Tiki Madness

It’s been decades since tiki bars were a big deal, but they’re back with a vengeance

July 2019
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We investigate the people and places bringing the new tropical escapism—and potent drinks—to life.

You know the calling cards of tiki: ludicrous skull mugs containing fruity but powerful rum cocktails, thatched roof and bamboo details, tiki sculptures that nod to some far-off lost civilization. It’s all a bit frivolous and certainly fun, but it faded from popularity in the U.S. sometime in the mid to late ’60s.

These days, a second wave of tiki bars is upon us. In the last decade, more and more have popped up, from California to Chicago to New York, and myriad spots in between. Holden Westland, owner of Tiki Farm, one of the largest tiki mug manufacturers in the world, says of his business, “The last five years have just been a whirlwind. It’s a movement!”

The story of tiki begins in 1934, when Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened the Don the Beachcomber bar in Los Angeles. He’d spent years kicking around the South Pacific, did a bit of bootlegging, and brought back memories that would fuel the vibe of the first tiki bar. Soon after, Victor Bergeron founded the tiki bar Trader Vic’s up in Oakland. Bergeron, appropriately enough, had a wooden leg that he allowed patrons to stab with an ice pick, and he’d eventually develop a worldwide empire of tiki bars.

It’s debatable as to why tiki has made a comeback. Some say it’s about the soothing combination of nostalgia and escapism in uncertain times—Don and Vic’s boomed during the Great Depression, the trend continuing with America’s post-WWII fascination with the Pacific.

The thing about tiki today is the zealotry of its practitioners. They’re passionate about the theatrics, the legacy and the often under-appreciated complexity of the drinks. The following bars—and the people who run them—define tiki’s decidedly fun and increasingly delicious new wave.


Paul McGee, co-owner of Lost Lake

Lost Lake, Chicago


Chicago is famed for its long tundra-like winters and wind whipping around massive skyscrapers. But lately it’s garnering national acclaim as a place of tropical escape and a sign that tiki is being taken more seriously. Lost Lake, founded in 2015 in the hip Logan Square neighborhood, has been a James Beard semifinalist three times, was named one of Esquire’s Best Bars in America (2017), and last year won both Time Out Chicago’s Bar of the Year and the coveted Tales of the Cocktail Best American Cocktail Bar.

“A lot of people’s perception of tiki drinks is that they’re cloyingly sweet,” says co-owner and head bartender Paul McGee, “so you have to win their trust by making cocktails that are complex but focused and balanced. We used to fight that stereotype. Less so now.”

The love fest has much to do with McGee’s reverence for tiki pioneers Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, whom he discovered through tiki historian Jeff Berry’s books (we profile Berry in the following pages). “For Don it was about layering different types of rum in the same cocktail. He’d use a base that was heavy from a pot still or light-bodied from a column still, and sprinkle in other types of rum to tone it up or down. From Trader Vic I learned about using different spirits in the same drink. His Fog Cutter, for example, has cognac, rum and gin. That really influenced me.” Today McGee offers the pillar drinks of the canon, but also uses their structure to dream up concoctions such as the Like the Sun in Solution, with aged Guyanese and Panamanian rums, dark Jamaican rum, coconut-corn milk, mango, pineapple, lime, amontillado sherry and Asian herbs.


Saturn in the House of Saturday Forever flaming cocktail 

To make the experience complete, McGee and his business partner, Shelby Allison, gave the tiny bar the feel of a romanticized, rustic fishing village somewhere near the equator: fish traps, a tank with skulls and live piranha, vintage-y glass bobbles dangling from nets, banana-leaf wallpaper and drinks in ceramic conch shells. As for the music, it’s breezy exotica early, and uptempo island tunes late night.

Why is tiki making a comeback? “It was the natural progression from the cocktail renaissance that started in the late ’90s, where everything was serious—there were bars that had rules, like you couldn’t stand. It went against all those things—it was about being friendly and having a good time.”

