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Teach me to tiki

Tiki bars and their umbrella-spiked culture have seen a more polished revival over the past few years, but these drinks should never be taken too seriously.
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TIKI --- Tonga Room

Tonga Room, San Francisco

 

The tiki bar as we know it dates back to the early 1930s when what’s generally considered the first of that ilk, Don the Beachcomber, opened in Los Angeles. The bar was the brainchild of Donn Beach (born Ernest Gantt), an avid traveler and former bootlegger who spent a lot of time in the South Pacific during Prohibition. Peak tiki heyday stretched from the immediate post- World War II period into the 1960s. And now, braggers are basking in the tropical glow of the latest revival of bars decked out in Polynesian flare, serving up fruit-garnished glasses of Painkiller, Zombie and Uga Booga. But there’s a right way to tiki and a wrong way to tiki.

Vibe is everything
The tiki bars that usually make people’s shortlists are the ones that have been around awhile and exist somewhere at the intersection of dive bar and cocktail lounge, often marrying ’50s rockabilly, ’60s surf and ’70s punk sensibilities organically and not self-consciously. “A great tiki bar will be dimly lit, rather quiet, festooned with Polynesian influenced decor and will evoke an air of mystery and romance,” asserts James Teitelbaum, author of “Tiki Road Trip,” “Destination: Cocktails” and “Big Stone Head: Easter Island and Pop Culture.” Nell Mellon, co-owner of Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York City, believes seasoned tiki enthusiasts (herself included) seek bars with street cred.

“There’s a lived-in feeling to an authentic tiki bar, as opposed to something that was just put up or just built and everything’s brand-new and shiny,” Mellon says. That doesn’t necessarily mean slightly fancier riffs on the concept aren’t worth checking out. Chicago’s Lost Lake or Three Dots and a Dash, for instance, are more polished than others, but they marry tiki with elements of speakeasy chic and craft mixology to great effect. However, there’s definitely one sort to avoid: “Beachside frat party bars may be fun for a certain crowd,” Teitelbaum tells me, “But they’re not what interests me.”

So is the right drink
Some bars will have epically long cocktail lists and it’s often difficult to make a decision. It’s always safe to default to the familiar (Mai Tai, Zombie, et al.), but if the bar has a house specialty, that’s the direction you should go. And then, of course, there are the garnishes. I personally prefer to have lots of fruit and flair on my tiki drinks. This, however, is one place where Teitelbaum and I respectfully disagree. “I can do without the elaborate garnishes,” he reveals. He also finds many tiki cocktails to be too sweet, preferring a well-balanced drink with “fresh juices, quality rum and interesting flavors.” The classic Jet Pilot fits that bill, combining three kinds of rum with absinthe, cinnamon, falernum and Angostura bitters.

Make a pilgrimage and pay your respects. When you do, these bars on both coasts should be on your list.

Tonga Room, San Francisco
It’s a bit touristy (located in The Fairmont Hotel), but it’s also a 71-year-old institution. Check it out for a drink⏤this is definitely the place to have a Zombie, and to marvel at the thatch-covered barge floating on a lagoon in the middle of the floor.

Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale
The bar is theatrical (there’s a nightly floor show with Polynesian-style dancers) and super-secretive about its recipes; that’s why you must order the shareable, aptly named “Mystery Drink.”

Tiki-Ti, Los Angeles (tiki capital of the universe)
Founded in 1961, this tiny hole-in-the-wall is the birthplace of many standard tiki drinks. Get the Ray’s Mistake, named for late founder Ray Buhen (botanic liqueurs, passion fruit, dark rum and a secret ingredient).

Tonga Hut, Los Angeles
Hit one more of LA’s old-school tikis (it opened in the ’50s) at a quiet, low-lit North Hollywood escape from the chaos of LaLa Land. Order the Rhumboogie, which combines Sailor Jerry spiced rum, tropical fruit juices and a float of Bacardi 151.

Otto’s Shrunken Head, New York 
The East Village tropical oasis has carried the torch for tiki culture in the city—yes, decor includes shrunken heads. Appropriately enough, you should order the Shrunken Head, made with Myers rum, Cruzan coconut rum, orange juice, 7Up, an orange wedge and a maraschino cherry.

 

Author
Jeff Cioletti is an NYC-based beverage writer. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCioletti.

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