There are two Mai Tais within walking distance of my apartment. One is sublime; the other is wretched. Confusingly, the superior drink is served in a cocktail bar furnished with dark leather banquettes and bartenders in neckties, while the sorry one is served at a tiki bar decked out with Polynesian paraphernalia.
I wish I liked the tiki bar’s Mai Tai, because I like the idea of drinking a Mai Tai in a tiki bar. But nothing doing. Because while a good Mai Tai can transport you to the tropics, a bar decorated like the tropics can’t fix a lousy Mai Tai.
Tiki is rich with contradictions like this one. The community values faithful reproduction of its own foundational artifice. The vibes are laid-back and welcoming, but its practitioners can be fiercely protective. And then, of course, there’s the vexing case of how this chill, boozy pastiche of latitudes real and imagined became a bull’s-eye for not-entirely-baseless accusations of cultural appropriation, which is not chill at all.
But mainstream criticism of the tiki bars’ culturally loaded items and practices is, as tiki historian Sven Kirsten tells me wearily, “last year’s buzzword.” Maybe so. Even if that water passes under the bamboo bridge, though, another wave looms on the horizon. Propelled by everything from overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change to the Trump administration’s disregard for said consensus to that turtle video, the hospitality community faces a global reckoning on the environmental impact of its practices. And it’s begun to act. Composting, water conservation and waste-reduction efforts are widespread in America’s bars. Plastic straws are becoming less so (albeit slowly, and with much hand-wringing).
As the environmental tide turns, tiki appears more out of touch than ever with the concerns of the day. Can a discipline that celebrates artifice, escapism and frivolity find its place in a modern world where the very islands that inspired its beachy beatitude are being swallowed whole by rising oceans awash in plastic?
From the moment I clap eyes on Kirsten, video-conferencing from his home in California, there’s no mistaking him for anything but a tiki scholar. Wearing a tropical shirt, flanked by curios of “Polynesian pop” (a term he coined in the subtitle of his 2000 volume The Book of Tiki, his first of three definitive books on the subject), he begins our conversation by gently questioning whether it’s even worth having.
“It’s kind of interesting that [sustainability] even comes up in terms of tiki,” he says quizzically. “Tiki is about all about enjoying yourself. Sustainability is all about being conscious and sort of controlling yourself; tiki is the opposite, in a way.”
I’m surprised—not by the hypothesis, but by Kirsten’s willingness to acknowledge so plainly that tiki’s escapist ideology may be at odds with environmental preservation. Some of his peers in the tikigenstia seem reluctant to ponder such a damning hypothesis, or are flatly baffled by it. I ask Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the author of four tiki books, creator of a tiki recipe app, and owner of Latitude 29 in New Orleans, whether environmental consciousness is incompatible with tiki. “Not at all!” he replies cheerfully.
“I’m struggling with this train of thought,” responds Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s Smugglers Cove and coauthor of a tiki book by the same name, when I pose the idea to him. “The exact point of tiki is to escape, and it’s up to a good operator to create that sensation. This does not absolve the ownership of responsibility to be conscientious about sustainability… but they also don’t need to remind their guests about it.”
I follow up with an example from the hotel industry. Escapism is a big part of many hotels’ value propositions, but they often explicitly remind their customers about the environmental damage they’re complicit in—by, say, sending their bath towels to the laundry every day. This may ruin the escapist appeal of a hotel stay, but it’s been found to significantly reduce water and energy usage. Should tiki take a similar approach? No orchids unless you ask for them, or something?
Cate replies politely, requesting to continue the conversation off the record. Berry, on the other hand, gamely has a go at it. “I do see your point about hotel towels. I always reuse them myself. But it’s not the same thing as with cocktails. A used towel and a fresh towel still look like the same towel. There’s no visual difference to ruin your hotel bathroom experience. This cannot be said of a garnished drink versus a naked drink.”
A Problem of Aesthetics
Though the clothes, cars, art and ephemera are indelible to the social fabric of the contemporary tiki community, the drinking public knows “tiki” most readily as a style of bar and the drinks served therein.