 McGee’s favorite moment in the bar thus far was when Beachbum Berry himself stopped in this past May. “He and his wife, Annene, were going to split a planter’s punch. I was like, ‘Well, ya can’t, cause I’m gonna make you this mai tai. We made a planter’s for him and a mai tai with some special Haitian and Jamaican rum, and they were very happy. And so was I.”
lostlaketiki.com
—Bill Kearney

 


Jeff Berry at Latitude 29

Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, New Orleans

At first, it feels a bit disorienting to sit in the French Quarter, the muddy Mississippi River across the street, and be surrounded by tiki paraphernalia while listening to vintage surf tunes. But it doesn’t take long for the immersive decor—and the complex cocktails—of Latitude 29 to work their charms.

The brainchild of writer and tiki historian Jeff Berry—a.k.a. “Beachbum Berry”—the intimate venue (named for the city’s latitude) is festooned with his personal collection of tiki sculptures, rare memorabilia and a menu combining longtime classics with new creations.

The bar, which opened in 2014, comes with serious tiki cred. Berry is the author of many books, including his first, Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log, a collection of lost drink recipes unearthed through years of research and interviews with elderly veterans of the legendary tiki haunts Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s.

“The recipes were in code,” he says, with ingredients labeled cryptically as “number two” or “number four.” This secrecy ensured that other establishments couldn’t copy signature cocktails. He ultimately discovered that they were “bespoke syrups—‘number four’ turned out to be a cinnamon syrup, and ‘number two,’ as far as I can tell, was a mix of vanilla and allspice.”


A map of tikis behind the bar stretches from New Guinea to New Orleans

As the former screenwriter (he worked on Inspector Gadget, among others) continued to publish books, a new wave of mixology-forward bars began to feature his recipes: “My wife finally said, ‘Why don’t you open a place and serve these drinks the way they were supposed to be made?’” Berry and his wife, Annene Kaye, ultimately left Los Angeles to open Latitude 29 in New Orleans.

Inspired by the exotic venues he visited as a child in the ’60s, Berry incorporated fixtures from that era. “I’ve been collecting this stuff since the ’80s,” he says. “Every time I got a big paycheck from the movie studios, I would buy myself a tiki sculpture.” The carefully curated menu includes not only “historically necessary” drinks like the zombie and mai tai, but also original creations, including the namesake Latitude 29, a mix of smoky eight-year-old rum from Guyana, passion-fruit purée and bespoke Madagascar vanilla syrup.

Though Berry believes the current tiki revival is based equally on escapism and nostalgia, he cautions that it’s not that simple. “The style has intrinsic, unironic, non-retro validity. You can’t divorce nostalgia from it completely, but other stuff was happening when I was a kid that I don’t like. I don’t find myself wanting to recreate the facade of a 7-Eleven, you know?”
latitude29nola.com
—Eric Newill

 


Head bartender Brian Miller

The Polynesian, Manhattan

In 1989, Donald Trump closed the last tiki bar in Manhattan, Trader Vic’s in The Plaza hotel in Midtown, and ushered in a tiki dry spell in New York. Cut to 30 years later, and the honking taxis and maze of fast-walking pedestrians on West 42nd Street are a world away from the tropical oasis above. The Polynesian, on the third floor of the Pod Times Square Hotel, builds a tiki universe with a turquoise lava stone bar and hand-painted landscape murals of 18th-century expeditions through Oceania, while co-owner and head bartender Brian Miller, clad in pirate mascara and a sarong, expertly blends elevated tiki cocktails.

Miller is on a mission with The Polynesian. “I’m trying to bring a piece of the beach and Polynesian culture to New York City,” he says. “We’re an island—the island of Manhattan—and I’m going to treat it like one!” Even if that means wearing thermal tights underneath that sarong in the dead of winter.


