Diagnosing the Tiki Psyche

With its windowless bars, secret recipes and tropically dressed devotees, tiki culture's escapist mindset is not unlike that of science fiction's. Christopher Ross uncovers the idiosyncrasies that make tiki fans tick.

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Science fiction, wrote literary critic Northrop Frye, is “a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency towards myth.” The appeal of the genre, in other words—from The Fifth Element to Star Trek—is that it presents fantastical worlds that resemble our own, but as viewed through the looking glass: blending the real with the unreal, rooting themselves believably in our imagination through compelling origin stories and ur-heroes.

In encountering the works of Isaac Asimov or George Lucas, we project ourselves into immersive alternate universes in which we leave mundane reality behind in lieu of more exciting, colorful dream worlds. One only needs to have visited bars like Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash or San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, with their Hawaiian lounge music, blue and red-hued lights, South Seas set pieces and unearthly drinks to realize that the quixotic engine that propels science fiction is practically the same one that drives tiki cocktail culture.

“Tiki is a form of escapism, a fantasy world,” says Brian Miller, one of New York’s top bartenders. Formerly the head bartender at the canonical East Village cocktail bar Death & Co., Miller has since shed his conservative tie clips and vests for a wild, piratical look that reflects his position as the Pied Piper of New York City tiki. On Tiki Mondays, a traveling weekly party he created to showcase tiki cocktails, Miller dons war paint, bandanas, sleeveless T-shirts and big-beaded necklaces and pours drinks for a loyal cult of followers attired in floral-print shirts and leis with the occasional flower tucked behind the ear. (After a sabbatical, the series is returning to Pouring Ribbons this September.) Some fanatics even go so far as to decorate their homes in tiki fashion with rattan furniture and tiki masks.

While everyone’s in on the joke—this is New York, after all—there’s no denying the fact that the scene inspires a Comic-Con level of fandom. What other category of booze can claim adherents who literally dress up in the theme of their drink? “You don’t have bourbon fans dressing up in costumes,” says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove. “You don’t have people with bourbon-themed apartments.”

“You can almost think of Don the Beachcomber as Tolkein. There were influences before him but he’s the one who really pulled the whole imaginary world out of his head and created a genre.”

Part of the appeal of tiki for cocktail geeks is the technical complexity of the drinks, in the same way that “hard science fiction,” characterized by dense scientific detail, tends to attract the most intense readers of the genre. Tiki drinks don’t conform to the formulas or ratios that many pre-Prohibition era cocktails follow—the sour, the daisy, Manhattan and Martini variations—and they require tricky feats of balancing sometimes upwards of ten ingredients. Like a linguist who has mastered the Romance languages and seeks a new challenge in a Tibetan dialect, for bartenders who have perfected the classics, tiki presents the opportunity to lose themselves in a new, difficult field of obscure drinks and esoterica. But for Jeff “Beachbum” Berry—the preeminent modern tiki authority, who is opening a tiki bar, Latitude 29, in New Orleans this fall—the appeal of tiki is only partly about what’s in the glass.

“I’m not convinced that people get into tiki just for a great drink. People like the atmosphere of tiki bars. More than kitsch, more than camp, people respond to the style and eventually they end up liking it in a completely unironic way,” he says. Indeed the fiercest devotees even make annual pilgrimages to tiki bars and pen tiki-themed fan fiction. “It has a lot to do with being able to go into a bar for two to three hours with no windows and a completely hermetically sealed Hollywood-esque theme. They help you dream. The good ones that last, they perform that function best.”

While the DNA of tiki has been endlessly copied, recombined and preserved around the world—from the tiki-meets-amaro concoctions at Brooklyn’s Donna to the tiki exhibition currently on view at the musée du quai Branly in Paris—the majority of tiki bars hew faithfully to the pattern started in 1930s Los Angeles by the category’s legendary creator, Don the Beachcomber.

