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Without Filipino Bartenders, There Is No Tiki

August 12, 2020

Story: Drew Lazor

art: Nick Hensley


Without Filipino Bartenders, There Is No Tiki

August 12, 2020

Story: Drew Lazor

art: Nick Hensley

No group has been more important to the birth, growth and survival of tropical drinks. So why don't we know them by name?

Mystery has always been central to tiki’s appeal. The sleight of hand inherent to the genre’s allure can range from the benign—encrypted recipes, hushed techniques—to the elaborate: the culturally obtuse cultivation of Asian, Caribbean, Hawaiian and Oceanian customs, all in the name of a faux-tropical experience. Of all the people shortchanged by this fast-and-loose dedication to fantasy, however, no group has been as overlooked as Filipinos, whose contributions to the birth, growth and survival of tropical drinks cannot be overstated.

The relationship between Filipinos and tiki was, in part, a result of timing. The first large-scale Filipino migration to the United States took place in the early 1920s. Thousands of Filipinos, almost all single men under the age of 30, crossed the Pacific Ocean by freighter from the port of Manila to the West Coast. While those who disembarked in cities like Seattle and San Francisco found employment in seafood plants and farm fields, respectively, Filipinos who landed in Los Angeles gravitated toward domestic and service work. Over the next decade, Southern California would develop the highest concentration of Filipinos in America; by 1933, Los Angeles County alone was home to nearly 20 percent of the 65,000 Filipinos new to the States, according to historian Linda España-Maram.

Ernest Beaumont Gantt, the tiki founding father who later changed his name to Donn Beach, arrived in Los Angeles around the same time. Broke after several years of international travel, he supported himself working blue-collar jobs alongside Filipinos, who welcomed him into their circles. “When Donn washed up in L.A., he was parking cars and working in a vegetable market,” explains tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “Filipinos put him up, and he told them, ‘When I get my own place, I’m going to hire all you guys.’”

Beach made good on this promise. When the original Don’s Beachcomber Café opened in 1934 on North McCadden Place in Hollywood, the bar and service staff were overwhelmingly Filipino, an anomaly at the time. “It was not an easy road to hoe back then—racism was very pervasive, and white guys would always get [bartending] jobs first, whether they had the chops or not,” says Berry.

Their labor was hidden by design—Beach was at once guarding his recipes against theft from competitors and crafting a magical environment in which his seductive creations seemed to materialize from thin air.

But it’d be simplistic to breeze past these hiring practices as purely altruistic. Though Filipinos had no direct ethnic or geographic connection to Beach’s subequatorial pastiche, their dark complexions and Southeast Asian features were a seamless fit for tiki’s “exotic” aesthetic. The racist conflation of cultures to fit a Westerner’s notion of Oceania led to the promotion of several prominent Filipino bartenders, like Manila-born Mariano Licudine, who became the face of the Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale’s Polynesian landmark; or Filipino Americans Bob Esmino and Ray Barrientos, who wound up opening outposts of the Kon-Tiki chain across North America. But while looking the part aided Filipinos in landing gigs, talent is how they kept and cultivated work.

"The Filipinos made the place popular because of their service—they were good at it,” says Steve Aranas, a longtime Beachcomber manager whose father, Nash, was among the first group of Filipino immigrants to find their footing in Beach’s employ.

The Filipino forebearers to bartenders like Licudine, Esmino and Aranas were the so-called “Four Boys,” a quartet of lightning-fast mixologists responsible for crafting each and every one of Beach’s “Rhum Rhapsodies” in the Beachcomber’s nascent years. While the celebrity-heavy crowd hobnobbed out front, the Filipino barstaff toiled in a secluded back room, hollowing out pineapples and coconuts, juicing crates of citrus and shaving down enormous blocks of ice. And all of that was before executing the Beachcomber’s notoriously complex formulations, which regularly called for 10 or more ingredients topped with elaborate garnishes. (Beach’s measurements were so intricate that he’d custom-solder the spouts of glass cruets to regulate the flow of bitters, and saw down standard 2- and 1-ounce jiggers into quarter-, half-, and three-quarter-ounce sizes.)

Their labor was hidden by design—Beach was at once guarding his recipes against theft from competitors and crafting a magical environment in which his seductive creations seemed to materialize from thin air. As a consequence of this practice, despite their contributions, the identities of three of the Four Boys seem lost to time. Amid a 21st-century tiki revival that has resulted in the exhumation of numerous untold stories and long-lost recipes, even tiki’s most dedicated enthusiasts can only name one of them: Ray Buhen.

