Everything You Need To Know About Tiki Bars
Tiki can be a sophisticated cocktail experience
When it comes to cocktails, Simon Ford is the guy to know. After earning a Wine and Spirits Education Certificate in the UK, he went on to work for Seagrams and now holds the heady title of Global Spirits & Cocktail Brand Expert for Pernod Ricard USA. For real, it's on his business card. In Simon’s weekly column, Drink Ford Tough, he tells you everything you ever needed to know about the art of the cocktail. And how to drink better.
Tiki bars often get a bad rap, most likely because of the sweet, over-decorated drinks that people only remember from the lounges popular in the 1970s. But anyone who truly knows Tiki cocktail culture knows that the drinks are serious, the history is colorful and that when it’s done right, it’s a truly fun and sophisticated experience.
Why I love Tiki bars
When the Tiki bar experience is done well, you are meant to walk into a land that time forgot. You are there to relax, there to sip for hours. Your drinks are served in anything from a bowl shaped like a hurricane, a Tiki head or a fresh pineapple or coconut. Then there are the garnishes – edible flowers, spent limes set alight with overproof rum, dangling plastic monkeys. But the thing I like most about Tiki culture the most are the drinks themselves.
When Tiki cocktails are made well, they’re seriously good. They’re very complex with lots of details, fresh fruit and, of course, high-quality rum. Tiki is about having as much fun as possible with your cocktail, with the quality of drinks not suffering just because you have a monkey hanging off the side of your glass.
Tiki cocktail culture was created in Los Angeles by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who is best known as Don the Beachcomber. In an age when international travel wasn’t common, the idea was simple — to bring the vacation to you. Don the Beachcomber’s eponymous establishment opened its doors in 1934 and Hollywood’s A-list came in droves.
Another man, Victor Bergeron, had a small barbecue place called Hinky Dinks in Oakland. Inspired by Don the Beachcomber’s success, he changed the concept to what would become Trader Vic's in 1937.
A cocktail rivalry formed between the two camps and all of the recipes were kept under lock and key. They would make their own fruit mixes and rum mixes that no one else could get their hands on. It was highly competitive.
The resurgence of Tiki culture
Starting in the late 1970s, the quality of Tiki drinks and bars fell off, but over the past five years people have started re-establishing a quality Tiki culture. Mixologist Brian Miller does Tiki Mondays at Lani Kai in New York and just like Jeff Berry (check out Berry’s book Sippin’ Safari), he’s been a huge promoter of Tiki culture. There are popular (and growing) Tiki concepts in many cities around the world (see list at the bottom).
Setting up your own Tiki bar
Setting up a bamboo bar with a straw roof is not really necessary, though you can buy them for about $700. The concept is simple: go tropical. One thing that will really make your bar Tiki is buying the correct glassware — like hurricane glasses or glasses with Tiki gods on them. It’s all sort of silly and sets that tropical mood. I also suggest investing in a scorpion bowl. It’s like a punch bowl, but big enough to fit a large rum punch. With a volcano bowl, you can put 151 proof rum inside and light it on fire. To finish outfitting your bar, get some cocktail umbrellas – these are essential. Then it’s really about the ingredients. And, as noted, Tiki equals rum and tropical juices.
Tiki culture’s greatest hits
Some of cocktails greatest moments are Tiki drinks - The Mai Tai, Piña Colada, Ti’Punch, Swizzles, Zombies, the Dark & Stormy, Singapore Sling, Fog Cutter and the Navy Grog just to name a small few.
Here are some recipes of the classics everyone should know:
The Mai Tai
1 oz Golden Rum
1 oz Dark Jamaican Rum
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
½ oz Orange Curacao
¼ oz Orgeat
¼ oz Simple Syrup
Shake ingredients and strain over fresh ice into an Old Fashioned Glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.
Note on the “original” Mai Tai
The Mai Tai falls into the realms of cocktails that or often made badly and incorrectly but when done properly becomes a drink that sits amongst the classics. The Mai Tai recipe that people use as a benchmark today is the one Trader Vic created in 1944.
2 oz Pusser’s Navy Rum
4 oz fresh pineapple juice
1 oz cream of coconut
1 oz orange juice
Shake all ingredients and strain over fresh ice. Garnish with grated nutmeg.
1 & ½ oz golden rum
½ oz white rum
1 oz Jamaican dark rum
½ oz overproof rum
1 oz fresh lime juice
Dash pineapple juice
Dash of papaya juice
Dash of simple syrup
Shake all ingredients and strain over fresh ice into a hi-ball or Tiki mug. Lace with 151 proof rum and garnish with a lemon wheel and a cocktail cherry and don’t drink too many.
The Queens Park Swizzle
3 oz Trinidad aged rum
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz simple syrup
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
6-8 mint leaves
Place ingredients in a hi-ball and add crushed ice. Swizzle vigorously until glass frosts. Top with a little more crushed ice if you need to and garnish with a mint sprig.
Tiki bars around the world
Here is a guide to some of my favorite Tiki bars — where I believe the drinks are done right….
Smugglers Cove, 650 Gough St., San Francisco, 415.869.1900
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, 950 Mason St., San Francisco, 415.772.5278
Tiki-Ti, 4427 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, 323.669.9381
PKNY, 49 Essex St., New York, 212.777.8454
Lani Kai, 525 Broome St., New York, 646.596.8778
Mahiki, 1 Dover St., Mayfair, London, 020.7493.9529
Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Rd., London, 020.7065.6821
Trader Vics, 9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville, California 510.653.3400
Tiki Bar and Lounge, 327 Swan St., Melbourne, Australia, 03.9428.4336
La Mariana Sailing Club, 50 Sand Island Access Rd., Honolulu, 808.848.280