Between the vessels carved from whole pineapples or Thai coconuts, the towering and elaborate garnishes and all the shit being lit on fire, tiki’s aesthetic is anything but ascetic. “It’s definitely on my mind with some of these lovely beverages,” says Claire Sprouse, a bartender and cofounder of Tin Roof Drink Community, a consulting and education company that focuses on sustainability issues within the hospitality industry. Sprouse and her fellow cofounder, Chad Arnholt, contract with bar and restaurant owners to assist them with everything from designing more eco-friendly beverage programs to purchasing more energy-efficient appliances.
They have yet to work with a tiki bar, but they use the Mai Tai as an example of how a bar’s fundamental choices about how to make and serve its drinks can have a drastic impact on its overall sustainability. For example: Compared to the other major base spirits, rum is one of the least environmentally friendly options there is. This makes a Mai Tai’s use of it—and its ubiquity throughout the category generally—something of a built-in handicap. Some producers distill commercial sugarcane, which is sometimes burned in the field before harvest to cheaply remove the plants’ outer vegetation. (The practice has been deemed harmful to workers and is restricted or subject to upcoming bans in some countries around the Caribbean but is legal in the U.S.) Geography is a factor, too. Rums “do have to travel typically a pretty far distance,” points out Sprouse.
The pair emphasize that they don’t think the solution is just: “don’t buy rum.” They’re also quick to point out that there are lots of sustainably produced rums out there (they praise Don Q’s environmental impact in particular) and that domestic small-batch rum production offers local options for lots of tiki bars around the country. “I will never stop pouring those ingredients,” says Sprouse, reflecting on rums she encountered on a tour of the Caribbean’s small producers. “I just try to be a little bit more conscious and focus on how they’re produced.”
Overall, the goal of a sustainable bar program and practice, Arnholt explains, is “moderation and smart consumption.” Though neither term seems particularly congruous with tiki’s penchant for opulent theater, some bartenders insist there’s no meaningful difference between a classic cocktail bar and a tiki bar in terms of environmental impact. Others say tiki is definitely different but see its spectacle as a challenge to be relished.
“The reason we started Trash Tiki was to kind of look at the most challenging category of cocktail and do them sustainably,” says Kelsey Ramage. Ramage is a cofounder of Trash Collective, an anti-waste education program that organizes the popular global bar pop-up series. But Trash Tiki isn’t trying to shame tiki out of existence; the opposite, actually. Ramage talks about classic tiki drinks’ reliance on fresh juices, multitudinous ingredients and garnishes less as handicaps to be discontinued and more like sustainability puzzles waiting to be solved.
Along with cofounder Iain Griffiths, she has reverse-engineered a multitude of essential tiki flavors from ingredients that would otherwise have been discarded. They toast avocado pits to make orgeat and spin citrus pulps with water and sugar for syrups. “All of our tiki drinks still have basis in the classics; they just find different ways of getting the same flavor,” says Ramage.
Even tiki bars that don’t practice anti-waste mad science have the potential to be more efficient. “The big straw hoopla,” as Sven Kirsten calls it, is tougher. Plastic straws have fallen so far out of favor, and so fast, writes Kate Krader for Bloomberg, that there’s been a “run on supplies” with manufacturers of the paper alternative. Many bars are simply going without, offering straws only when a customer requests one. But for tiki drinks, she notes, it’s not so simple: They “tend to come in large, unwieldy cups that are otherwise challenging to drink from.” Many call for crushed ice to the lip of the glass, which makes tilting your Mai Tai to sip it a dicey proposition. Erick Castro, a self-described tiki advocate and industry polymath, says he’s not sure a nonplastic scorpion bowl straw exists yet, and with all the bouncing between his bicoastal bars (Boilermaker in Manhattan and Polite Provisions in San Diego), I’m inclined to believe him. Still, even though tiki drinks tend to need straws, the bartenders who make them are trying to phase out plastic.
