More Is More: The Evolution of Tiki Garnish

While most modern tiki bartenders will point to the genre's founding fathers as their inspiration for garnish, once they've paid their dues all bets are off. Marian Bull explains how tiki's garnishes went from tropical to baroque to avant-garde.

tiki garnish anjali pinto three dots and a dash

“More is more” has always been tiki’s mantra.

When other post-Prohibition cocktails were all about restraint, Don the Beachcomber—who also went by Donn Beach—shook upwards of ten ingredients into his signature Zombie. Where other bars were dark and quiet, his walls were covered in masks and shields and tropical plants. And while the Martinis down the street played coy with their olives and slim glasses, Donn’s “Rhum Rhapsodies” danced around in a hacked-open coconut, sprouting flowers and pineapple slices. These drinks didn’t just present you with the option of escape—they kidnapped you.

Since America first welcomed tiki with open arms in the 1930s and ’40s, garnish—whether a paper umbrella, a bushel of mint or a flaming cinnamon stick—has been an essential element of the genre’s allure, offering benefits both practical (aroma, dilution) and theatrical (flames, whimsy). Today’s garnishes honor the traditions established by Donn, while winking at tiki’s darkest, tackiest days. Their primary goal is still entertain and impress the drinker, albeit with a few new tricks.

In the 1940s, Donn “made his bones on garnishes,” according to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, tiki’s leading historian. “He had up to 14 bartenders on the line, some of them devoting themselves entirely to garnishes: Making ice shells, scooping out limes, [hacking] coconut shells, cutting pineapples, etc.” With America’s first tiki bar, he created a new aesthetic, of which garnish was a fundamental part.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Donn’s imitators—Trader Vic, Kon Tiki’s Steven Crane, Joe Scialom—continued this tradition, adding their own bits of flare and flame along the way. As tiki gained the favor of Hollywood stars and Middle America alike, these men threw more and more money—and creative energy—into their restaurants. The result was a period of tiki décor that was decidedly baroque.

Ask any modern-day bartender with a penchant for rum about where their garnish inspiration comes from, and they’ll mention Donn and Vic without skipping a beat. But once they’ve paid their homage, all bets are off. Where tiki’s first bartenders improvised and invented within the boundaries of the tropics, today’s tikiphiles have a few decades of kitsch to inspire them—and something to prove, namely to those who still equate it with cloying blender drinks. Tiki isn’t dead, but it is desperate to show us all how bright and alive it is.

Naturally, garnishes kept up with this dramatization of aesthetic. Vic famously pioneered the “mystery bowl,” a punch meant for sharing, with a volcano of ice in its center topped with a flaming, spent lime shell. And in 1957 Scialom may or may not have been the first man to put a wooden backscratcher in a cocktail, unwittingly welcoming in the era of purely ornamental garnishes.

Harry Yee, a bartender at the Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, put that same backscratcher in a very similar drink at the same time. He had begun mixing tiki drinks upon requests from tourists who assumed tiki’s Polynesian roots were in earnest; he had no ties to Don or Vic, and therefore had to either learn drinks by word of mouth or make them up himself. Most importantly, Yee went on to give tiki its most infamous garnish—the paper umbrella—and in doing so, he changed the face of tiki forever.

Shortly after tiki’s excesses “reached a fever pitch in the early to late ‘60s,” says Berry, the Summer of Love arrived, and brought with it a new kind of ideology, one more interested in weed and music and rebellion than tropical vacations. “The drug culture killed off the cocktail culture.”

The tiki bars that survived through the ‘70s and ‘80s were those that cut corners with bottled syrups and juices, maraschino cherries, mediocre “Polynesian” food and garnishes that required no labor. As tiki enthusiast Adam Kolesar explains it, “paper parasols became the Lord of the Garnish.” Pricey fresh flowers and laborious ice arrangements gave way to plastic monkeys and canned pineapple, tossed into syrupy slush; classic cocktails met a similar fate, as sour mix and blue curacao appeared in bars across America. “Umbrella drink” became a pejorative term encompassing anything that was remotely tropical.

Finally, in the early 2000s, tiki regained the respect of the American cocktail scene. Kolesar remembers taking a class on Rum Punches taught by bartender and cocktail expert Dale DeGroff, who was one of the first to reunite tiki mugs with fresh juices, homemade syrups and an understanding of technique. With this renewed focus on quality—and respect for tradition—came fresh garnishes reminiscent of Donn’s originals and Vic’s embellishments. Gone were what Kolesar calls “cellulose cherries,” and in came sprigs of mint and fat wedges of pineapple.

Ask any modern-day bartender with a penchant for rum—Richie Boccato of Dutch Kills, Brian Miller, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Adam Kolesar, Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove, Paul McGee of Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash—about where their garnish inspiration comes from, and they’ll mention Don and Vic without skipping a beat. “Carrying on tradition” and “honoring the forefathers of tiki” almost universally takes precedence over personal glory.

But once they’ve paid their homage, all bets are off. Where tiki’s first bartenders improvised and invented within the boundaries of the tropics, today’s tikiphiles have a few decades of kitsch to inspire them—and something to prove, namely to those who still equate it with cloying blender drinks. Tiki isn’t dead, and it’s desperate to show us all how bright and alive it really is.

At Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, bartender Martin Cate shakes cinnamon and nutmeg over a flaming skull bowl for a Medusa-on-fire effect. At Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, Paul McGee uses dry ice in his Zombies to create the effect of smoke. But he’s most famous for the banana shaped like a dolphin that adorns his Daiquiri.

This has become perhaps the most talked about tiki garnish of the modern era. The banana’s end is split open to resemble a mouth, then stuffed with a cherry, and cloves are pressed into the banana to resemble eyes, with pineapple leaves serving as fins. Brian Miller also uses it, and cites a Russian cocktail book written by Yaroslav Panov as his source.

When he’s not turning bananas into animals, Miller garnishes his drinks with everything from pirate action figures to a horse’s neck that spans the length of the glass—a garnish borrowed from classic cocktails that he uses in his Nui Nui. He also remembers a Tiki Monday—his traveling celebration of all things rum—where he garnished a drink with a flaming absinthe-soaked Oreo.

No, it’s not traditional. But as Miller puts it, tiki garnishes are there to “make the drink fun.” The advantage that today’s bartenders have over their predecessors is a wider range of influences, but their garnishes all maintain the same purpose. As Boccato explains it: “It’s a way for you to like the drink before you take your first sip.”

So where do we go after the banana dolphin? Can garnish go any farther over the top? Always, yes. In fact, Miller wants to see the comeback of the “mystery bowl lady,” a once-popular tradition at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai: “They made this punch, and one person would come out with a gong and then a woman dressed as hula dancer would come out behind them with a punch bowl. The girl presents the thing to you, does a private hula dance for you, rubs your cheek with the back of her hand,” says Miller. “That’s the best garnish in the world.”

Hear a conversation with home tiki bar owner Joe Desmond about the in a segment of PUNCH Radio on Heritage Radio Network. [33:40]

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