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A Brief History of Tiki

with your hosts the Mai Tai and Navy Grog

Welcome back to our rum saga! If you are just joining us, I really recommend you check out the first part of our rum adventure here where we give you a history of rum and a couple classic cocktail recipes. In this part, we are gonna look at the origins of tiki, taste some rum soaked cocktails, and take a closer look at the potentially problematic aspects of this cocktail craze.

Part I

The Birth of the Man who Birthed Tiki

The story begins with one Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. He was born in 1907 and grew up in New Orleans. When he was old enough to work, he helped his grandpappy with his ‘import and export’ business, which mainly consisted of charting a course on the family yacht to and from Jamaica. At 18, when he had the option to go to college on his parents’ dime or take the money and run, he chose paradise. Traveling from island to island along the Caribbean and down to the South Pacific islands of Polynesia, he witnessed the crafts of local artisans, tasted the flavors of Caribbean cuisine, and you better believe he drank the drinks! Havana Daiquiris, Barbados Rum Punch, and the Singapore Sling.

Don’s Beachcomber

Eventually funds ran out and Ernest made his way back to America, landing in sunny Los Angeles in 1931 with a cargo load of masks, carvings, and other Polynesian and nautical items. Working odd jobs, Ernest saved for two years till he had enough funds to purchase himself a small bar in Hollywood and filled its interior with artifacts from his travels. His vision was that of a Jamacan rum shack. Above the entrance to the bar he hung a big driftwood board that read “Don’s Beachcomber,” a pseudonym he used in his bootlegging days. The spot was a bit rough compared to the Hollywood glamor of the other black-tie bars in the area, but it was part of the allure. Don’s bar would change the course of dining history in America, but more importantly, the newly minted Don the Beachcomber invented an entirely new category of cocktails.

Concocted Fantasy

Working from the foundation of Planter’s Punch and its catchy rhyme “one of sour (lime), two of sweet (sugar syrup), three of strong (pot still rum), four of weak (water & ice),” Don played with this guide by blending different rums and spices to create new and exciting dimensions of flavor. Pair these cocktails with a wild name and you’ve got ‘The Exotic Cocktail.’ Arguably the most iconic of the cocktails created by Don is the Zombie. It’s a feast to behold, but it’s also not the most accessible drink to concoct.  Instead, to introduce you to the world of exotic cocktails, we present the Navy Grog:

Navy Grog

Remember that grog consumed by the British Navy? Well, this is its grown-up counterpart. Most famously drunk on the regular by Richard Nixon and most dramatically by Phil Spector the night he murdered actress Lana Clarkson, the Navy Grog is an example of classic Don flair for the men at the bar who couldn’t stand ordering a drink with an orchid for garnish.

¾ ounce fresh lime juice

¾ ounce fresh grapefruit juice

1 ounce honey syrup

¾ ounce seltzer

1 ounce pot still lightly aged (overproof) rum

1 ounce blended lightly aged rum

1 ounce column still aged rum

Add all of your ingredients (minus the seltzer) to a cocktail shaker filled with ice, Shake! Shake! Shake!, and strain into a double old fashioned filled with crushed ice or an ice cone. Top with seltzer, a lime wedge, and the British flag (if you have one laying around). Now raise your glass and make a toast to the countless sailors lost to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Ice Cone 101

Oh, you’re curious about this ice cone? Get your own authentic cone making mold here. If you end up loving the Navy Grog, you probably won’t regret getting this otherwise useless tool. You can also apparently make ice cones with a pilsner glass and a chopstick in the middle, good luck with that. 😉

Sweet

A note on honey syrup: it’s easy to make! Just like a simple syrup, measure one part honey and one part water. Heat in a pot till water just comes to a boil and stir till completely clear. Let cool, bottle, and chill. Try a two-to-one honey syrup if you are interested in a more honey forward flavor in your cocktail. Keep it refrigerated, lasts for a few weeks!