It’s not to be trendy, says Brian Miller, whose new bar, The Polynesian, uses biodegradable straws. (Frustrated by wait times quoted to his bar by paper-straw manufacturers, he found an alternative online.) “This is fucking reality,” he says, describing his hunt for an alternative to plastic straws after his general manager showed him a notorious, and gruesome, YouTube video highlighting what they can do to marine wildlife. “You don’t get extra credit for doing it. You should just care about the world you live in.”
Ditching plastic straws will be a relatively simple adjustment once supply of non-plastic alternatives catches up with demand. Straws serve a specific function, after all, and engineering for sustainability in function is fairly easy. Engineering for sustainability in form—in a drink’s look or vibe or emotional appeal—is less so.
How Bad Are Bananas, Really?
In 1959, the same year Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state, a bartender at Waikiki’s Hawaiian Village Hotel tucked a cocktail umbrella into a Tapa Punch. Just like that, the game had changed. “Donn Beach, the godfather, was not a fan of over-the-top tropical garnishes,” write Martin and Rebecca Cate in Smuggler’s Cove. But “[e]ventually, tiki garnishes started to get bigger and more elaborate, in large part through the efforts” of Harry Yee, who came up with some of tiki’s most celebrated garnishes, including orchids, Chinese back scratchers and, of course, the ubiquitous umbrella.
If Yee were alive today, I imagine he’d be delighted by the banana dolphin, one of latter-day tiki’s most Instagrammable garnishes. The invention reigns supreme at Chicago’s Lost Lake, a critically acclaimed and locally beloved tiki bar opened by Paul McGee and Shelby Allison in 2015. (Cate is also a partner.) “That’s our most powerful marketing tool,” says Allison.
But is the social-media-friendly garnish a big waste? An industry friend of mine (who shall remain nameless so as not to get him smote by the tiki gods) speculated to me recently that Lost Lake’s signature flourish must wind up in the trash a lot, pointing to an interview published on TalesoftheCocktail.com in 2016, which quotes McGee saying Lost Lake preps an average of 100 of these per night. I pose the allegation to Allison.
“I can see where someone would look at the drinks that we are serving and automatically think that the extravagance means it’s totally unsustainable,” she says, “but I think it might be that [tiki] has the opportunity to be more sustainable because of that.”
This sounds counterintuitive, but it may be true. A functional tiki bar requires regular delivery of fresh produce. Those ingredients cost a lot of money and turn the fastest. They must be used as efficiently as possible to avoid wasting money—not just because it’s bad for the environment, but because it’s bad for business.
“If I was throwing away banana dolphins every day, I’d be throwing money in the trash,” says Allison. To avoid that, Lost Lake places daily produce orders, closely monitors and adjusts how many fresh ingredients it prepares each night and uses unsold dolphins and non-dolphin-ized halves in the next shift’s Banana Daiquiris, she says. The “fins” are made of pineapple fronds, the fruit of which is already in the building for juice or garnish in other drinks. And if a customer doesn’t eat their garnish (which Allison says is rare), it’ll be composted, thanks to the bar’s recent adoption of that practice for all its organic waste. “We do between one and 200 pounds a week” of compost, she says. “I very much believe that small steps add up.”
So Harry Yee’s legacy of flamboyant garnishes is actually an advantage for tiki’s sustainability efforts? Many bartenders interviewed for this story (tiki and classic alike) tend to think so. “Elaborate garnishes are a plus for sustainability,” says Berry, of Latitude 29. Consider the pineapple, he continues: “At my bar, every single piece of the fruit is used, with zero waste. The meat is diced and blended in two menu drinks, the leaves are used for garnish in several of our menu drinks, and even the skin is used in a ‘pineapple crusta’ garnish for our Rum Barrel. I doubt this happens with pineapple in non-tiki bars.”
A lot of tiki bartenders bring a similar ingenuity to bear on otherwise-discarded ingredients. Miller dehydrates The Polynesian’s unserved lemon and lime wheels and uses them as fire floats. Jane Danger, of Manhattan’s Mother of Pearl, feathers the bar’s pineapple fronds. “I like taking a really sharp paring knife and kind of like making little notches all the way down the outer side. Then you flex it so all the little notches pop out, and it looks like a feather.” It’s a lot of work, she admits, “but otherwise the little pineapple top will just be thrown away.”
