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The Tiki Cocktail Makes a Comeback with New Twists on Beloved Classics

Tiki culture is back and better than ever. Want to see what the new/old movement is all about? Pool Burger and Roosevelt Room do it best

Kindred Spirits: Tiki Time

The vestiges of tiki culture are intrinsically intertwined with my Southern California childhood. In the 1970s, special occasions meant dinner at Don the Beachcomber and I have hazy recollections of the glamorous dining room at Trader Vic’s, beloved by my grandparents. I’d nurse a Shirley Temple and stare google-eyed at the Polynesian décor. I graduated college with a minor in Pacific Studies and one of two stints living in Hawaii already under my belt.

Don the Beachcomber, which opened in Los Angeles in 1937, gave rise to tiki culture (a name coined after the movement faded). Founder Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, aka Donn Beach, was the creator of the escapist movement, which began during The Great Depression. At the time, the fanciful, rum-based cocktails that largely defined the genre were referred to as tropical, exotic or Polynesian drinks.

Beach and Trader Vic’s founder Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. were visionaries who captured the romance and exoticism associated with island life rendering it tangible to the masses in the form of pupu platters and Painkillers. It should be noted that the Painkiller is of Caribbean origin, but one of the things about tiki is its loose adherence to geographical constraints. Beach and Bergeron also contributed their own canon of cocktails to tiki, and both claimed to have invented the Mai Tai.

Tiki grew in popularity post-World War II, as returning veterans who’d served in the Pacific reentered the work force. Colorful cocktails served in fanciful vessels (think skulls and ceramic mugs shaped like tikis and other totems) and adorned with elaborate garnishes were the hallmarks of the genre, and rum – also originating in the Caribbean – was the default base spirit. Ingredients like pineapple, coconut and citrus became readily available and affordable thanks to modern air freight, and the early years of tiki culture employed the use of fresh juices and other labor-intensive practices.

Photograph by Eric Medsker.

Beach is considered the patron saint of tiki cocktails and he also introduced traditionally Caribbean cocktail ingredients to the American bartender’s lexicon: spices like cinnamon, allspice, clove and nutmeg added complexity and depth to cocktails.

The decline of tiki culture came with the advent of modern convenience foods in the ’70s. Bottled mixes and artificial flavors stood in for fresh produce and cocktail components, rendering the tropical drinks cloying and one-note, rather than nuanced and balanced.

The cozy bar at The Roosevelt Room on West 5th Street.

In recent years tiki has been making a comeback, often with spirits other than rum, and updated ingredients frequently of Asian (if not island) origin. The resurgence is partly a natural extension of the craft cocktail and localized food movements, (some bar programs even emphasize regional, ingredients) as well as a likely reaction to sociopolitical uncertainty. Says Caer Maiko, a bartender at The Roosevelt Room and co-founder of Asian cocktail pop-up Daijoubu, “At the heart of tiki is escapism, which I think is something everyone needs right now.”

The Roosevelt Room has an extensive cocktail menu broken down into different eras; the location and origin of individual drinks are also listed. The Tiki (1930s-1970s) section is represented by seven cocktails, including the Saturn (1967, Laguna Beach). Their version combines Hendrick’s Gin, Mosto Verde Pisco, falernum (a spiced ginger and almond syrup from the Caribbean and a tiki essential), housemade orgeat, passion fruit syrup, lemon, yuzu and cassia.

The Saturn photographed by Eric Medsker.

The Saturn might be the most compulsively drinkable (if dangerous) cocktail I’ve had yet, bursting with the lush aroma and flavor of passion fruit, yet light and perfectly balanced. “I love tiki because the flavors are so big,” says Maiko. “It’s bold and loud and fun, and while some tiki cocktails can be too sugary, done properly sugar can bring flavor. I’m always impressed by how much a good tiki drink can juggle, flavor-wise.”

In the wrong hands, those flavors can be problematic, especially with food. Sugary drinks not only kill the appetite, they massacre the palate. The trick to tiki, according to Maiko, is a balance of sugar and acid as well as the right kind of food pairing. “The salt and fat of a burger will cut right through that,” she says, citing Pool Burger’s menu by way of example.

Pool Burger’s tiki cocktail menu often riffs off of the classics. Photograph by Annie Whitehead.

The casual McGuire Moorman eatery next door to Deep Eddy Pool boasts a rum-based drink menu featuring Caribbean spirits from Martinique’s earthy rhum agricole (distilled cane juice) to funky Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black Rum. The menu riffs on classic tiki cocktails including a potent Caribbean-inspired Mai Tai (Rhum J.M. 110, Jamaican Black, La Favorite Petite Shrubb Orange Liqueur, housemade orgeat and lime) that makes anything technicolored and syrupy seem laughable. It’s grounded from the rhum Agricole and zesty from the citrus, and just the thing for the dog days of summer. (Come winter, the drink menu includes more spices and citrus, spiked coffees and “tiki toddy” specials.)

“We’re an ‘island bar,’ says co-manager Nick James of Pool Burger on the melding of Pacific and Atlantic flavors. We also don’t forget we’re in Austin, so we do drinks like the Pinche Colada (Mezcal Union, Plantation O.F.T.D., pineapple, coconut, lime, mole bitters, served on the rocks). We’re not purists.”

Pool Burger’s mouthwatering Mai Tai. Photograph by Bethany Ochs.

While purism has its place, that’s not what tiki culture is about. Rather, it’s a hazy, fantastical, construct designed to temporarily relieve us of the stressors of daily life. I’ll drink to that.