Hoist the Colors punch (rums, cinnamon, bitters, absinthe, tropicaljuices, club soda)

A self-proclaimed pirate, Miller moved from New York to Maui in the early aughts, studied tiki historian Beachbum Berry’s books, and returned to New York determined to elevate tiki drinks and change minds. To spread the gospel, he launched “Tiki Mondays with Miller,” a series of Polynesian- and pirate-themed pop-ups at bars across New York City, which spread internationally to Texas, Hong Kong and Moscow. One of his main goals: dispelling the misconception of tiki drinks as too syrupy and sweet. Launching The Polynesian gave him the chance to preach every night. “Sweet is a relative term—one person’s sweet is another’s sour,” Miller explains. “People come here and are surprised that the drinks are really well-balanced with so many layers and spices, with a lot of depth to them.”

Though Miller is currently curating the city’s largest rum collection at The Polynesian, with more than 200 types, his tiki cocktails have evolved, incorporating gin, bourbon, mezcal, cognac and even absinthe. For groups (and Instagram), he’s concocted large-format drinks, such as The Barbossa Punch, presented in a treasure chest, and The Exotica Bowl, served in a large snifter nestled in a huge clam shell on dry ice. It’s as close to an Oceania dream as you can get without leaving the island.
thepolynesiantiki.com
—Jess Swanson

 


Martin Cate

Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco

Tiki changed Martin Cate’s life, and he, in turn, changed the world of tiki. Some 25 years ago, as a young man working in transportation logistics in Washington, D.C., he was invited for a drink at Trader Vic’s, which would close a year later, in 1995.

“I was swept out of everything and into this alternate universe of amazing carvings and puffer fish and shell lamps,” Cate recalls. “That visit threw a switch in my mind and I was absolutely entranced.”

Cate started collecting tiki crafts and artworks, coordinating tiki bar crawls, and studying original drink recipes. He even built a home tiki bar. The obsession ran so deep that when he got laid off from his job, he decided to turn his passion into his profession.

After success with his first tiki bar, Forbidden Island, in 2006 in Alameda, California, Cate opened Smuggler’s Cove in the foodie town of San Francisco in 2009, and it would prove pivotal to the path of tiki in America. “We walled off all the windows, so you don’t see traffic or day-to-day life. There are no TVs,” Cate says. “Put your phone down, bring your friends and have human contact. The decor and music will give you hours of conversation starters.”


Smuggler’s Cove

He and his wife, Rebecca, also wrote a book about the bar, the experience and the obsession, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, which won a coveted James Beard Award in 2017. As fellow tiki bar owner Paul McGee of Chicago’s Lost Lake puts it, “That Beard Award was a huge step for legitimizing tiki.”

“Tiki is the only cocktail trend where the cocktails are just one facet,” says Cate. “There’s art and design and craft, a genre of music, the mug makers and sculptors. It’s a completely multidisciplinary art form.”

The shadowy Smuggler’s Cove rocks a pirate ship-like “escapist atmosphere” with a cornucopia of anchors, cannons and shiplap throughout the three floors. There are tropical plants, and plenty of tiki sculptures and Polynesian pop art. There’s even a trio of small cannibal carvings from Bora Bora and a waterfall.

And the music? You won’t hear anything recorded in the last 50 years. Instead, Cate pipes in exotica, a midcentury genre, that draws inspiration from jazz and mysterious tropical acoustics. When it comes to the tiki tipples, Cate sources original recipes to pay homage to colonial tavern drinks, but has also concocted his own, such as the complex Twenty Seventy Swizzle, with lime, honey, allspice, Demerara syrup, Angostura 1919 rum, black blended overproof rum, Herbsaint and Angostura bitters.

“Tiki bars are never going to be as big as they were in the 1950s, but tiki is woven into the American fabric,” says Cate. “It provides a wonderful sense of escape and camaraderie.”
smugglerscovesf.com
—Fred Gonzalez

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