“Tiki drinks occupy a space somewhere in the Venn diagram of the American psyche where escapism, irony and kitsch overlap, cutting across so many cultural divides,” writes Jason Wilson in his excellent new book, Boozehound.
Staking a flag in the middle of our shared cultural heritage may explain why tiki drinks—like the Mai Tai, Painkiller and Suffering Bastard—have managed to persist for nearly 80 years, or what tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry calls “an unprecedented lifespan for a drink fad.”
And there’s no sign of it fading anytime soon. If world’s first celebrity bartender Jerry Thomas is the sleeve garter-wearing patron saint of cocktails, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron is the one in the Hawaiian shirt. And more candles seem to be burning at the Trader’s shrine these days.
Though Bergeron’s nickname is synonymous with tiki, he wasn’t its invetor: That honor goes to Ernest “Don the Beachcomber” Gantt, who opened the first tiki bar in Los Angeles in 1932. Bergeron admits he swiped the idea from Gantt—he didn’t start serving tropical drinks at his Oakland, Calif., bar until 1936.
Tiki has had its ups and downs—it reached a nadir of tackiness in the 1980s—but has lately provided inspiration to a new class of creative mixologists. The past couple of years have seen the opening of several neo-tiki bars: Painkiller, Lani Kai and The Hurricane Club in New York; Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco; and Kanaloa in London.
But this isn’t so much a purist revival as a reinterpretation for a new generation—it’s like the updated Hawaii Five-0. The drinks usually reflect this stylistic evolution and are generally lighter, a bit more transparent, a bit more rum-forward and a bit more adventurous with spices.
These concoctions do follow history in one way: They manage to transcend escapism, irony and kitsch, and prove that the original tiki drinks could be delicate, subtle and high-quality. As Trader Vic wrote back in 1948, “for the life of me, I can’t see why any bar uses anything but pure fresh lemon or orange juice.”
And that, more than anything, may be the message that’s assured tiki’s survival.
Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.