Different Tiki Styles

Different Tiki Styles

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The escapist history of tiki bars — and why this cocktail trend will never go away

Tiki bars can conjure up the image of plastic palm fronds, kitschy decor and sugary slushies. But the retro cocktail trend, which took off in the sixties, once ruled the nightlife scene by providing Americans with an escape from the plummeting stock market and the stress of World War II-era life. While bad tiki can easily go wrong, talented bartenders are restoring this tropical obsession — with the music, style and culture that comes with it — to its former greatness.

The historic origins of tiki

According to San Francisco-based bar owner Martin Cate in the book Smuggler’s Cove, tiki was the brainchild of one man: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, better known as Donn Beach. Originally from Louisiana, Gantt grew up sailing to distant lands with his grandfather, a bootlegger, later settling in Los Angeles and opening his groundbreaking bar, Don the Beachcomber, in 1933.

Decorated with island treasures like Polynesian idols, nautical blown glass balls encased in fishing net and salvaged bamboo furnishings, the bar charmed curious locals and A-list celebrities with its lavish tropical concoctions in a pared-down atmosphere, a refreshing change from the martinis and Manhattans that dominated most drink menus. And though the concept was an incohesive, inauthentic amalgamation of many different island cultures — Filipino bartenders serving Cuban rum mixed with Indonesian coconut milk in a glass modeled after the heads of Easter Island — the people drank it up.

“This was the mid-1930s, during the Depression, when international travel was out of reach for the average American. No one in Sumatra, Rangoon or Tahiti really drank anything like this, but no one could afford to visit these places to find out the truth,” wrote Cate. “The tiki bar was where you could loosen the tie and let the rum wash the worries away.”

As a result of Don the Beachcomber’s success, tiki bars spread throughout the country. The Bay Area’s Trader Vic’s, with its eventual string of upscale hotel-based franchises, was the most well known, but copycats popped up in cities as far-reaching as Columbus, Ohio (Kahiki Supper Club, now exclusively a frozen food line), New York (Hawaii Kai, shuttered in the early 1990s), Florida’s Fort Lauderdale area (Mai-Kai) and Detroit, Michigan (Chin Tiki, which closed in 1980). And although these bars continued to draw crowds, by the early 1970s, tiki was beginning to lose its spark.

“What once seemed like charming naiveté about island peoples and cultures now seemed, to a generation raised in a more globally aware world, to be at best patronizing or inauthentic, and at worst simply racist,” wrote Cate. Even Donald Trump, who purchased the Plaza Hotel in 1989 and immediately ripped out its iconic Trader Vic’s, called the genre “tacky.”

Tiki’s impressive staying power

In recent years, the bar industry has shifted away from two-ingredient cocktails and pricey bottles in clubs and back to serving elegant, time-honored concoctions handcrafted with ingredients made in-house. Leading bartenders like NYC’s Jim Kearns (a veteran of Julie Reiner’s Pegu Club) and Sam Ross (Attaboy), Chicago’s Paul McGee (The Whistler) and L.A.’s Austin Melrose and Zach Patterson (Melrose Umbrella Co.), who championed the revival of classic cocktails, found themselves looking elsewhere for inspiration. Intrigued by tiki’s complex, layered flavors and unconventional presentations, those same classic cocktail wizards were trading in their egg whites and suspenders for rhum agricole, pineapple juice and upbeat Tahitian patterns, resulting in incredible drinks served with a heaping side of fun.

“Classic cocktails, they’re a great underpinning for anything you want to do,” Kearns, now the bar director and partner at Manhattan’s ’40s-themed Slowly Shirley, said during a visit to his swanky new spot. “It’s like music theory. If you want to play free jazz, you’re probably going to be a lot better if you know [the essentials]. It’s the same with cocktails — if you learn how things function, ideally over the extent of years, then you can start to say, ‘OK, if I swap this out and add this to it and put a plastic shark and some blue Curacao in it …’”

Part of tiki’s charm is how visually appealing the drinks are — bursting with color, personality and outlandish-ness. “There’s kind of that camp of a drink coming in a bowl that replicates the kava bowl of Polynesia. It’s just special,” said Eve Bergeron, who oversees public relations for Trader Vic’s, in a phone interview. “It’s a seriously handcrafted drink, but it’s got this element of fun.”

