We've been jumping (mouth first) into all things Tiki for quite some time now. One of the things we quickly discovered is just how misunderstood they are. Perhaps it's because you've seen images with tacky frilly umbrellas or cherry garnishes. Maybe it's just the fact that until recent years, many people associated tiki drinks to sweet, syrupy options served on cruise ships and beachside vacation spots. We're here to pull away the umbrella and expose the real story of the history and ingredients behind all things Tiki. A paper umbrella does not make a Tiki drink. So let's tell you what does...
To get to where we are today, we first have to go back in time. . . all the way back to prohibition. It's hard to imagine today, but Prohibition was a legal amendment to the US Constitution the prohibited the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920-1933. It's probably not much of a surprise that this was spearheaded by the uptight social conservatives of the day, and was rooted in good intentions. But you know what they say about that road to Hell. . .
Of course, just because the made it illegal did not mean that people would suddenly stop doing what they loved. While Prohibition succeeded in reducing the amount of alcohol consumed, it led to the birth of a rampant underground 'criminal' industry. Prohibition in the United States did not apply in neighboring countries, where alcoholic drinks were not illegal. Distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or smuggled into the United States illegally.
Many think of the times before Prohibition as the Golden Age of cocktails, but even though booze was still finding its way into the country, the quality of it was sub par to say the least. Gin, which had been popular before Prohibition, fell out of favor due to stories of 'bathtub gin" poisoning and spirits like rum started to gain favor. "Rum-runners" would smuggle the spirit into the country directly from the Caribbean and people started to embrace rum more than ever.
After the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, people were ready to get back to the bars.
The first Tiki Bar is widely credited to a man named Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Don Beach). He had spent his early years traveling the world and fell in love with tropical culture. When he came home to the states he had a mind full of tropical inspiration and suitcases packed with souvenirs from his travels. Many of these artifacts found their way on to movie sets, loaned out to the productions as props. He came up with the concept of making drinks from rum, flavored syrups and fresh fruit juices and serving them with foods loosely based on Polynesian, Hawaiian and Cantonese cuisines. This concept came to life when he opened Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, CA in 1934.
Like with all good things in life, people started to copy his success. A man named Victor Bergeron opened the first of many Trader Vic's only a few years later, copying many of the successful ideas from Don. Over the years, he opened many locations around the country and the world, spurred in part by soldiers returning from WWII, longing for the flavors of the South Pacific that they had come to love. Others followed suit and Tiki culture was alive and well throughout the country.
Eventually, Tiki Drinks fell out of favor and most of these Tiki Bars closed. But Tiki is back and getting bigger than ever, in large part to the inventive success of bars like Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. Even local bars like Pinewood Social, Bar No. 308 and The Lounge at Sinema are embracing the Tiki Drinks.
Note: If you really want to dig deep into the history of Tiki Drinks, go check out Beachbum Barry's Potions of the Caribbean.
What makes a Tiki Drink?
Let's start by saying that it is not a paper umbrella that makes a Tiki Drink (in fact, they're often scoffed at). It's also common misconception that all Tiki Drinks are made with rum. While many are, there are also some classic Tiki drinks made with gin, tequila and eve bourbon. But more important than what booze goes into it, a good Tiki Drink is really about layers of flavor. For simplicity's sake, we've paired this into three categories: Booze, Juice and Spice.
Most Tiki Drinks are made with a combination of spirits. You'll find classic recipes that use two, three and even four different spirits. Instead of just using one rum, a Tiki Drink gets complexity by mixing a dark rum with a light rum or gin with brandy. Like with any cocktail, the quality of the booze is important for a good Tiki Drink.
Don the Beachcomber prided himself on the variety of fresh fruit juices he used. While this may seem common today in many cocktail bars, that has not always been the case. Most Tiki Drinks use a variety of fresh squeezed juices. The most common are lime, lemon, grapefruit, orange and pineapple. Other common flavors are mango and passionfruit. In some cases, these fresh juices would be made into syrups, most notably Passionfruit Syrup, which shows up again and again in many classic Tiki Drinks. Just like layering the flavors of multiple boozes, using several different juices adds further depth to the flavor of a good Tiki Drink.
This is what really brings Tiki Drinks to life. The competitive nature of bars during the heyday of Tiki led to secret recipes of spice-infused syrups and spirits to differentiate their drinks from the next. Flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, almond and clove are most common, but even a dash of bitters, a few drops of almond or vanilla extract or some fresh ginger can add much-needed balance to a Tiki Drink. Two of the most common components are Orgeat Syrup, with an almond extract-like flavor, and Falernum, which can be found in both spirit and non-alcoholic syrup forms with flavor of lime and clove.
To get you in the mood, we've whipped up some recipes for a few pantry staples and tons of cocktails. Check out the links below!