Spirit

A note on all those rums: the blending of specific rums has always been an important aspect of the exotic cocktail. If you read along with Part One of this article, you have learned a bit about rum and are probably starting to distinguish what makes each of the above rums unique. The pot still overproof rum adds funky flavor, the blended lightly aged rum brings a smooth complexity, and the column still aged rum brings a clean and refined rum taste. Here are the rums we love in this drink. Grab a bottle of Smith & Cross pot still Jamaican rum for a strong overproof kick, Appleton Estate Signature Blend for that tried and true classic, and for that column still gold, get Flor de Caña Gran Reserve. But you don’t need to have 3 rums to make this drink – start out with the Appleton Estate. If you are up to it, next time you’re at the liquor store grab a Navy strength or column still rum to start blending. The rum world is your oyster; go out there and experiment!

Part II

The Torch is Passed

Victor Jules Bergeron was born in San Francisco in 1902. Growing up, friends called him Vic, and eventually he started himself a restaurant. It was your average place, but he experimented at the bar with tropical drinks. His interest in this area of the cocktail world grew, especially after a trip with his wife to New Orleans and Cuba. He took inspiration from what he experienced and patrons of his restaurant were impressed. Soon, he started hearing about this bar called Don the Beachcomber. In 1937 he finally made the trip and was instantly obsessed. Inspired by what he saw and drank and tasted, set out to transform his restaurant into an exotic escape. One day Hinky Dinks, the next day Trader Vic’s. It was an immediate sensation and was shortly deemed the best restaurant in San Francisco.

As Vic’s empire grew, so did his experimentation in cocktails, eventually creating an icon of the cocktail world: the Mai Tai. The story goes that one evening at Trader Vic’s, he grabbed a bottle of aged rum and mixed it with orange curacao, sugar syrup, orget, and the juice from one lime for his friends visiting from Tahiti. Upon tasting the drink they exclaimed, “Maita’i Roe A’e,” meaning “Out of This World – The Best.” The Mai Tai was born.

Mai Tai

The crown jule of the exotic cocktails. The Mai Tai is a drink we all have heard of, but many have never had the real deal. It needs to be tasted to be believed.

¾ ounce fresh lime juice

¼ ounce simple syrup

¼ ounce orgeat syrup

½ ounce orange curacao 

2 ounces blended aged rum

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with 12 ounces of crushed ice and a few whole cubes to help agitate the mixture. Shake until a layer of frost covers the exterior of your shaker. Pour the entire contents of the shaker into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the half dome of a lime shell to make an ‘island’ in your cocktail and a sprig of mint.

Sweet

A note on orgeat: a homemade almond syrup that we have been unable to find adequate store-bought substitutes for. It may sound complicated, but the recipe is actually quite simple and well worth it. To make, the process involves blending and straining almonds to release oils and create a homemade almond milk. You will need a blender/food processor, a tea towel, fine metal strainer, and a rather odd ingredient – orange blossom water – which we found at the largest Middle Eastern grocer in our area. But it’s also available online. Find our Orgeat recipe in the Resources section at the end of this article.

Spirit 

The recipe calls for two ounces of blended slightly aged rum. Use our favorite Appleton Estate Signature Blend of course! But if you are interested in a more authentic Mai Tai experience, there are two schools of thought on how to achieve this. Both options include blending two rums. Beachbum Berry recommends pairing Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year with Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique, while Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove recommends pairing Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year with a pot still like Smith & Cross.

Exotic Cocktail Snack

You’re gonna need a little snack to go with that boozy Mai Tai. THICK bacon, toasted peanuts, and candied pineapple combine to create this simple yet satisfying bar treat.

8 THICK slices of bacon

3 cups salted roasted peanuts

4 candied pineapple rings (cut into little triangles)

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon honey

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350°. Cook bacon for 30 minutes on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Drain on paper towels and cut into ½” strips. In a bowl, toss all ingredients except salt till evenly combined. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, stir halfway through. Season to taste with salt as it cools. Serve with a Mai Tai or any cocktail, really.