But these noteworthy mixologists weren’t just following traditional tiki recipes — they were giving the style a 21st-century makeover. “There should be a place where you can get a [tiki-style] demerara dry float treated the way [game-changing NYC cocktail hub] Milk & Honey treated the Aviation,” said Slowly Shirley bartender Garret Richard over cocktails. He was referencing the classic Aviation, made with gin, crème de violette, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur, which was first recorded by Hugo Ensslin, head bartender at NYC’s legendary Hotel Wallick, in 1916. “We wanted to give it context — we’ll take two [tiki] classics, and then we’ll do two riffs just to contemporize them. It adds up being, at the end of the day, a nice little tome that gives people a little yesterday and a little today.”

Richard now runs Slowly Shirley’s wildly popular Exotica, a monthly bash featuring original and classic tiki drinks, live music and period-inspired performances. “That was a dream of mine for awhile, to do something where you recreated the whole ’60s experience — the music, the fashion, contextualizing all the cocktails,” said Richard.

Kevin Beary, the beverage director behind Chicago’s award-winning Three Dots and A Dash, similarly sees these neo-tiki bars as part of a larger narrative rooted in a respect for the genre’s deeply rooted history coupled with a 21st century perspective toward cultural sensitivity. “Tiki drinks were always inventive. They pushed the limits of flavors and presentations,” said Beary in an email interview. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the badasses of the 1940s. Most of the modern tiki bars are very good about crediting cocktail recipes and their origins. It’s hard to appropriate a culture that was made up in first place, so I think it just keeps evolving.”

Why we turn to tiki in 2017

Considering its plight, tiki’s endurance is nothing short of impressive. From Depression-era hitmakers like Don the Beachcomber and the original Trader Vic’s to imitations like Disney’s Polynesian Resort to sophisticated innovation in cities like New York and Chicago, Americans never seem to truly lose interest in getting a taste of this flashy fictional paradise.

“With the news cycle and social media being what it is, it’s nice to enter a space where you don’t have to worry about the outside world. You can just focus on the people you’re with or your interaction with your server or just what’s in the glass in front of you,” said Richard. “I think the more connected we are, the more we just want to disconnect, especially at a bar. For the original people going to tiki bars, it was disconnecting from World War II or the Cold War, and for us, it’s disconnecting from technology.”

Hawaiian Tikis

What are these mythical symbols and how do they fit into Hawaiian culture? If you've ever seen the wooden, novelty representations of the ancient hand-carved figures, you will notice by their readied stances and stern facial expressions that a tiki was intended to represent very important, respected authorities, namely principal gods, guardians and spirit powers.

Very few tiki lovers are aware of the unique history and spirituality of tiki images, but even a brief description of the ancient purpose of the tiki will give you a glimpse at the very essential role symbolism played in traditional Hawaiian society.

The Tikis' Origins

The first inhabitants of Hawaii voyaged from Polynesia about one thousand years ago, bringing with them religious and spiritual convictions. The many gods of Hawaii and Polynesia were represented by tikis. The name tiki can refer to many different types of images used throughout Polynesia, from images used ceremonially by Maori tribes in New Zealand, to the moa carvings on Easter Island, to modern day images displayed in Hawaii.

In Polynesian mythology, tiki often represents the first human being on Earth. These images are still used today in some Polynesian cultures in the context of spiritual practice. It is not uncommon for small tiki figures to be worn for protection from infertility in New Zealand.

In ancient Hawaiian culture, the gods, the aina, or land, and the kanaka, or people, shared a symbiotic existence. If the people took care of the land in a pono (right) manner, the gods were appeased. If the gods were happy, they would allow the land to provide sustenance for the people through verdant growth. Each god had many kinolau, or forms, including human and animal forms.

Tiki statues were carved to represent the image of a certain god and as an embodiment of that specific god's mana, or power. With well-formed tikis, perhaps the people could attain protection from harm, strengthen their power in times of war and be blessed with successful crops.

The primary Hawaiian gods represented with tiki images include:

Ku - the god of war
Lono - the god of agriculture and peace time
Kane - the god of creation, sunlight, forests, fresh water
Kanaloa - the god of the sea realm

The ancient Hawaiians kept their gods close using many creative forms of communication. Tikis were created as a medium of connection or interaction. Through continued communication with these all-powerful deities, the Hawaiian people were sure to follow the right path to appeasement. All Hawaiian people were said to have descended from the lineage of the gods. It was the job of the alii nui, or high chiefs, to make sure everything was in societal balance and that the ultimate respect was paid to the gods through many avenues.

