 1930s.
How the tropical tides have turned. Thanks to serious bartenders spearheading the tiki revival, like Paul McGee of Chicago’s Lost Lake and Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, retro tropical cocktails and their “endless vacation” vibe are white hot again.
But jumping on the tiki bandwagon means more than slapping a Mai Tai or Painkiller on the menu and calling it a day.
“You have to take the formula and run with it. If you’re just doing the classics and you’re not adding any of your own stamps to them, why are you doing it?” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of numerous tiki cocktail books and owner of Latitude 29, a tiki-themed bar and restaurant in New Orleans. “Take that template that Don the Beachcomber established and add today’s ingredients and liquor brands.”
Sometimes that means tapping outside talent. New York City craft cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons sought the expertise of bartender-turned-consultant Brian Miller to host a Monday night tiki party. After making a name for himself at New York hot spots like Death & Co.and Pegu Club, Miller has been making the rounds for the past four years using nontraditional tiki spirits like Scotch, sake and beer.
“We’re trying to expand the bounds of tiki beyond juice, syrup and rum thrown together,” Miller says. “Modern tiki is able to use ingredients that people don’t expect or bringing stuff back that people don’t know. It’s a way of making tiki available to everyone, not just rum heads.”
A classic Mai Tai, for instance, takes an inverted twist in which the main ingredient is Grand Marnier, rather than rum.
For bars that want to tap into the rum-drenched trend without going full hula skirt, the tiki spirit can be infused in subtle ways. Think tiki nights or one or two drinks, ideal especially during summer, Berry says. On Tiki Mondays at Pouring Ribbons, Miller creates eight seasonal tiki cocktails from $14 to $16. ZZ’s Clam Bar, also in New York, features rum-based tropical originals alongside modern, esoteric cocktails in vintage vessels.
It may sound counterintuitive to a movement that’s all about kitsch and excess, but nontropical bars should keep drinks restrained, Berry says. Many classic tiki cocktails can be a pain to tackle behind a busy bar, especially when garnishes are involved.
“If you think it’s difficult to balance a three-ingredient drink, [try] to balance an eight- to 10-ingredient drink,” Berry says.
Fun garnishes are part of the package, and easy PR for your camera-snapping customers. But non-tiki bars don’t need to set anything on fire to make a point.
Consider small flourishes like custom swizzle sticks or branded umbrellas. Funky ceramic mugs can also be a point of sale for souvenirs, sold at places like Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York or Lucky Joe’s Tiki Room in Milwaukee.
“You can be as sophisticated and as refined as you want to be. You don’t have to carve an animal out of a piece of fruit,” Berry says. Simpler garnishes, like fanned out pineapple leaves, are elegant decorations and don’t hike up costs.
Maybe more important to tiki than any garnish or cute mug, though, is the staff’s attitude: Keep it chill.
“You can’t really be an academic behind the bar,” Berry says. “If you’re serving a drink in a tiki bowl, it’s not like going to church. It’s OK to have fun.”
Kate Bernot is an associate editor at Draft magazine. Follow her on Twitter @kbernot.
Jeff 'BeachBum' Berry's Tiki Commandments
Thou shalt vary thy menu. “A chief complaint of a lot of tiki drinks is that they all taste the same. Narrow it down to one drink in each flavor profile.” This means you only need one dark rum punch, or just one passion fruit cocktail.
Thou shalt serve a Jungle Bird. “The Jungle Bird is a gateway drink for non-tiki drinkers because it’s got Campari in it. It’s got an amaro, so it’s a little bitter.” In addition to the amaro, you’ll need blackstrap rum, lime and pineapple juices and simple syrup.
Thou shalt garnish. “Guests expect the drinks to look pretty, and they tend to be kind of bummed out if they get a drink without some type of garnish.” Be as creative as you want with these embellishments. Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash has custom octopus and mermaid swizzle sticks and bananas decorated like dolphins. At Tiki Mondays, Miller often garnishes his drinks with plastic toys like pirates and surfboards.