Every five years I hear the word roll off bartenders lips with joy and savour. Tiki. It’s back. Again. Everyone’s favourite style of drink is making yet another resurgence. People just won’t give up on it, even when it has been beaten against the ropes, a la the closings of PKNY (Painkiller) or Lani Kai in NYC. Of course, for all the tiki bars that have fallen by the wayside (undeservedly), there are holdouts such as Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York, Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, and Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale – places that have the relevance of churches to the tiki devotee.
Any bartender I know who has worked with tiki in any serious way falls in love. It has all the elements to satisfy the career bartender – exacting history and recipes, fresh ingredients, pronounced flavours, strong liquor. Most importantly, tiki is fun. Most bartenders, I believe, are drawn to the job because it is gratifying to help people have fun, and tiki provides several avenues to do that. The immediate sense of separation from normal, everyday life via the use of costume, decoration and lighting in almost any tiki bar sets the tone for what should be a pleasure tour through a reimagined South Pacific. Glassware in the shape of parrots or pirates or Easter Island Moai take you further down the road to escape, because tiki is a form born of escapism. In fact, Marlo Gamora, one of my favorite new tiki bartenders, says it is exactly that sense of escape that drew him to tiki.
The man who invented tiki, Ernest Gantt (you might know him as Donn Beach) was a full-time escapist, leaving home early to start a career as a bootlegger, getting detoured to Asia (so he said), and even changing his name more than once. When he created tiki in California in the last years of the Great Depression, it offered people an alternative to focusing on the economic malaise and the arrival of more than 1m Okies, refugees from the crippling drought in the midwest. Couple that with tanks rolling across Europe and you have a real reason to need a little fantasy island of your own.
At first, Donn’s customers were celebrity friends, with the money and outré tastes to appreciate ‘Cantonese’ food and 10-ingredient drinks but, as usual, a celebrity following meant the average Joe wanted in. It was a big night out, and everyone dressed the part. Tiki was new, exciting and, goddammit, it was glamorous too! Even the venue was dressed to the nines, with interiors that would cost millions in today’s dollars.
In World War II America sent some 3.5m servicemen to the South Pacific. They came back with a thirst for things exotic, Polynesian and Asian. Multiple tiki operators were ready, and the unappetising- sounding pu pu platter flew out of kitchens, paired with millions of Mai Tais. Tiki culture exploded on the American scene concurrent with a new middle class, a disposable income and a backyard to decorate with torches and bamboo furniture.
Of course, all this fun had to come to an end, and tiki finally jumped the shark with an appearance on The Brady Bunch in the early 70s. Ultimately, it became just another kitschy American relic and imitators got their grubby mitts in the mix, bastardising recipes and sullying the reputation of a once-loved style. Happily, anything born of rum and fire can never die. And tiki is back. Again.