The alii nui were considered direct descendents of the gods and thus carried great responsibility. In addition to tiki images, the higher spirits and ruling deities were paid homage through every action undertaken in ancient Hawaiian society. From the whalestooth pendants, feathered helmets and feathered cloaks worn by kings, to animal sacrifice and the religious practices that separated men and women during meal times, divine guidance ruled society.

The ancient system of religion called aikapu was abolished by King Kamehameha II in 1819, and the majority of temples and religious images, including tikis, were destroyed. However, some tiki artifacts remain to this day in remembrance of a time when strict religious beliefs guided the Hawaiian society. According to Hawaiian history, there was a time when gods walked the earth as men, and tiki images recognize not only their divinity, but also their human qualities as well. Tikis reminded the people just how close the realm of the gods was and reinforced their acknowledgement of the awesome power the gods sustained.

The first stone tikis were said to have been carved around the year 1400 in the Marquesas Islands. The tiki can take many crafted forms, from giant sculptures of the war God Ku, to images of variant gods carved into drums, boats, or other utilitarian objects, to petroglyphs carved into rock or tattoo patterns on the body. The artistic likenesses created in tikis demonstrate a high level of craftsmanship and perfectionism. The most recognized tiki character has a strong, stocky body with a rectangular head, seemingly wearing a headdress. This mysterious figure is to a degree an intimidating one, with large eyes and a stance that suggests he is ready for war.

Beginning in the 1930s, an entire "tiki culture" representing the island life of the South Pacific began to form around these odd statues. Tiki-themed restaurants displayed kitschy memorabilia, such as tiki carvings, tiki torches, rattan furniture, tropical-print fabrics and wooden or bamboo items. Tiki bars served mai tais and other fruity island drinks. Before long, tiki culture had a large following in the United States, using South Pacific themes in everything from clothing to interior design. After Hawaii became a state in 1959, tiki culture, the aloha shirt and other island representations were incredibly en vogue.

Today, you can find giant wooden figures in several spots around the Hawaiian Islands, including the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu's North Shore. At La Marianas on Sand Island in Honolulu, possibly the most popular tiki bar in Hawaii, visitors can enjoy a tropical cocktail amidst an overwhelming amount of tiki memorabilia. Visitors to Hawaii can find a tiki image pretty much anywhere, but when you are browsing through the tourist-aimed mass-manufactured tiki items, remember how these images once represented the beloved and revered Hawaiian gods.

3. Ambigram

Read it this way or read it that way. Ambigram tattoos feature words with unique lettering designs that allow them to be read the same way from different viewpoints. While this tattoo style used to be extremely popular years ago, today it has more or less died down in favor of more modern styles.

Of course, that’s not to say the style hasn’t evolved. In reality, ambigram tattoos have become more ornate and elegant with artists putting their own spin on script and lettering styles.


A lot of people ask me what this Tiki stuff is all about. Well, it’s pretty simple. It’s all about living the good life the way the cocktail set did back in the day listening to the sounds of Exotica music and waves crashing on an island shore while sipping an exotic cocktail under a palm tree, and taking it nice and easy, even if you’re a thousand miles away from the nearest tropical island. That’s Tiki Culture.

People who are into Tiki Culture, or the “Tiki Lifestyle” crave an escape from the fast-paced lives we live. We want to know we have a special place, whether physical or in our minds, where we can go to get away from it all. For many of us, it’s our own little Tiki Bar set somewhere in the corner of our home. For some of us, it’s the Tiki Bar down town or on the beach. For a lucky few, our entire lives (including our homes and businesses) are 100% Tiki with that distinct mid-century retro look and feel.

What is Tiki?

Historically and geographically, Tiki is defined by Polynesian culture – specifically, Tiki was the first man on Earth, according to most cultures. But that’s not what 20th & 21st Century Tiki Culture in America (and most of the world) is about now. (There are a lot of great websites that can give you the history of Tiki and Moai better than I can here).