Essentially the entire escapist legacy of tiki can be traced back to his original vision and innovations. “You can almost think of Don the Beachcomber as Tolkein,” says Al Sotack, bartender at Death & Co. and Pouring Ribbons and a pop culture obsessive. “There were influences before him but he’s the one who really pulled the whole imaginary world out of his head and created a genre.”

The very germ of tiki concerned recapturing lost innocence and atmospherically evoking a foreign world. When the enterprising former bootlegger Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened a bar in Los Angeles in 1934, he set out to recreate the look and feel of the islands he’d visited in his youth with his grandfather. To set the scene, he hung up mementos from exotic South Pacific locales and installed nets, shipyard paraphernalia and handmade signs on the walls and ceiling along with bamboo furniture to complete the feel of a faraway beachside watering hole.

By 1937, the bar, which had become a success and attracted a celebrity clientele, moved locations and was officially called Don the Beachcomber, a name that Gantt later adopted. Since opening the bar, he’d become intoxicated by the illusion he himself had created and had taken to dressing in tropical garb and telling people he was from Jamaica. Like many who would follow in the tiki tradition—Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, for one—he was starting to feel more at home in the larger-than-life character who occupied the twilight dimension of the tiki bar.

Nearly every drinking institution, from dives to hotel bars, makes some effort at setting a stage for customers to get away from it all, but Don took it to the next level: he wanted to create a movie-theatre-like level of immersion in which drinkers were totally transported out of everyday life. He pioneered the practice of having no widows in the bar and went so far in manipulating the sensual universe of the bar’s interior as to use a water hose to replicate the sound of rain pattering on the roof.

As a chain of his bars spread across the country, they fed into a national desire for novelty. For both the “Organization Man” in his Gray Flannel Suit and WWII soldiers returning from the South Pacific Theatre, tiki bars were a vessel for a kind of voluntary disembodiment. “There was this yearning for the exoticism of the South Seas,” says Miller. “People were living in the suburbs and wanted to escape the life of cars, babies, jobs. And when they walked into a tiki bar, they were transported.”

But Don’s greatest contribution to making tiki a world of its own was perhaps his penchant for storytelling. “Bar is theatre,” says Berry. “You’re not going for a drink, you’re going for an experience. One way to deliver that was through stories.” His anecdotes and tall tales, both about the establishment and the drinks he served, reinforced the idea that a tiki bar was a place where fantastic, otherworldly things could happen. Like a science fiction writer peopling his imaginary cosmos with characters, Don’s stories filled his bar with the hungover businessman who gave the Zombie its name, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes doodling at the counter in silk shirts he wore only once, Marlene Dietrich taking her top off while cleaning a spill on her dress and the ghosts of the British generals who fought in Cairo and gave the Suffering Bastard its name. His injunction that limited the Zombie to two per person and his habit of keeping the recipes of his drinks strict secrets—going so far as to cryptically re-label bottles—injected a sense of mystery and danger into the tiki affair. “No one knew how it was made, what was in their glass,” says Cate. “You’re thinking, what’s it going to do to me? His drinks inferred that they had a life-changing power over you. They were going to transform you.”

Critics have long turned to science fiction to extrapolate the culture’s collective preoccupations, taking Jules Verne novels as reflective of 19th-century Europe’s adventurism and scientific curiosity, or Godzilla as mirroring Japan’s fear of nuclear annihilation. Tiki’s first midcentury wave of popularity pointed to America’s dissatisfaction with bland suburban life. One might also interpret our current resurgent interest in tiki as signifying a shared desire for retreat from the disappointments and anxieties of modern life. No matter what new disaster is splashing across the front pages of newspapers, the tiki bar invites you, if only temporarily, to step into a timeless illusion—an eternal, dimly lit afternoon where the drinks are strong, the bartenders friendly and the soft strumming of a ukulele can lull your worries away.

Hear a conversation with “Tiki” Adam Kolesar about the tiki psyche in a segment of PUNCH Radio on Heritage Radio Network. [5:00]

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