Born on Bohol in the Visayas region in 1909, Buhen shipped over to L.A. at the age of 21 where he worked as a bellhop and bartender at the Beverly Hills Hotel before joining the Beachcomber in 1934. Not content with backroom drink duty, Buhen had his own plans. “My dad insisted on working the front. … He’d say, ‘The more people you meet, the better off you are,’” recalls his son, Mike Buhen Sr.

In high demand for his experience in the rapidly expanding SoCal tiki scene, Buhen would go on to work at the Seven Seas, Sugie’s Tropics and The Luau, where he became the first Filipino tapped to run the front bar. In 1961, he opened the iconic Tiki-Ti, which his son and grandson, Mike Jr., still run today. The menu features several original drinks that wink at the family’s heritage, like the Anting Anting, a reference to Filipino folk magic; and the Lapu Lapu, in honor of the Visayan chieftain who killed an invading Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.

From the 1950s on, if there was any new tropical drink invented [in America], it was invented by a Filipino.

While the Philippines remained an American protectorate until 1946, allowing Filipinos who emigrated prior to that year to hold U.S. passports and not be subject to race-based quotas or restrictions, there still existed an overwhelming pressure to assimilate. Ray anglicized the spelling of his surname from Buhion to Buhen and spoke only English around Americans, including his family. “When we were growing up, I used to get angry with him that he never spoke Tagalog,” says Mike Buhen Sr. “But if you spoke another language out in public [back then], people would look at you like, ‘Get the hell out of here and go back to your country.’”

The discrimination against Filipinos in the early 20th century is a common thread through the accounts of tiki’s earliest adopters. Born in 1909 in Panay, Visayas, Nash Aranas likewise Westernized his name upon arrival in the late ’20s (from Ananias to Nash), and started at the Beachcomber as a bottom-rung “bar boy,” assisting senior bartenders with prep work. He later shifted to the front of the house, and gradually rose to an executive role within the entire Beachcomber brand before passing away in 1984.

Just as Buhen had experienced, Aranas, his Polish American wife, Helen, and their six children were also affected by the prejudices of the time. California did not repeal its anti-miscegenation laws until 1948; when the couple wished to purchase a home in L.A.’s Filipinotown in 1946, Helen’s sister Caroline had to put her name on the deed in place of her brother-in-law’s. (She’d also end up marrying a Filipino, Beachcomber bartender Conrad Laserna.)

The Aranases came to rely on the extended support system offered by the Beachcomber, which featured numerous biracial families like theirs. “Because the first wave who came over were primarily Filipino men, the community we grew up in was largely brown man, white woman,” says Aranas’ daughter, Pauline. This public-facing workforce represented just a fraction of the Filipinos integral to tiki’s sustained success; from the Four Boys on down, there are numerous contributors we still don’t know by name.

But Beach’s early investment in the skill and capability of Filipino bartenders had a profound impact on tiki culture at large. “From the 1950s on, if there was any new tropical drink invented here, it was invented by a Filipino,” says Berry.

The Hollywood Beachcomber alone was an incubator for bartenders like Buhen, Laserna, Hank Riddle, Tony Ramos and Licudine, all of whom went on to prolific careers within the company, or with other tikicentric competitors looking to replicate its success. Licudine, for example, gained international acclaim as the beverage director of Florida’s Mai-Kai, where he invented classics like the Derby Daiquiri and the Black Magic. “He was their star bartender, and they made him part of the showcase,” says tiki historian Tim Glazner.

There is also a large number of Filipinos who rose to tiki-world prominence without ever completing a tour of Beachcomber duty. Bobby Batugo, of Tip’s in Valencia, California, won multiple United States Bartenders’ Guild awards during his career; Midori and Baileys hired him to popularize their brands in the States by using them on his menus. Popo Galsini, whose head-spinning career was recently chronicled by David Wondrich, is the originator of the Saturn, a favorite non-rum cocktail among today’s tiki cognoscenti.

Today, individuals of Filipino descent comprise one of the three largest Asian-origin populations in America, making lasting impacts in agriculture, domestic work, health care and labor reform. While mixing tropical cocktails might seem a relatively frivolous discipline in comparison, that doesn’t mean the bartenders shouldn’t get the credit. The self-sustaining pipeline of Filipino talent extended well beyond any one establishment’s orbit, producing a class of bartenders with a tremendous creative output.

“They created their community,” says Pauline Aranas, “so that they could be a part of one.”

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