Tiki: That Time a Cocktail Started an American Cultural Experience

Tiki Drink

Tiki. The word conjuers a wide array of visuals, smells, tastes: fresh pineapple, large Tiki heads carved from wood, fake waterfalls, little umbrellas, loose-fitting Hawaiian shirts, flip flops, hula dancers, exotic music with steel drums, mysterious rum concoctions, luaus, the list goes on... Where did this movement come from? What makes this cultural phenomenon so distinctly American? Why the Hawaiian shirt craze? Why do I suddenly feel the urge to drink a Mai Tai?

To understand Tiki, we must first travel to the white sandy beaches, the Tropics, and experience the local flavor of—wait, the Caribbean? That's right, most Tiki drinks were derived from the Caribbean, where the mixture of rum, lime, and sugar altered the course of drinking history forever. When explorers, missionaries, and settlers arrived in the Caribbean, they exploited the native population and its vast sugar cane, most notably for the purpose for making rum. Long before the cotton gin, it was plantations of sugar cane crops that brought the reality of slavery to the new world. The European palate took well to sugar for their tea houses, and rum became all the rage.

From pirates drinking original rum punches to the British trading company's Planter's Punch to Martinique Ti Punch and the Cuban Daiquiri, Tiki drink ingredients including angostura bitters and curaçao (Trinidad), Falernum (Barbados) and mint (Cuba), all come out of the islands of the Caribbean.

So, how did tacky, faux Polynesia get wrangled into this thing you ask? We can thank a man who went from being a bootlegger during prohibition to opening a tropical-themed bar/restaurant named after his own nickname, Donn the Beachcomber. His bar became the toast of Hollywood, serving house creations such as The Zombie, Tahitian Rum Punch and the famous Navy Grog.

He would serve Cantonese dishes with exotic garnish, which was about as exotic as the American palate could withstand at the time. His mixologists would work in the kitchen, as they were all Filipino and would keep the recipes secret to ward off copycats. The popularity of Donn Beach's bar eventually grew the concept across the states, as he expanded his brand, and some of his bartenders were lured away to new bars.

The whole concept really exploded after the Second World War, when troops came home from serving in the South Pacific. In fact, the fascination that derived shortly thereafter was instrumental in the final push to give Hawaii full statehood by 1959. Once this occurred, the "Backyard Tiki" craze hit a fever pitch. Hawaii experienced an immediate increase in tourism as Americans now wanted to embrace their new state. Suburban homes became decorated in bamboo, large stylized Tiki heads and idols, and Tiki drinks were mixed at home all in an effort to bring the experience of the tropics into daily American life. Exotic-styled music such as the "tropical jazz" arrangements of Martin Denny also became popular. As a pianist, he became the father of exotica, adding exotic rhythms to his brand of popular lounge music.

The Polynesian craze of the mid-twentieth century extended to architecture as well, not just for the Tiki restaurants and bars, but also with apartment complexes catering to singles, hotels, movie houses...the list goes on and on. A theme park in Los Angeles called "The Tikis" was even planned and half built. Walt Disney was so enthralled that he insisted on devoting a huge patch of the redesigned Adventureland to the movement. What is now the Enchanted Tiki Room was originally planned as a large restaurant with a themed show. 

"Hawaiian shirts," with their loud prints and over-sized cuts were once considered fashionable! Attire originally intended to cover the native people of the South Pacific by the missionaries, the natives would embellish them with local floral and fauna. These unique outfits began to sell to tourists, eventually becoming so popular Hugh Hefner wore them in his tropical themed Playboy "Luaus." The Tiki cultural movement, like all fads, wouldn't last forever, and by the late 1960's, it began a slow decline. As the world of cocktails devolved into pre-mixed chaos, Tiki sadly became an overly sweet, antiquated style.

It would take 40 years for it to make a comeback. As the "craft cocktail" movement of the early 21st century brought back the classic pre-prohibition cocktail, it also brought back the idea of craftsmanship. Pre-mixes, with their GMO, corn syrup laced, long ingredient lists finally saw the trash cans where they belonged. It's only been in the last 5-7 years that the bar industry has given Tiki another chance. Armed with old and new Tiki manuals, an artisan's perspective, and the desire to recreate the brilliance that once was rum based punches, we are slowly seeing a resurgence of all the best of what Tiki could be. The key is focusing more on what's in the drink rather than the decor of where it's to be served. When we taste a well crafted Tiki drink, it still tends to take us on a journey through all that once represented the style, and in doing so, connects us as Americans.

Now that we understand the background of Tiki, be sure to check out our second installment of this blog series where we open up Donn Beach's secret recipe book and share a few easy-to-make Tiki cocktail recipes that will transform your backyard or balcony into a Tiki paradise.

And don't forget to come visit us at Level2 where we'll mix up a Tiki cocktail that will bring you straight back to the relaxing Caribbean coastline.

Photos courtesy of Stephen Kurpinsky and Joshua Kasumovic