As for Tiki Culture today, you’ll get different answers depending on who you talk to, and from what part of the states they hail. Tiki purists will tell you that Tiki is the genre inspired by 1930s to 1950s Hawaiian and Polynesian pop styles, blending these cultures with specific types of drinks, food and décor. Dark woods, thatch, rattan and bamboo make up the basic building blocks of the décor and furniture. Tropical plants, waterfalls, hand-carved Tiki gods and Moai, along with nautical accents arranged in a somewhat mysterious display reminiscent of foreign lands make up an atmosphere of true Tiki. Dancing Hula girls and fire-eating island men provide the exotic entertainment, set to jazz-influenced, drum-heavy island music. Food is an Americanized combination of South Pacific and Asian cuisine drinks are mostly rum-based, complex, fairly strong and are not really supposed to be sweet. Tropical Cocktails are at the center of the movement, and are served as a ritual – not just a drink – involving chunks of exotic fruits and even real flowers as garnish, exciting swizzle sticks, and occasionally even flames. Very special drinks are served in large bowls with extra long straws for a party of four at places like the world famous Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL they are served by a Mystery Girl dancing seductively to a gong.

The Tonga Room as it is Today

Anything made of plastic, with the exception of swizzle sticks, is taboo. If it wasn’t in a Tiki bar in the ’50s, it’s not authentic. However unless you are a true purist, a few fun plastic Tiki cups and paper cut outs from the party store can transform any room into your own Tiki haven without blowing the kids’ college fund on bamboo furniture and ceramic mugs.

Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada, FL is a typical Keys-style Tiki Bar. You won’t find many carved Tikis here, but they do claim to have invented the Rum Runner.

Swing down to Key West and the “Tiki Bar” takes on a whole new meaning. One of the few places in the country that welcomed Tiki bars through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Tiki bars in the Keys evolved with the times and took on an area-specific life of their own. Bright, vivid colors replaced the dark jungle themes. Like everything else in the Keys, Tiki Bars became open-air, welcoming in the cool ocean breezes. Shorts, bikinis and flip-flops replaced party dresses and tailored suits for the dress code, and the music swayed away from Poly pop to Caribbean Island sounds, incorporating Cuban, Reggae, Calypso, and South American styles. Eventually a laid back kat named Jimmy Buffet made his way to Key West, and his music fit in perfectly with the Island’s philosophies. A Margarita or Cuba Libre are right at home next to the Mai Tai or Singapore Sling at the Tiki Bars in the Keys, and even though you won’t usually find a carved Tiki or a Polynesian show, they can still be a hell of a lot of fun.

Today, we have a wonderful bunch of krazy kats and kittens who refer to themselves as Tikiphiles. (Hell, you might be one of them yourself if you’re reading this!) These swingers love Tiki culture, in many forms. They might be purists, they might be Parrot Heads, or they might be into the Retro Scene where Tiki can be a big part. Some of the hard-core Tikiphiles follow Tiki events across the country – mainly the Big Three – Tiki Oasis in California, Ohana on the Lake in Lake George New York, and the Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They find each other on the internet, at Tiki bars and Tiki events. You won’t find a kooler bunch of kids. As the saying goes, they’re money, and they don’t even know it.

Tiki Culture 101: How it all started

There are some great books and a few other websites that can give you an in-depth history of Tiki Culture in America. That’s not what this page is all about – I’m going to give it to you in a nutshell, so you can get the basics down before you finish your Mai Tai.

The common theory is that Tiki Bars started popping up in America after World War II, when soldiers returning from the South Pacific started spreading the word of how wonderful the beautiful tropical islands were with their hula girls and swaying palms. Well, that’s not really true the first Tiki Bars in America, by most accounts, were started in the 1930s by a couple of guys who had spent time in the islands and thought it would be fun to theme their bars with a tropical flavor.

Don The Beachcomber, 1950s

Don the Beachcomber (Donn Beach) is generally credited as the first swanky kat to open a specifically Tiki/Polynesian-themed restaurant and lounge in Hollywood, CA in 1934. About three years later Trader Vic’s (Vic Bergeron) opened in Oakland, CA with a similar theme, and Tikiness in America took off from there. Both proprietors got popular concocting strong but tasty cocktails, and soon became known for the exotic décor, laid back atmosphere and strong libations. Bamboo and wicker galore, hand-carved Tikis, palms, pretty girls in sarongs. Hawaiian music set the standard for the blossoming era.

As air travel helped bring the world closer in the ’30s and ’40s, Hawaiian and Polynesian music, food and décor became more popular in the states. WW2 brought these cultures to the forefront, and Americans – who were sick of the war – focused on the beauty of these worlds, the tropical flowers and orange sunsets, the magic, the exotic women, the cool breezes and sweet fruits.

