Tiki is enjoying a healthy resurgence in cocktail bars around the country and not just in the usual urban culture bubbles. There’s an unlikely regional frontrunner leading the charge in today’s revival: America’s heartland.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the Midwest right now for cocktails,” says Brother Cleve, a pioneer in Boston’s drinks scene. “It’s a young market that’s not yet oversaturated. The region is home to whiskey and beer drinkers. Selling them on pisco, rum and Tiki hasn’t been easy. I credit the enthusiasm of these bartenders for making Tiki and craft cocktails the real deal.”
Cleve now travels the country preaching the gospel of Tiki for pisco brand Macchu Pisco. He believes many of the region’s newly opened Tiki bars are on par with those on the West Coast and in major markets like Chicago. He says there’s less competition in these secondary markets, allowing bartenders to hone their craft and engage with their guests.
And with operating costs well below the national average, the Midwest is still somewhere a person can open a 40-seat bar without taking on a mountain of debt. This next wave of new bars might just be the most Tiki of the Tiki movement, full of of drinking establishments that are dedicated purely to the pretense-free art of laid-back drinking. These are four Tiki bars that will steal your heart.
When TikiCat opened six months ago in Kansas City, Mo., buzz had been swirling around the project that included big names like Martin Cate, who helped develop the cocktail menu, and bar designer Bamboo Ben, who contributed to TiKiCat’s vintage look.
“Martin spent a week here with the bartenders training them on drinks and Tiki history,” says Marc Modrow, the bar’s Tiki ambassador. “Our menu is a combination of his drinks and our beverage director, Gary Boyd.”
Tiki isn’t new to Kansa City. TikiCat is owner Mark Seller’s love letter to the town’s rich 50-year Tiki history, once home to the famed Kona Kai and Kon-Tiki restaurants. Atmosphere is everything at the 47-seat bar, located in the basement of Seller’s craft beer spot, HopCat. It offers a secret escape from reality and the harsh Midwestern winters.
“We have people who travel from all over the country to drink here because they’ve seen us on Critiki or heard from friends that there’s a great Tiki bar in Kansas City,” says Modrow. “When the hardcore Tiki people have a great experience and tell their friends, you know you’ve done a good job.”
Wife-and-husband team Anne-Marie and Stefan Was were first introduced to the world of Tiki by friends years ago. “We immediately fell in love with it,” he says. “There’s a real sense of community surrounding Tiki culture, and we wanted to share that with Cleveland.”
The couple opened Porco Lounge & Tiki Room four years ago to give Clevelanders an escape hatch with “palm trees, tropical trappings and great drinks.” The bar has been recognized by several “best of” lists including The Food Network and Travel & Leisure.
Was says they’ve stripped away the pretense associated with craft cocktails to make Porco an accessible bar for the community without compromising the quality or the complexity of what is being made behind the bar.
“Just because a drink has a fruit garnish and an umbrella doesn’t mean it’s not a 12-part build with fresh juices and syrups,” he says.
Porco offers three versions of the Painkiller. Two are made with original Pusser’s rum and come with a choice of two degrees of pain: “How much pain are you in” and “how much pain do you want to be in tomorrow.” The third is a smokier house riff using Cruzan black strap rum.
For gin drinkers, Was recommends their Singapore Sling. “It’s one of our drier drinks that’s super balanced and beautiful.”
The West Coast meets Miami vibe of The Golden Girl Rum Club in Springfield, Mo., brought Cuban cocktails and Tiki classics to the Ozarks when it opened two years ago.
“We are a Havana-style, open-air bar. A lot of hardcore Tiki people would not consider us Tiki,” says owner and bartender Rogan Howitt.
The 45-seat bar is airy and modern and speaks to contemporary Tiki culture rather than channelling the Trader Vic’s vibe of yesteryear. Howitt characterizes it as a rum bar that happens to also sell Tiki cocktails. The 160 different bottles of rum behind the bar help make that case.
While the most popular drink is the Painkiller, Howitt recommends the Hurricane, which comes garnished with a mini bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal rum among other Tiki-esque accoutrements. He says he enjoys selling rum cocktails to hard-core Midwestern whiskey drinkers and can usually win them over with a classic Mai Tai, especially on Mai Tai Mondays, when they’re half-price.
“People are working hard to put places like Springfield on the country’s cocktail map,” says Howitt. “Our bar has a pretty big Instagram following. We get people who specifically travel to Springfield to drink at Golden Girl not only from our state but from around the country. We’re really proud of that.”
“This is all new to Omaha. We didn’t grow up with Tiki,” says Bradley Moore, the general manager and beverage director of Laka Lono. Laka Lono opened in October 2016 and attracts a wide variety of Omahans who are curious about “this Tiki thing,” he says.
“Tiki gives us a chance to be creative and challenge our guests to go beyond a beer and a shot,” he adds. While Moore can’t always sell guests on originals like the Rock of Brazil, a sour made with aged cachaça, lemongrass, guava and aquafaba, he relishes the challenge.
A little closer to home, the Grog Factory, a whiskey-based riff on the Navy Grog served with a Miller High Life sidecar, is Moore’s homage to Omaha drinkers and the city’s punk scene, which once centered around the now-defunct concert venue The Cog Factory.