Posted on | June 24, 2014
Written by | Jack Robertiello
Tiki—the all-purpose term for a tropical style of drinking created between the World Wars that tends to evoke tropical island imagery as much as complex, rum-focused concoctions—is once again gathering the respect its adherents have long argued it deserves.
Signs pointing to a healthy resurgence include the Taha’a Twisted Tiki in St. Louis; and Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, led by Paul McGee, which opened to smash reviews and lengthy waits last summer. In San Francisco, the famed Tonga Room was saved from a threatened closure by protesting San Franciscans of all stripes. And most notably, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, whose research and writings many consider essential to the salvation of Tiki, is set to open his own bar in New Orleans this fall.
Of course, dozens of faux-Tiki bars scattered across the country have the decor down but the drinks are mainly sweet alcohol delivery vehicles. And many craft bartenders have slipped classic Tiki drinks on their menus, though sipping a Zombie in a speakeasy can seem just plain uncool. But there has always been an abiding affection for the tropical concept. “I think this time it’s not a fad,” says Tiki pirate Brian Miller, who has for years has hosted a moveable tropical drink night at various New York City-area bars. “Tiki drinks are among the most complex and fun at the same time. We take our drinks seriously but not ourselves, so maybe that has slowed people from really getting what’s challenging about Tiki.”
“It’s taken a while,” says Berry, who has watched with surprised pleasure as his Tiki seeds have sprouted. “But Tiki provides a lot of opportunities for those who are looking for a new way to express and stretch themselves. It’s a challenge to balance an eight-ingredient Tiki drink and it can take your technique and skill set to a whole other level.”
Miller, who is scouting spaces in New York for his own bar, first took up the Tiki cause at Death and Co. and points out that some Tiki influences, like the cinnamon syrup and Donn’s mix (grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup) have become essential in many craft cocktail bars.
Berry says there’s an emerging level of awareness about the precision needed to make a good Tiki drink, with original versions containing as many as 12 ingredients requiring blending and shaking.
In St. Louis, Lucas and Derek Hamlin opened Taha’a Twisted Tiki last winter as their third area restaurant after deciding that St. Louis’s cocktail scene needed an opportunity to experience what Tiki is really about. Notes Lucas Hamlin: “The younger customers, the 22 and 23 year olds, have never experienced Tiki drinks or the whole Tiki environment before.” The Hamlins went all in, with a menu of classics—Painkillers, Mai Tais, Queens Park Swizzles—as well as their own contemporary twists, built on a list of 250 rums, with fresh ingredients and recreations of many staples, like cinnamon syrup, that long have been the base of Tiki.
After the Tonga Room was saved from closure in San Francisco, Fairmont Hotel execs recognized an opportunity to revamp the Tiki program. Danny Ronen, director of education for Kathy Casey’s Liquid Kitchen, oversaw the recipe rehabilitation of the menu. The number of drinks were cut to 10, traditional recipes revived, fresh juices introduced. Ronen says the restaurant now uses 17 liters of lime juice daily. Efficiency is an ongoing concern, given the complicated nature of Tiki drinks, but the Tonga Room will serve more than 100 Mai Tais alone during a two-hour happy hour period.
Ronen says reintroducing the real Mai Tai, more often a dump bucket of fruit juice rather than the two-rum, lime juice, orange Curaçao, orgeat Trader Vic original, made management happy: Overall sales doubled the first week after the menu was introduced, and now with drinks pre-batched when possible, the bar has maintained volume since last June’s reopening.
Martin Cate, whose Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco offers more than 70 complex and authentic drinks inside his thatched temple of Tiki, says stresses that presentation is as important as the drinks, although he may be among the most insistent on hewing to the classic recipes. “The drinks have an aesthetic design, a construction, a look and a feel that you have to understand in order to make them historically accurate,” says Cate. “They are distinctive and layered in flavor, and you can’t learn that overnight.”
Tiki drinks don’t follow an easily sussed-out pattern of balance, with some using three rums as well as other spirits, a variety of carefully measured juices and syrups. Cate’s bartenders must keep more than 80 recipes in their head and build large orders of many drinks rapidly. It’s mesmerizing to watch and the bar crowd often bursts into spontaneous applause.
“A well-made Tiki drink uses every one of the classic cocktail techniques and cubes it,” says Berry. “These drinks were the first culinary craft cocktails, and the locations had their own ice and juice programs, using ingredients more familiar to kitchen than bar.”
Tiki goes beyond sheer drink-making virtuosity, Cate says; the Tiki aesthetic makes it much more of an escapist experience than can be found inside another exposed brick, pre-Prohibition craft cocktail joint. The question, of course, is whether interest can be sustained. Tiki practicioners certainly hope so, especially as a drinking generation emerges that has no kitschy memory of a sickly sweet, neon-hued drink served in a chipped ceramic skull at the twilight of the first era of Tiki.