After the war, those returning soldiers did want forget the bloodshed, but they certainly wanted to remember the good times. Tiki Bars sprang up all over the states, moving from the California coast clear over to the Atlantic. New Tiki Bar owners combined elements of Hawaii, Tahiti, the Philippines and other Pacific cultures to decorate their lounges. Bamboo, thatch and carved hardwoods became the building materials of choice. Tiki idols and masks adorned the walls and bar. Nautical props, from fishnets to lanterns made from blowfish, found their way into the design. Chinese and Japanese cuisine infiltrated the menus. Swinging Hawaiian music was combined with jazz and exotic sounds of the far east and south Pacific to create “Exotica”, the soundtrack to Tiki. Polynesian Pop was born.

An early Don the Beachcomber

The 1950s saw an explosion in pop culture that wouldn’t be matched until the advent of the World Wide Web. Tiki bars flourished in the 󈧶s, giving the cocktail set a new place to mingle as well as providing a nice, close-to-home adventure for the thriving middle class. Visiting a Tiki Bar with a live Polynesian music and dance floorshow was like taking a mini vacation. Drinks were served in coconuts, hollowed pineapples, and eventually artistically created ceramic Tiki mugs. Patrons could buy souvenirs to take home, just like on vacation, and soon these souvenirs became collectibles. Those who loved the themed lounges took it upon themselves to re-create the atmosphere at home, and the home Tiki Bar was born. Although it had been hip for years with the cocktail set to have a home bar (usually anything from a hideaway bar to a corner set-up with all the frills), suddenly Tiki Bars in the home became the “in” thing. Bachelor pads were re-worked with the Tiki Theme in mind, sporting curious Moai art sculptures and black velvet paintings of Tahitian women laying naked on the beach. Swingin’ couples transformed their mid-century modern apartments to include bamboo furniture, palm plants and floral wallpaper. Basement rec-rooms across the country were turned into little Tiki islands, with fishnets hanging from the rafters and rum-stocked bamboo bars as the focal point. America loved Tiki.

Then the 1960s came along. The happy days of the 󈧶s began to decay under the rebellion of the hippy generation (who of course had their own ideas of ‘cool’), the problems America faced with civil rights, assassinations, corrupt government and the Vietnam war. Once again palm trees and thatch huts were shown on the 11 o’clock news as the center of war and death. Even Gilligan’s Island couldn’t distract people from the darkness. America was beginning to focus more on what was “real” and less on the fantasy, and much of the fun stuff we enjoyed in the old days were abandoned, washed away by a tide of indifference. By the 1970s, Tiki culture had been worn down to ‘kitsch’. It was no longer considered a fun, exciting escape it was considered an old, out-dated and corny style that belonged to the old generation. Disco took over, and Tiki Bars around the country began closing their doors for good.

The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL

But something strange happened. Something wonderful. Tiki started popping up again in the strangest places. TV shows like “Hawaii 5-0”, “Fantasy Island” and “Magnum P.I.” brought the tropics back into our homes, in a very groovy way. A few of the old Tiki Bars continued to succeed, managing to push on in spite of the times. Places like Key West and San Francisco somehow managed to keep the culture quietly alive, adapting to new trends. The Florida Keys branched out with its own Tiki culture, breaking from tradition and incorporating vivid colors, open-air bars and Parrot Head music with Jimmy Buffet at the musical wheel. Pirate culture, which is a hairline away from Tiki Culture, gained popularity, and the two started to overlap in a wonderfully adventurous way. A couple of authentic, mid-century Tiki bars, such as the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL managed to maintain the original, traditional Tiki Culture with Polynesian shows and exotic drinks served in original-style Tiki mugs. They pressed on, and by the early 1990s more and more Americans started opening their eyes to the wonders of Tiki. Tiki culture was rediscovered!

Pirate’s Cove at me Tiki Baaaar

Where is Tiki?

You don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy the Tiki life, but it helps. Having year-round warm temperatures, green grass and palm trees in your back yard is something I don’t ever want to give up. But some of the best Tiki Bars I’ve been to have been in places like Portland, Oregon – so it’s really a state of mind, more than a place. You can live in Alaska, as long as you have your bamboo and thatch setup and a good heater, you’re golden.

It was guys like me (and maybe you too) who kept the Tiki torches burning through the last few decades. My father loved the whole Tiki thing, and built me my first Tiki Hut to play in back in the ’70s, along with a Pirate Ship and a Tiki/Pirate-themed bedroom. I built my first basement Tiki Bar in in my first house in 1996. By that time, Tiki Culture was making its way back into the hearts of many Americans, not just us crazy few. Books on the allure of Tiki were published. Tropical themes became “in” again. More TV shows and movies were set in tropical settings. And the Internet helped propel the good word of the Tiki good life around the world. (That’s why you’re reading this, right? Dig it!)

