Tiki cocktails were popular for more than just their flavor; they also helped establish a new subculture within the cocktail industry. Tiki bars popularized the use of exotic ingredients like pineapple juice, coconut cream, and orgeat syrup and introduced the concept of "rum as a mixer" rather than just a base spirit.
When you think of Tiki cocktails, images of tropical paradise, colorful drinks served in elaborate mugs, and a carefree, laid-back atmosphere may come to mind. But Tiki culture and the drinks that go with it have a much longer and more important history and cultural meaning.
Tiki culture first emerged in the United States during the 1930s, inspired by the romanticized depiction of Polynesian culture in literature and film. Restaurateurs and entrepreneurs capitalized on this trend by creating tiki-themed bars and restaurants, complete with island decor, exotic drinks, and Polynesian-inspired dishes. During the Great Depression and World War II, when people wanted to forget about their problems and feel like they were in a tropical paradise, they went to these places.
Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's were the first tiki bars to open in the United States. Don the Beachcomber was founded by Ernest Gantt in 1933 in Hollywood, California. Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach, was inspired by his travels to the Caribbean and Polynesia to create a tropical oasis that would transport patrons to a different world, as Beach famously stated, "If you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you." With its thatched roofs, bamboo decor, and exotic drinks, Don the Beachcomber set the standard for Tiki bars to come. Trader Vic's was founded by Victor Bergeron in Oakland, California, in 1936. Bergeron was inspired by the success of Don the Beachcomber and also sought to create a tropical-themed bar and restaurant. Trader Vic's quickly became a popular spot for exotic drinks and Polynesian-inspired cuisine. Both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's played a crucial role in defining and popularizing tiki culture and its corresponding cocktails in the United States, and their legacy continues to influence tiki bars and cocktails to this day.
The tiki cocktails that were created at these bars were an integral part of the rum revolution spearheaded by Bacardi. Tiki drinks were known for their bold flavors, often featuring a combination of multiple rums, fruit juices, and spices. The Mai Tai, for example, is a classic Tiki cocktail made with white and dark rum, orange curaçao, lime juice, and orgeat syrup. The Zombie is another classic Tiki drink that was first mixed by Donn Beach at Don the Beachcomber. The drink is known for its bold and complex flavor and its high alcohol content, which earned it its name as it was said to have the power to "raise the dead." The original recipe for the Zombie includes multiple types of rum (Puerto Rican Gold, Jamaican, and high-proof demerara rum), lime juice, pineapple juice, falernum (a simple syrup that features lime, almond, cloves, and ginger), Pernod bitters, Donn’s Mix (a proprietary spiced syrup prominently used by Beach in several of his creations), and grenadine. The drink is usually served in a large, fancy mug in the shape of a Tiki idol. The mug is often filled with crushed ice, which is meant to melt over time and make the strong drink easier to drink.
Tiki cocktails were popular for more than just their flavor; they also helped establish a new subculture within the cocktail industry. Tiki bars popularized the use of exotic ingredients like pineapple juice, coconut cream, and orgeat syrup and introduced the concept of "rum as a mixer" rather than just a base spirit. Tiki bars also promoted the use of fresh citrus juices and syrups, which were not commonly used in cocktails before. These changes to ingredients and ways of mixing would have an effect on future generations of bartenders and people who like cocktails.
Some of these components, like orgeat syrup, remain completely unique to tiki culture. Orgeat syrup is a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and orange flower water and known for its distinct, nutty flavor. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East and was brought to Europe by the Moors. The name "orgeat" comes from the French word for barley, "orge," as the syrup was originally made from barley water and sweetened with sugar. The almond-based version of the syrup we know today was created later in the 19th century. The versatility of Orgeat syrup, as well as its nutty flavor and floral aroma, make it an ideal companion for many cocktails, as well as coffee drinks, desserts, and even some savory dishes.
As the years went by, tiki culture would begin to fall out of fashion. Today, tiki bars and their corresponding cocktails are once again gaining popularity, with new tiki-themed establishments popping up all over the world. And while these new establishments may offer a more contemporary take on tiki culture, they still pay homage to the original tiki bars of the past.
Tiki culture and its corresponding cocktails may seem like a fun, tropical escape on the surface, but they have a rich history and cultural significance. The Tiki culture popularized the use of exotic ingredients, introduced new mixing techniques, and played a significant role in shaping cocktail culture. Cheers to Tiki, the cocktail haven that continues to shape cocktail culture today.