Part III

Aloha Tiki

The exotic cocktail movement grew and grew, expanding across America into luxury hotel bars and stand alone restaurants on the East and West coasts. Don and Vic were a huge part of this expansion, both opening numerous restaurants across the States. In 1950, the Academy Award winning doc about one Norwegian man’s daring plan to cross the South Pacific on a balsa wood raft he named Kon-Tiki became a sensation, further exciting Americans’ interest in Polynisian culture. There’s more info about how to watch the film here! In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th State, and its influence on American pop culture was cemented. This once exotic world was now a part of America and people couldn’t get enough of it. It was on the TV, in the restaurants, and inspiring new genres of music (Exotica). Tiki became huge and reached its peak in the late ‘60s. But all empires must fall and Tiki did, spectacularly.

Death…

Tiki culture died due to two large shifts in American culture. Cocktail culture in general declined when the popularization of cheap artificial liquors and mixers became popular. Tiki was also affected by a new generation of young people who had grown up in a more globally aware world. The Baby Boomers associated Tiki with inauthenticity and racism, not to mention politicians like Richard Nixon were famously associated with Tiki. It swiftly declined through the 1970s; by the 1980s, Tiki was no more, washed over by more generic, beach-themed bars.

…and Rebirth

When folks in the ‘90s started finding old remnants of the bygone Tiki era in thrift shops, they became curious to know what it was all about. These ‘Tiki Revivalists’ dug into this forgotten era to discover the mysteries of the lost Tiki art. This coincided with a renewed interest in craft cocktails. The Tiki era was being intellectually re-examined and new names like ‘Polynesian Pop’ were used to define it as a style in the canon of art and culture. Modern archaeologists like Beachbum Berry searched out the retired bartenders of the famous exotic cocktail bars to learn the secrets of these mysterious drinks. Decoding bar books and hearing stories of how drinks were made, Berry reconstructed cocktails to get as close to what you would have experienced sitting in Don’s shack sipping a Navy Grog. Find his recipes in Beachbum Berry’s Sipping Safari.

Others have followed in his footsteps like Martin Cate, founder of the acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove tiki bar in San Fran. His book Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Coctails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki was a huge help in researching this article. Then there’s Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Coctails,  and founder of Women Who Tiki a platform that highlights women in the cocktail world. With her vast knowledge of rum production and tiki history, Shannon is pushing tiki in a refreshingly modern direction.

The Big Tiki Problem

We’ve made it through the history of Tiki and are now caught up to the present. I have personally been into this Tiki craze for several years now, having collected several vintage mugs, carvings, and Tiki books, so I can’t help but put my Tiki mug down and wonder what parts of this are problematic. I started with the question: does Tiki culture appropriate Polynesian, Pacific Islander, and Hawaiian culture?

The Tiki mugs we drink out of today, were originally inspired by ancient deities and ancestors of marginalized, oppressed, and colonized peoples’ cultures – it’s complicated at the very least. And the first Tiki craze that ended in the late ‘60s partially died because people thought it was in poor taste. Tiki was about a full sensory experience, particularly the flavors and smells inspired by privileged people’s travels to the Caribbean and Polynesia, and their very rough visual of what it may have been like to sit in a rum shack in Barbados. All of it was an amalgamation of a vast area of the world distilled into a fictional bar and restaurant. I do believe that Don and Vic were not appropriators, but rather cultural appreciators. I think the issue came in when their initial appreciation was copied by countless others because it was trendy.

With the revival of mid-century design in the ‘90s to the present, Tiki has re-emerged. The artistry and craft of the people who were inspired to create these ideal visions of Polynesia through paintings and carvings often came from a genuine place of craft and care, just like other forms of mid-century design. What’s difficult is that ‘tasteful’ art has been cherry-picked out of the colonialism surrounding. Many graphics at the time sexualized native people and presented them as lazy, rum-fueled, and sex-obsessed.