Now, at the beginning of the new century, we’re realizing once again the fun of Tiki and the importance of preserving the original places, ideals and philosophies that make Tiki Culture so great. From hard-core traditionalists to new-wave Parrot heads, people all over the world are enjoying tropical drinks under indoor palm trees, swaying to music by Martin Denny and The Martini Kings. There are Tikiphiles who love and live everything Tiki, and everyday people who think it’s just kinda kool to have a Tiki mask hanging in their bedroom and bamboo furniture on the lanai.

Where do I fit in? Well, I never considered myself to fit into anything, really. Personally, I’m my own kind of kat who digs a lot of different things, most of them being cars, clothes, music and booze from the 1930s through the 1960s. Tiki Culture is a big part of the big picture for me. I live in south Florida and my home is decorated in a combination of Island, Tiki, mid-century modern and antique sprinkled with new technology and conveniences. And I can pull it off, because it’s all about me and my tastes (and my wife’s too!). Some people prefer to stick to one era and are true to it, and that is very kool. Others are all about original Tiki, basically Poly pop of the 1950s, and won’t stray from it. That is kool too because they are the kids who keep the traditional stuff going and that is very important. And many are all about back-yard Tiki, having a luau party with the fun, colorful decorations you can pick up cheap at the party store, lighting the Tiki torches and barbecuing sweet and sour chicken kabobs while the kids do the limbo.

To me, it’s all fantastic. Tiki culture is all about living the good life, having fun, and enjoying the tropical splendor it offers. So sit back in your bamboo chair, sip your Piña Colada with the little paper umbrella, and dig in to the fun of living Tiki!

– Tiki Chris Pinto, for Tiki Lounge Talk

Wait, there’s more! Here’s a fun little thing…What is NOT Tiki…

• Carribbean, South American, Mexican or African cultures. Although elements of these cultures make their way into the Tiki lifestyle occasionally, they are their own cultures and don’t really represent Tiki.

• Anything with folk music. Oof. If there’s a guy with a guitar singing Simon and Garfunkel tunes, no matter what the joint has hanging on the walls, it ain’t a Tiki Bar.

• Art Deco, palm tree & pastel decor, i.e. Miami Modern. Just because there are palm trees doesn’t make it Tiki. That’s a whole other thing. A very kool thing, but a whole other thing.

• Chinese or other oriental decor, although Tiki borrows from those styles (especially for the food!). Chinese and Japanese elements worked into the overall Tiki theme is good.

• Friday night Beef & Beer at the American Legion Hall (unless they decorate it with Tiki stuff, of course).

“Idaho. I have never heard of a Tiki Bar in Idaho. If anyone knows of one, please send info right away.” Well guess what? I was just told about a Tiki Bar in Idaho! And that is amazing, and fantastic. The more Tiki bars, the better!

• People who wear Hawaiian shirts with shorts, black socks and sandals. No.

• Martini bars, even of they have a neon palm tree in the window.

• And for Tiki purists, anything made of cheap plastic and bought at the local party store, neon-colored Tiki stuff, smiling Tikis, and misuse of Tiki gods (like Ku holding up a cheese platter) are unacceptable.

Navy Grog

The Spruce Eats / Teena Agnel

It was not uncommon for both Bergeron and Beach to take credit for the same cocktails and that is the case for this modernized navy grog recipe. Yet, neither can claim to have invented the navy grog because it was the name given to the daily rum ration of British sailors in the 1700s.

Rum and lime juice are the only ingredients that everyone can seem to agree on when it comes to the navy grog. Grapefruit juice is also common, and at least one recipe adds soda. No matter which you choose, you will need to have a good supply of rum to mix up any of these recipes.

Tropical Style Comes to the States

When Thor Heyerdahl published Kon-Tiki in 1948, the world became enamored with his adventurous expedition across the Pacific in a small wooden raft. The book gave people dreams of adventure across blue ocean waters. Stephen Crane, who opened the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills, went on to create a chain of themed restaurants throughout the country in 1958, naming them Kon Tiki.

Photo by Bret Gum. Neutral bamboo and rattan furniture mixes well with the vibrant atomic shapes often found in Mid Century Modern.

