There are cocktails that take you travelling with their taste of faraway lands. Tiki drinks, for example, make us dream of the crystal-clear waters of Polynesia, the beaches of Hawaii and the relaxed atmosphere of the Caribbean. But how did these extremely colourful (and often extremely boozy) drinks come about?
The Origin of Tiki Drinks
Tiki Bars and Tiki Drinks became popular in the 1930s in the United States thanks to Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. Ernest was a great lover of travel: he had visited Jamaica, Hawaii, Tahiti and many other exotic countries – something that not many in the early 20th century could afford.
Back in the United States, in Hollywood, 1931, Ernest devoted himself to the study of cuisine, particularly Cantonese cuisine. Thanks to his knowledge of tropical culture, he also began to collaborate with film production agencies.
A few years later, in 1933, the year Prohibition ended in the United States, our adventurer opened his first bar, Don The Beachcomber. His bar, however, differed from all other bars of the time in its whimsical decoration – a mix of the many objects Ernest collected during his travels – giving the place a tropical atmosphere. In addition, never-before-seen, exotic and imaginative drinks were served.
Ernest, who has since legally changed his name to Donn Beach, turned the concept of cocktail-making upside down by creating original rum-based mixes. Why rum? For several reasons: it’s the distillate he knew best thanks to his travels; it intrigued Americans, who in the previous decade only drank beer, gin and illegal whiskey; and thanks to his shady connections from a past as a smuggler, Donn managed to get supplies at bargain prices.
While Donn was fighting in World War II, it was his ex-wife Sunny Sund who took over the reins of the restaurant, turning it into a chain with 16 locations. After returning from Europe, Donn moved to Hawaii, where he opened Waikiki Beach.
Meanwhile, in the wake of his Donn’s success, Victor Bergeron opened another venue that would become the legendary, Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California. It is said that the ultimate tiki cocktail, the Mai Tai, was born here in 1944.
Tiki bars enjoyed their heyday in the US from the 1930s to around the 1960s, only to return to fashion in the 1990s. In Europe, on the other hand, there has never been a real Tiki fashion, as the tastes of European consumers have always been very different from those of Americans. However, there is no shortage of themed venues that are perfect for a different, perhaps even a little trashy, evening out with friends. And the cocktails, we must admit, are quite something and are not particularly easy to prepare.
The Success of the Tiki Bar
It’s easy to understand why Tiki Bars were so successful if you identify with the atmosphere of the early 20th century United States, which had experienced war, Prohibition and the Great Depression. The Tiki Bars, in fact, were a representation of what the veterans of the Great War said they had seen in Polynesia and other remote countries. The decoration, the ambience, the colourful cocktails: everything was designed to transport you, at least in your mind, to faraway places and natural paradises where people lived in peace and quiet.
In Donn’s club, men and women could distract themselves from everyday life with food and drinks they had never tried before, enjoy the music, have fun with novelty items and kitsch objects like flower necklaces, straw skirts and Cuban cigars. It was like going on holiday!
Tiki drinks have some common characteristics. In their preparation, various types of rum from different countries are used, which are mixed with orange liqueurs (such as triple sec, Grand Marnier or Cointreau), tropical fruit juices, honey, syrups and bitters. Often they also have strange colours such as blue, due to the use of Blue Curaçao, or green, due to the use of Midori or some mint syrup. These are cocktails that, in general, require first-rate ingredients and a certain degree of preparation (getting the quantities of the many ingredients wrong could lead to disastrous results).
Of course, there’s no shortage of decoration: fruit galore, paper parasols, coloured straws, flowers – tiki drinks have the lot. Many also have ‘dramatic’ presentations, including being set on fire.
The most unusual thing, however, are undoubtedly the Tiki Mugs which the drinks are often served in. These cups, usually ceramic, represent tikis (humanoid figures that actually originated in the Marquesas Islands as spiritual objects), Easter Island statues (Moai), shrunken heads, totems, coconuts and skulls. Sometimes wooden containers or the fruit itself, such as hollowed-out pineapples or coconuts, are also used to serve the drink.
Tiki Cocktails: 2 Iconic Recipes
Now that we know where these cocktails come from, it’s time to try them out!
Invented in 1934, the Zombie was one of the most popular cocktails served at Don The Beachcomber. Rumour has it that it was forbidden to serve two to the same person on the same night, as it was so strong it could turn them… into a zombie!
- Pour all the ingredients into the blender and blend for about 5-7 seconds at low speed. Be careful not to crush the ice too much and make it a frozen cocktail!
- Serve in a tall tumbler glass.
- Decorate with a straw and fresh mint.
Together with the Mai Tai, the Scorpion is one of the most famous drinks at Trader Vic’s. The drink is served in a bowl, preferably a Scorpion Bowl, and is good for about 3-4 people.
- Pour all ingredients into the blender and blend for about 5-7 seconds at low speed.
- Pour the cocktail into a bowl.
- Decorate with mint, flowers, preferably edible, and straws.
- Tiki Drinks: Tropical Cocktails for the Modern Bar
Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Karin Mosca’s original Italian article: I Tiki Drink e il mito del Don the Beachcomber.