A growing number of craft bartenders are shedding their speakeasy-style suspenders and spats and donning a new uniform — the flamboyant Hawaiian shirt of the Tiki bar master.
The rise of Tiki drinks, a fast-growing subplot in contemporary mixology, marks the revival of a colorful and fun cocktail culture that restaurateurs Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic Bergeron pioneered in the 1930s and 1940s. It peaked in the 1970s before sliding into obscurity. It marks an epochal shift from the Prohibition-era cocktails and manners that many of the better bars have adopted in recent years.
The focal points of the Tiki revival are colorful, eye-catching cocktails, typically built with rum and layered with such tropical flavors as passionfruit, pineapple, ginger, coconut and pomegranate. Specially flavored syrups also can used to add a touch of the tropics to Tiki drinks.
One of the key selling points of Tiki is a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere than one may find in some craft cocktail bars these days.
“When the resurgence of classic cocktails started about 15 years ago, it was all about speakeasies and here’s a list of rules,” says Paul McGee, mixologist and partner of Three Dots and a Dash, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Tiki lounge in Chicago. “Now, with Tiki drinks, you are talking about having fun and sharing your drink. The reason it is taking off so well now is because it’s the fun craft cocktail experience.”
Today’s Tiki drinks signify a continuation of craftsmanship at the bar, not a retreat from it.
“The original Tiki drinks, to be honest, were the forerunners of craft cocktails,” says Robert Clunie, operations manager of the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif., who oversees the 3-year-old Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, one of the most popular watering holes at Disneyland. “These are some of the most complex drinks to make because they have multiple ingredients and sources.”
For instance, typical Trader Sam’s drinks, such as HippopotoMai-Tai, named in punning Disney fashion, call for multiple styles of rum and several different mixers, sweeteners and garnishes.
According to Leslie Bock, owner of Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge, a Minneapolis Tiki bar where the Crummy Scoundrel — a libation flavored with blackberry, hibiscus, banana and fresh lime — is a specialty, guests can’t imagine all the work that goes into a Tiki menu. And that’s fine with her.
“Touting all the fancy ingredients takes away from the escapism known as Tiki,” Bock says.“Tiki drinks should just magically appear and not burden the imbiber with too much extraneous information.”
Bock adds that some of Psycho Suzi’s cocktail mixes take days to prepare, and one batch of house falernum, a spiced syrup, contains 16 ingredients and the zest of 100 limes.
McGee says he has a three-person prep team working from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. setting up his bar to serve labor-intensive creations such as the signature Three Dots and a Dash, a combo of aged rhum agricole and Guyanese rum with honey, falernum, lime, allspice and Angostura bitters.
The primary base spirit of drinks like those is rum, made in tropical climes around the globe and eminently mixable with fruits.
“Rum is the reason I opened a Tiki bar,” declares Russell Thoede, owner of Lei Low, a Tiki bar in Houston. “Rum is the most diverse spirit on the market.”
However, Thoede says he also makes good use of amaro, or Italian bitters, a popular choice of mixologists today. It adds a pleasing edge to his Bali Heights cocktail, in which amaro and Demerara rum are shaken with pineapple and guava and topped with house-infused coffee rum.
“We love amaro in Tiki drinks,” Thoede says. “Amaros can be as diverse as rums and all have a unique spice flavor, like cardamom or anise. Their bitterness and spice give tropical fruit juice a depth of flavor like never before.”
Likewise, many guests enjoy a touch of bitterness in their Tiki drinks at Cane & Table, a New Orleans restaurant and Tiki bar, reports owner and mixologist Nick Detrich. The popular Storm in Miniature combines Jamaican pot still rum with French grapefruit liqueur, the bitter malort, cinnamon syrup, allspice dram and fresh lemon juice.
“It is a big drink with some bitter elements, but it also uses the grapefruit and cinnamon and allspice combination that Don the Beachcomber loved so much,” Detrich says.