Not only were tropical restaurants popping up around the US, but plane travel was becoming more accessible, allowing the average person to travel across the Pacific more easily than ever before. The late 1950’s also brought us the big screen version of South Pacific, along with James Michener’s book Hawaii, (published in 1959, the same year Hawaii became the 50 th U.S. state).

Tiki Can Go to Hell

Satanic crosses and pentagrams are far from the typical trappings of tiki. But then again, Doom Tiki is not your typical tiki concept. The monthly pop-up housed (in pre-pandemic times) at Paradise Lounge—a rum shack–inspired bar in Queens, New York, replete with rattan lamps, vintage booze paraphernalia and a large shark figurine suspended above the backbar—invites guest bartenders from across the country to serve nontraditional tiki cocktails against a backdrop of the slow, guitar-heavy drone of doom metal music.

Since its inception in July 2019, Doom Tiki has acted as a counterpoint to the prevailing tiki aesthetic, and has become a guiding light for the category’s future along the way. Its founders, veteran New York bartenders Austin Hartman and Chockie Tom, were motivated by the genre’s persistent issues of cultural appropriation and overt racism.

Tom, whose background is Pomo from California and Paiute Walker River from Nevada, describes the tiki aesthetic as having been omnipresent in Southern California where she grew up, the daughter of “a surfer dude.” “There’s a lot of pop culture there—like rockabilly, surf or garage rock—and it all kind of bleeds into the whole tiki thing,” she says. In particular, Tom recalls regular visits to Tiki-Ti, the famed Los Angeles bar, which shaped some of her reservations about the category. “I realized that I was more interested in the midcentury aesthetics and the cocktails, and was always kind of uncomfortable with … the representation [of Indigenous people and culture].”

Hartman, co-founder of Cane Club Collective, a rum education initiative, and owner of Paradise Lounge, says that the apparition of tiki hovers over his bar, simply by nature of its association with the category of rum. “I’m a rum person and by default tiki is part of that,” he explains. “But the ethos of Paradise [Lounge] was always ‘We’re a rum bar—not a tiki bar.’” To this end, Doom Tiki became a way to confront some of the category’s ghosts.

The pop-up series provided a platform to emphasize nonappropriative or exploitative iconography—moai mugs and hula dancer neon signs—and invite scrutiny toward the genre’s treatment of colonized cultures. In doing so, it challenges tiki’s status quo, in particular, the gatekeeping old guard that often acts as arbiter of a made-up culture never meant to be so staunchly delineated in the first place.

At a Doom Tiki event you might get a baijiu-based cocktail in a cat-shaped mug hand-painted with an inverted cross. In its own way, this mashup of nontraditional drinks, tongue-in-cheek imagery and doom metal music (“the most bar-friendly, as far as metal goes,” says Tom, who works part-time at Brooklyn’s Polish punk venue Warsaw) is a continuation of the original tiki ethos. Which is to say: pure, absurd fantasy.

“Tiki is not a real culture,” explains Tom. “It’s not this Pasifika-run cocktail experience, sharing things in a respectful manner,” she says. More often, it’s rife with exploitative images of brown women paired with totems transformed into kitsch, and fueled by copious amounts of rum designed to be consumed by an exclusively white audience. To protect such a concept is, in Tom’s words, “ridiculous.”

If Doom Tiki illustrates anything, it’s that paradise isn’t one size fits all, and the genre has the potential to be, at its core, inclusive and just as transportive as any chimera dreamed up by Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic. Mihir Kelkar, one of more than two dozen featured bartenders, drew on his Indian background in his Bounty cocktail, a turmeric-infused Piña Colada designed to pair with bhelpuri, a chaat-style street food popular in his home state of Gujarat Nickel Morris, an Indigenous bartender who grew up in Diné country in Arizona created a cocktail from Arizona-made whiskey and “super lemon juice” a citrus stock-style ingredient that respects the “use every part of it” Indigenous philosophy Taylor Adorno developed a roster of drinks inspired by Puerto Rican spiritual traditions. It’s not uncommon for spirits like baijiu, shochu and mezcal to make appearances, expanding the tiki toolkit beyond its classic flavors.

“It’s not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural exchange,” says Tom. She notes that in two decades of bartending she’s only ever had the opportunity to work alongside five Indigenous bartenders since launching Doom Tiki, she’s worked with four in the span of 12 months. “We didn’t set out for this to happen, but if we look back over the roster of the people that have done Doom Tiki we have curated the most diverse bar staff I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” says Tom.

