The allure of tiki drinks is strong. Just as strong as the drinks themselves.
When a tiki cocktail—all frost and garnish—appears from behind the bar counter, its effect slowly washes across the room as people catch sight of a colorful glass, a paper umbrella or a smoking stick of cinnamon. Necks crane, murmurs ensue. What was in that glass? Can I have whatever drink comes in the pineapple? The thing with the umbrella, I’ll take that.
Tiki’s beauty lies in its unironic sense of escapism. Created from a conflation of Polynesian, Hawaiian and Caribbean styles, tiki is genuinely curious about, and rooted in, the idea of tropical cultures. When its founder Donn Beach (née Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) opened Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1934, tiki began as a nod to his travels around the world. It was a physical gathering of his memories from those very real places, heightened with his own drinks and tall tales—a mixing of reality and imagination.
Eventually, this melding of styles became the base for America’s 80-year-long, ebb-and-flow love affair with tiki, which manifested in bars around the country—from Trader Vic’s 1940s Bay area chain to modern meccas like Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash or San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove. Traces of tiki can be found even in places where it is not the overt style. In Brooklyn, Fort Defiance, a neighborhood cafe, holds a weekly tiki night while swizzles and falernum are standard fare at Manhattan’s Pouring Ribbons.
Whether overt tiki fanatics or quiet devotees to the tropical style, the thing that all these places realize is that tiki is a state of mind. All it requires is some heavy garnish, a flaming lime hull or two, plenty of fresh fruit juice and rum. Lots of rum. Classics like Planter’s Punch or the Zombie can be found most places that have an inkling of how to wield orgeat or falernum, and many tiki-philes will play with the formulas, including Zac Overman of Fort Defiance who trades dark spirits for light in his White Zombie, turns the swizzle European with his Padang Swizzle (smoking cinnamon stick included) and inverts the colada with Angostura bitters. A traditional Rum Swizzle goes herbaceous with Chartreuse and the Three Dots and a Dash persists at its namesake bar, even through harsh Chicago winters.
And though you may not always be drinking a tiki drink in a tiki bar, wherever you’re sipping it, it’s paradise enough.