Reports of Tiki’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In all of its unabashed kitsch, it's easy to dismiss tiki as a category of drinks chronically prone to passing fad. Robert Simonson makes a case for the opposite and explains why tiki is not only alive, but thriving.

In December of 2013, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry released his weighty tropical tome Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them. The result of several years work, it constituted the crowning achievement of the globe’s leading authority on all things tiki. My journalistic antennae, naturally, went up.

As even a casual observer of the cocktail scene knew, tiki—not too long ago a comic-pathetic relic of 20th-century drinking history—had pulled a Phoenix over the previous five years or so, with Navy Grogs being served with reverence under newly thatched roofs from coast to coast.

I spied a natural story, akin (in its small, cocktail-world way) to the release of a new edition in Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The book almost pitched itself.

I was wrong. Few shared my enthusiasm for an in-depth article about Berry’s book. The reasons varied, but the general thinking was that the story I had in mind belonged to 2010. The tiki revival, so ballyhooed just a few years ago, had failed, was dead, or dying anyway.

Which got me to thinking: Had it? Was it?

Hadn’t I just enjoyed a perfectly wrought Mai Tai at Clover Club, my Brooklyn local? Didn’t my eyes light up at the sight of a Jungle Bird on the menu recently at Fort Defiance, another Brooklyn cocktail bar? Wasn’t nearby Court Street Grocers selling artisanal, Brooklyn-made orgeat? And that was just my little neighborhood. Who could say what tiki flourishes were adorning everyday bars and shops in other cities?

However, I wasn’t alone in confronting this funereal attitude toward neo-faux-tropical drinking. Berry himself had faced it. “I have encountered a lot of people saying to me, ‘Oh, that’s got to have reached critical mass, that must be over,’” he said. “My response to that is people were probably saying that in 1939, after Don the Beachcomber’s [the L.A. bar that started it all] had been around for five years. It’s just human nature to burn through a trend. By definition, a trend is something that’s going to be replaced.”

This is something new. You no longer have to slip through a bamboo door and hail a waiter in a Hawaiian shirt to get a drink with an umbrella in it. You can get it at your craft cocktail local, where it’s listed right there along with the Manhattan, Sidecar and other classics.

Certainly, in New York the triumphant Return to Tiki didn’t pan out as planned. The year 2010 saw the arrival of three Polynesian palaces: Julie Reiner’s Lani Kai; the scruffy Painkiller on the Lower East Side; and the sprawling, louche, Vegas-like Hurricane Club. (To be fair, Reiner was shy of fully embracing the tiki mantel; she termed her place “modern tropical.”) Four years later, not one survives. Lani Kai was the first to go. Situated in an odd, split-level space on an out-of-the-way block in Soho, it somehow lacked feng shui inside and out. The drinks were lovely, but the food menu struggled to attract an audience.

Painkiller had no qualms about bear-hugging the tiki worldview. It served Piña Coladas in hollowed-out pineapples, played up its one-to-a-customer Zombies and stuck elaborate garnishes and decorations in every glass. Like Lani Kai, the drinks were excellent, though some classic recipes were given a 21st-century goosing. Wedged into a narrow, basement space, it had an edgy rock-and-roll vibe, more buzz guitar than ukelele. During its first tumultuous year, there was arguably no cooler bar in New York.

But after its partners acrimoniously split after a year, and a legal spat with Pusser’s Rum forced the joint to change its name to PKNY, the heart seemed to drop out of the place. By 2013, the landlord chose not to renew the lease, and Painkiller/PKNY closed.

As for Hurricane Club—the least loved of the three among tiki aficionados (much vodka, disco below)—it rebranded itself as Hurricane Steak + Sushi in the summer of 2013, and closed for good in late December.

Since then, the tiki torch in New York has been largely kept lit by bartender Brian Miller, an admitted rumhead and a veteran of the city’s bartending scene, who inaugurated a weekly bacchanal called “Tiki Mondays” at Lani Kai in 2011. After Lani Kai shuttered, Miller jumped to Gold Bar in NoLiTa. It didn’t stay long. A sleek, vulgar cave (wall of golden skulls, anyone?) more suited to bottle service, Gold Bar was a bad fit for the raffish, floral tiki crowd. Better suited to the task was the no-pretensions SoHo bar Mother’s Ruin, the third home of “Tiki Mondays.” Miller’s reign there ended in December 2013. As of this printing, he hasn’t announced a new home.

So, given that recent history, tiki sounds pretty dead, doesn’t it?

But New York—as much as its residents would like to think otherwise—is not the world. Other cities (L.A., San Francisco, Chicago) have historically done tiki far better than New York. And, today, they still do.

Smuggler’s Cove opened in 2009 on Gough Street in San Francisco. Three levels high and staffed with some of the most experienced bartenders in the Bay Area, it’s generally thought to serve the best tiki drinks in the country. It was the brainchild of Martin Cate, who ran the tiki program at Forbidden Island in Alameda before opening Smuggler’s Cove, and who amounts to an elder statesman of the current tiki era. It’s still doing well.

According to Cate, the bar’s numbers are up all the way around, and 93% of sales are cocktails or neat rums. “That’s, to me, a real vindication of the concept,” he said.

Paul McGee’s Three Dots and a Dash, which opened in downtown Chicago in July 2013, also doesn’t lack for business. A popular favorite from day one, business has exceeded expectations by double. The bar sells 6,000 drinks a week—1,500 on a Friday night alone—according to McGee. “I don’t think people understand the volume we’re doing,” he said.

There are other examples—though not many—including Hale Pele in Portland. (Cate is an investor.) “If you look at the larger picture, if you travel around, it’s not only alive and well, it’s a monster,” said Berry. “It’s growing wildly. There are craft cocktail places opening in St. Louis and Milwaukee. It’s spreading sort of virally to second- and third-tier cities.”

But bars aren’t the point. Bars come and go. The issue here is drinks. The crowning glory of the tiki cocktail lexicon is the Mai Tai. Five years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a decently executed example. Today, the task isn’t nearly as difficult. Any self-respecting craft cocktail bar can build an excellent Mai Tai. At a good many of them, you may find the drink on the menu.

This is something new. You no longer have to slip through a bamboo door and hail a waiter in a Hawaiian shirt to get a drink with an umbrella in it. You can get it at your craft cocktail local, where it’s listed right there along with the Manhattan, Sidecar and other classics.

But perhaps this is why, at first glance, it might appear that the tiki trend has failed to stick. It’s easy, after all, to spot the closing of an entire bar and draw conclusions from that shuttering. The rise and integration of a cocktail category into the great drinking fabric is a subtler evolution. But, in the end, a more desirable one, if one truly wishes tiki to live out a long, healthy second act.

Furthermore, I doubt even the most stout believers in tiki’s comeback thought things would ever return to the heydays, when a kitschy combo could be found playing under Chinese lanterns on every block.

“I don’t think it will ever reach the frenzy it did in the 1950s, when there were five big places in downtown Chicago fighting for people’s attention,” said Cate. “That’s never going to happen again. And that’s OK. But we should reach the point where every mid- to large-size American market has one.”