Exchange is central to Hartman and Tom’s shared vision for a more inclusive tiki—one that allows individuals from different backgrounds to share their culture on their own terms. “There’s this whole romanticized notion of the dusky maiden and the noble savage,” says Tom. “But there’s not a notion that these are normal people.” She notes the disappointment she’s detected when people learn that she does not, in fact, wear buckskins in celebration of her background, and did not grow up on a reservation selling jewelry on the side of the road.

As the series has shifted online in the form of virtual drink-making and tastings under the apt new moniker “Zoom Tiki”, Doom Tiki continues to hold participants accountable. “We’re very clear about our rules for participating: no appropriative mugs, no sexually exploitative mugs,” says Tom.

If on the surface, mixing elaborate, flaming cocktails in satanic mugs to a soundtrack of doom metal seems the height of absurdity, the group tempers its whimsy with an equal dose of activism. Since its founding, it’s partnered with Mariah Kunkel, co-founder of the Pasifika Project, an organization by and for Oceanic people working in hospitality, to fundraise (or “fund-rage” in Doom Tiki parlance) for over a dozen organizations that give back to Pasifika and Indigenous cultures, including Seed, Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network, and the National Congress of American Indians. It’s an action that takes the reclamation of tiki a step beyond representation by reinvesting in the communities and cultures historically exploited in the name of the tiki fantasy.

As Doom Tiki stakes an identity beyond canonical boundaries, the future of the genre as a whole remains unclear. For Tom, however, one thing is certain: “It’s not going to stay what it is.”

The History of Tiki Statues

Tiki statues have become almost synonymous with the tiki bar culture that grew to prominence in the 1930's and continued through to the fifties. They are still today a very popular decorative element of bars, homes and topical themed gardens and yards. But the history of tikis dates back to thousands of years before the bar came to be.

Original Mythology

The term "tiki" refers to the wood and stone carvings found in the Polynesian cultures in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. These statues usually portrayed human faces or humanoid forms. Their origin is rooted in Polynesian creation mythology.

In Maori mythology, for example, Tiki was the first man, in the way Adam was in Christian mythos. Tiki was created by Tane, the god of forests and birds. Tiki found his mate, Marikoriko, the first woman, in a pond, where she seduced him. They had a daughter named Hine-Kau-Ataata, whose birth caused the first clouds to appear in the sky.

Tiki Statues

Statues became not only representations of the first Man, but also broader spiritual symbols, objects that were carved in the shape of gods and that served to house the gods' spirits. One of the first examples of statues is the massive stone moai statues found in Easter Island. These statues depicted large human faces that symbolized ancestral spirits.

Stone tiki statues have been found all over the Polynesian region and New Guinea, and some of these were dated to have been carved as far back as 1500 BC. For centuries, these were an accepted part of the culture of the Polynesian islands, parts of New Guinea and Hawaii. As wooden statues became more popular, their style grew varied between the different groups of indigenous inhabitants spread across the many islands of the region. Because of the greater ease with which wood could be carved, wooden tiki statues started to become much more complex and intricate. The statues all had religious themes as well as themes of nature and fertility

In Modern Times

As the tiki bar craze began early in the 20th century and continued to its height in the mid-50s, tiki statues became inextricably associated with tiki bar culture. But tikis are still a major part of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. There are also a lot of modern sculptors and artists who draw inspiration from from the tradition of ancient tiki statues.

Further Notes

Chapter 12 of Minimalist Tiki (Rum Categorizations) goes through each of the above categories in far more detail, including mapping them to other categorization schemes such as by color and colonial history.

Chapter 14 of the book (Tiki Rum Recommendations) maps several dozens of today’s readily available rums into the categories above, and is a much more comprehensive list of rums you might consider.

Finally, a disclaimer: Unlike other rum categorizations, the Minimalist Tiki rum categories don’t try to encapsulate every possible cane spirit. There are plenty of great rums which might work well in Tiki recipes, but weren’t called for in classic Tiki recipes. For instance, the Haitian clairins or Overproof Jamaicans that are finding their way into modern tiki.

Should someone do the mapping exercise with a large set of modern recipes, they’d likely define more categories, for instance, unaged Jamaican Overproof.

The above doesn’t attempt to say all rums within a category are identical, or that you shouldn’t acquire more rums for your tiki arsenal. Rather, it provides some initial structure to start with, leaving more extensive purchases for later, when you’re ready.

Watch the video: 10 Best Tricks for Beginner Bartenders to Look Hot Behind the Bar (May 2022).