Most of the bartenders I spoke with had similar tales of manipulating old ingredients into bold, beloved garnishes. Still, depending on where you stand on tiki and conservation, this can all seem a bit like missing the forest for the trees. After all, Tin Roof’s Arnholt says, food waste is part of the sustainability equation, but “in a lot of ways it’s the smallest fight. Carbon footprint is the thing that’s going to cause our oceans to rise and our cities to be underwater, and that is largely impacted by your supply chain.”
Sprouse, his co-founder, chimes in with a relevant tiki example. “When you have that beautiful orchid on your cocktail, where was that grown? How far did it have to travel to get to you? Did it have to be refrigerated the whole time?” These are tricky questions to answer. Tiki bars go through orchids by the thousands. Some orchids grow naturally in the U.S.; many more are imported from places like Taiwan, Colombia and the Netherlands. Like many delicate flowers, they require special packaging and refrigeration along that supply chain.
The underlying logic here is that the degree to which an ingredient is used ultimately may matter less than how well it’s been sourced. No amount of deft knifework or opportunistic recipe design can erase an ingredient’s carbon footprint once it’s behind the bar. The enormity of this problem makes incremental innovations seem utterly outmatched. After all, the most strictly sustainable thing to do with an ingredient—and especially with some of the exotic ones that anchor tiki’s most sacrosanct drinks—is not to offer it in the first place.
“Every decision you make has a footprint attached to it, and there’s no escaping that,” says Arnholt. He recounts an anecdote from Mike Berners-Lee, the author of How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, about the writer’s discovery that if a nuclear holocaust wiped out all of humanity, mankind’s overall carbon footprint would actually be reduced. “But that’s obviously not what we want,” Arnholt says, with a grim chuckle.
Obviously not. We’re not machines; we have lives to live and passions to pursue, and denying ourselves those human experiences entirely is neither appealing, realistic, nor practicable. But just as obviously, we need to strike a better balance between unfettered consumption and Spartan deprivation. So where does that leave tiki—both the people who love it and the things they love about it?
Welcome to Shangri-La
If you know a little bit about the genre, the evidence seems mostly to point to one answer: existential crisis. The discipline is so fantastic, so extravagant, so unburdened that it seems uniquely ill-matched for our burdensome environmental and culture present—and future. From this angle, tiki looks like a blue pill, an indulgent retreat from an environmental reality that increasingly requires our attention.
But if you know a lot about tiki, you may well think the opposite.
After an auspicious start to our interview, Kirsten warms to the discussion. “I don’t think [tiki is] about excess” or environmental waste, he explains. “It’s just perceived as excess nowadays because there’s so little else out there that’s as colorful and unique and creative as a tiki bar. I’m not saying that every little bit doesn’t help [the environment]. I just feel there are more important things we have to worry about right now.”
Like almost everyone I speak to for this story, he points to the Trump administration as an example of the environment’s more pressing scourges. But Kirsten also concedes that the political parable cuts both ways. To wit: Some see America’s current political situation as a cautionary tale about the consequences of creating comfortable fictions for people to inhabit.
Tiki bars, more than maybe any other category of bar, trade explicitly on comfortable fiction. It’s what they sell to their customers, along with the drinks. But while you’re over the bridge, the oceans are still rising, plastic is still being used and the climate is changing. Tiki is not responsible for these grave consequences, but neither is it exempt from them, I point out. Is selling an idealized version of paradise inappropriate while actual paradise disappears?
Kirsten pauses to think for a moment. “A tiki bar should not lead to disengaging,” he agrees. “But at the same time, I think, every human being needs a balance. Tiki is a little Shangri-La to escape to, to stay sane. I’m not saying live your life in a tiki bar. I’m saying kick back in a tiki bar every once in a while, then go out and fight the good fight.”
It’s another paradox: To fight mankind’s existential maladies, pretend they don’t exist for a little while. It makes a certain amount of sense. After all, a good Mai Tai can transport you to the tropics, rejuvenate your constitution and remind you that life can still be beachy. Just don’t stick your head in the sand, because the water’s rising.