Here’s another complexity: Hawaii. When the islands were colonized, the religions and traditions of native Hawaiians were oppressed. It wasn’t until a white man (Don Beach) came to Hawaii to open his bar, that the culture resurfaced. All grass roofed buildings were gone by the time Don arrived on the big island, but he brought them back. He also opened a native craft mall where people from the community could sell art. I do think he did this out of appreciation for Hawaiian culture and art, but I also think it is important that we understand this context.

The Sporkful Episodes

When White People Say Plantation \ Link

Plantation Rum Is Changing Its Name. Is That Enough? \ Link

Finally, I recommend you all listen to a podcast called The Sporkful where they discuss the word ‘plantation’ and how it is used to market food and drink to white Americans. (One of the rums we planned to suggest was a Plantation brand rum. You can still see it in some of the photos we took. I implore you to listen to this pod before you reach for a bottle of Plantation Rum.) In the pod, they touch on the big changes that are happening with brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, and as of the latest episode, the Plantation Rum brand that started the whole conversation. Now, if I compare the Tiki vibe to that of the Plantation or stereotypical Black caricatures in food marketing, I do see a common thread though the caricature of an oppressed culture for the pleasure of white people. So how do we move forward from this moment?

Do I throw all of my Tiki memorabilia on a pire? Can we lean into the complications of the exotic cocktail, learn the context of its colonialist history, and take away its true essence? For me, it’s all about the crafting of excellent drinks in an excellent atmosphere. You will note, none of the classic drinks in this article call for a Tiki mug. Vic and Don used unique shaped glasses to serve their libations (see the Pearl Diver Glass), and called them “exotic cocktails.” It was not until later that the Tiki mug and the overarching ‘Tiki’ name became the label for what they started. I do think exotic cocktails can exist without Tiki, but is there a way to appreciate without appropriating? I personally plan to continue appreciating Tiki, but I am also learning more about Polynesian culture. I’ve had my eye on a few Polynesian cook books and you know I’ve seen Moana on Disney Plus three times during this pandemic. I have some work to do. The more we experience Polynesian culture, the more we will understand how to separate the illusion of Tiki from the reality of Polynesia. That’s where we start.

 


 

Resources 

Articles

NPR Article \ Link

La Times Article \ Link

Eater Article \ Link

Books

Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tik by Martin Cate \ Link

Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails by Shannon Mustipher \ Link

Beachbum Berry’s Potion’s of the Caribbean \ Link

Orgeat Syrup Recipe

1 pound blanched almonds

4 cups water

~5 cups white granular sugar

½ teaspoon orange flower water

If your almonds aren’t blanched, bring a pot of water and your almonds to a boil. Once the almonds skins are shriveled and can easily be pinched off, strain and pinch all remaining almonds. Discard skins and rinse almonds.

Add blanched almonds and 4 cups of water to a large pot. On high heat, bring contents to a boil. Strain and reserve ‘almond water’ and almonds in separate bowls. Place half the almonds in your blender or food processor and pulse till almonds are in rice sized pieces. Slowly add 11 ounces of the reserved ‘almond water’ to the riced almonds, blending till combined into a paste that resembles watery oatmeal. Pour blended contents into a large pitcher. Repeat with the other half of the almonds. Let cool ~1 hour. Set your fine mesh strainer over a bowl and lay your tea towel over the top. Spoon almond paste into the center of the towel and squeeze out the liquid through the cloth and metal mesh into the pot below. Twist your towel pushing the almonds into a ball at the center of the cloth to get every last drop out of the almonds. Discard dry almond remains and repeat till all paste is strained. Set up your mesh strainer and a clean cloth over a large glass measuring cup and strain again. Now take a reading of your strained almond milk yield in your liquid measuring cup or weigh its contents and combine in a pot with twice as much sugar. Ideally you will have ~2 ½ cups of almond milk and to that you will add ~5 cups of sugar. Stir over low heat with a whisk till sugar is fully incorporated. When tasted you should experience no sugar grit. Remove from heat and let cool. Add orange flower water and rum as it cools and stir. If film forms as the contents cool, stir vigorously to recombine. Once completely cooled, pour through a towel-lined funnel into a sealable container. Will keep for several weeks.