“It’s easy to forget how much it’d been almost completely wiped off the map—how tiki bars, by the end of the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, were virtually extinct,” says Martin Cate, bartender and co-author, along with his wife, Rebecca, of Smugglers Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, named for their famed San Francisco bar.
Given its impressive cult status, it might be easy to label tiki as a kind of one-note attraction, one that favors complex, layered drinks, elaborate vessels and over-the-top garnishes, all served with a hefty dose of faux-Polynesian kitsch.
But it’s better described as a continuous evolution, albeit one with a period of near-extinction. While the canon of classic drinks has a collective history that spans centuries, that of the tiki cocktail covers just a few whirlwind decades. Born out of a Depression-era fantasy of escapism, tiki culture can trace its existence to back to before Prohibition, but not much earlier. With roots in the “hurricane”-themed nightclubs of the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1930s and ‘40s that the most famous cocktails—with their island-hopping rums and signature flavors of baking spice and almond—came to be. It was then, too, that tiki became more than just a culture of drinks; the entire atmosphere evolved, transitioning from the ramshackle flotsam and jetsam-laden furnishings that defined the early stages of the movement to its more exotic elements—live birds, indoor waterfalls—which would come to later define the spirit of Polynesian Pop.
Somewhere after that, however, it fizzled out. Less than a century after its beginnings, an entire generation was left not really remembering or even knowing just how pervasive tiki was. Adding to that, the drinks were inherently complex—and not exactly ripe for revival: “It was hard to find people willing to make them because they take careful measurement, 11 or 12 ingredients, expensive ingredients, housemade ingredients,” says Cate. “It was people like Sven Kirsten who were . . . trying to piece together the ruins of a lost civilization.” It was Kirsten, a pop culturist, who famously organized the stages of tiki into four eras, drawing not only on history and artifacts but on elements of cultural anthropology to fashion a more complete picture of what had been lost.
Today, thanks to the revivalists—like Kirsten, Otto von Stroheim and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, and their modern-day counterparts, like Cate—tiki is just as much a living, breathing movement as it was during its mid-century prime. And it’s one that continues to embrace its earliest elements, whether those of the ramshackle Beachcomber, who championed the idea of escapism; or the industrious Trader, who gave us orgeat; or even the contributions of Steve Crane, who promoted the notion of consummate showmanship upon which so much of modern tiki is based.
Like so many things, these chapters are clearest in hindsight. Here, Cate walks us through the movement’s four primary eras as outlined by Kirsten, to examine what built the tiki we know today.
A classic cocktail experience in a little bit of bamboo drag.
Key influencers: Writers like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson (as well as those who penned the era’s popular Hollywood serials) who offered romanticized accounts, both fictional and firsthand, of island escapism.
Start date: Pre-Prohibition
Notable locations: The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in LA; various “hurricane”-themed bars around the country.
Atmosphere: “Pre-Prohibition nightclubs and post-Prohibition, post-war nightclubs were very popular,” says Cate. They were, broadly speaking, what might be called a tropical nightclub or even a bamboo bar, equipped with a generic tropical feel and a spattering of fake palm trees alongside classic drinks.
Signature drinks: Gimlets, Daiquiris, Martinis, Manhattans.
The classic template upon which everything else is built.
Key influencer: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, better known as Don the Beachcomber
Start date: December 1933
Signature ingredients and styles: Building on the concept of the Planter’s Punch, a centuries-old rum drink known throughout the Caribbean, the Beachcomber began a tradition of blending multiple rums, citrus and sweeteners into his drinks, not to mention a cupboard’s worth of baking spices, like cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg—something previously unheard of in drink-making. And the recipes, not only for the cocktails themselves, but also for their built-in syrups (Don’s Mix, for example), were hidden from the public for years, a move that only accentuated their exoticism. “People who go to Don the Beachcomber’s ask the waiter for ideas,” explains Cate. “They don’t recognize any of the dishes, they don’t know what any of the drinks are and that’s what was so delightful to everybody.”
Atmosphere: “When Don comes along,” explains Cate, “he brings in something that’s not quite as polished, as clean or as formal—his places always looked a little rough and a little scrappy around the edges.” He highlighted the ideals of ramshackle escapism based on his own travels throughout the Caribbean and the South Pacific, lining the walls of his establishments with thatched-together bamboo, flotsam and jetsam.
Signature drinks: The sinisterly named Missionary’s Downfall, the Zombie, the Vicious Virgin, the Never Say Die and the Shark’s Tooth “have this sense of adventure built right into them,” says Cate.
A more industrious take on the Beachcomber style.
Start date: 1937, when the Trader first visits Don the Beachcomber and subsequently transforms his Oakland restaurant, Hinky Dinks, into the more tropical and exotic Trader Vic’s.
Key influencer: Victor Jules Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic.
Signature ingredient: Orgeat. Bergeron, who, having grown up in a French family, was familiar with the flavors of the sweetened, almond syrup, correctly assumed that it’d work well in tropical drinks. It’s now one of the pillars of modern tiki. In addition, says Cate, he had a habit of mixing his base spirits—and not just rums, as had been the case with the Beachcomber. “What he really liked to do was mix rum and gin, and rum and brandy,” says Cate. “He poured multiple base spirits together, which wasn’t very common.”
Atmosphere: Though Trader took a great amount of inspiration from the Beachcomber—going so far as to buy items from the Beachcomber himself—his establishments (especially when outposts emerged in Seattle and San Francisco in the early ‘50s) were more polished than their predecessors. “They also had the trappings of retail to them,” says Cate, noting that they’d sell seashells and tropical knickknacks. “The idea [was] that . . . Eisenhower America was becoming a little too structured, a little too formal.” The Trader, then, “would flee the shackles of Western society, take off this tie and basically try to make a living of it on the water”—a fantasy well reflected in his restaurants.
Signature drinks: The Mai Tai, the Scorpion and the Fog Cutter, all of which notably include his signature orgeat.
An over-the-top luau experience from a consummate showman.
Key influencer: Steve Crane, who, having built upon the Trader Vic’s model—and, thus, borrowed heavily from Beachcomber—set out to create a Polynesian palace in Hollywood.
Start date: July 25, 1953, when Crane opens his landmark, The Luau, on Rodeo Drive.
Signature ingredients and styles: What Steve did best, says Cate, were very well-executed, gentle riffs on the Beachcomber style. “Steve’s innovations were in decor, in service, in the vertical integration of his company,” says Cate. “Cocktails he did well and served well because he hired good people, but he didn’t exactly change the game.”
Atmosphere: Having set out to open the biggest, most over-the-top example of tiki yet, Crane—who’d lived in Hollywood for years, married (and divorced) Lana Turner and dated starlets like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner—sampled liberally from those who’d come before him, adding “indoor waterfalls and running streams through the restaurant and actual macaws in cages,” says Cate. “Every inch of the place became a complete, immersive environment.” Steve himself reportedly developed a persona as well; not only did he make a habit of greeting guests in a safari suit, he also took to calling himself the “High Talking Chief Stefooma”—a move that was nothing if not appropriately theatrical.
Signature drinks: Luau Grogs, Steve’s Rum Barrel