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Tiki, Not Tacky


PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

With Tiki drinks, the name and presentation play into the tropical cachet. Lani Kai’s orchid-festooned Bermuda Triangle includes cachaça, coconut, kalamansi and lychee juice. Photo courtesy of lani kai. Tropical drinks from the mid-century are finally getting the respect they deserve

By Jack Robertiello

Ask Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, perhaps the best-known advocate of the drink style known as Tiki, about one of its original founders, and what he says may surprise you.

“Donn Beach [a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber] in some ways was the first post-Prohibition craft-cocktail bartender, some 70 years ahead of his time,” Berry says.

It’s an especially surprising notion for those who think of Tiki drinks as kitschy ceramic bowls overflowing with sickly sweet concoctions. But Berry, who’s written numerous books about Tiki drinks and culture, shows respect when he describes intricate recipes that allowed Beach to craft drinks like the Missionary’s Downfall.

“Donn created a drink with a tacky name [Missionary’s Downfall] that was a true culinary, farm-to-glass cocktail. That crossover between the kitchen and the bar started way back in the 1930s and 1940s,” Berry says.

The drink — fresh mint, diced fresh pineapple, honey, lime juice and Cuban rum flash-blended into a frappe — may seem unremarkable in light of what culinary-minded bartenders attempt today, but even just 10 years ago, fresh pineapple and mint were rarely used in drinks at most bars and restaurants.

Until recently, few beverage professionals gave much credit to Tiki drinks, dismissing them as an odd evolutionary dead-end of America’s tippling past, akin to shooters with a pedigree. Yet, as cocktail historians like Berry spread the word about the complicated recipes and tasty drinks popularized by Beach and others, contemporary enthusiasts have revisited them and taken a decidedly culinary view of the concoctions.

RUM’S CRITICAL ROLE
The comeback has been helped by the 21st-century return of many rums formerly unavailable in the U.S. market; rhum agricoles from the French Caribbean, aged pot-still rums from Jamaica and Guyana and rums of varying strengths, ages and flavor profiles from all over the world combine to make the category as complex and interesting as it has ever been.

“We use the right rum for the right drink for historic and flavor-profile reasons,” says Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, which carries more than 300 rums and uses 28 different ones in the 75 drinks listed on the menu.

Those many rums are crucial to the return of Tiki; many drinks called for two, three or even four rums with different bodies and characters to be mixed together to create a unique base spirit, a concept that has grabbed the attention of many modern craft-cocktail folks. As the craft-cocktail renaissance encouraged bartenders to explore older techniques and styles of drink-making, Tiki, helped along by a pop culture driven by retro curiosity, was primed for a comeback.

Over-the-top garnishes are still quintessential Tiki, but there’s a new sophistication to the beverage itself. The Hurricane Club’s namesake drink is one on a menu of 35 featuring fresh sugarcane juice and house-made key ingredients. Photo courtesy of hurricane club. HOW IT ALL STARTED
Beach opened his first tropically themed restaurant in Hollywood in 1933. Soon after, Victor Bergeron opened his first place in Oakland, Calif., a restaurant that would eventually become Trader Vic’s. The friendly competitors crafted dozens of drinks employing lots of fresh citrus and rums. In 1944, Bergeron created the classic Mai Tai, a mix of rum, orange curaçao, fresh juice and orgeat.

Trader Vic’s evolved into a landmark chain with locations in Hilton Hotels (today it’s a franchise operation with 28 international locations), and then dozens of emulators, impersonators and just plain Tiki lovers opened their own places.

Tiki drinks boomed through the 1950s and 1960s, part of the dining-as-entertainment theme that still thrives in many restaurants today. But by the 1970s, as drinking and dining trends changed, the faux-Polynesian mix of thatched roofs, goofy beverage vessels and flaming pu-pu platters became more kitsch than camp, and the concept grew stale as operators cut back on fresh and quality ingredients. Operations shuttered as the search for the new passed Tiki by.

But now the vibrant, rum-based drinks made famous by the Beachcomber and the Trader are back. In Philadelphia, for instance, Adam Kanter’s Rum Bar recently rolled out a menu focused on classic Tiki drinks like the Painkiller, Bahama Mama, Mai Tai and Zombie, as well as Kanter’s own Tiki creations, the Floating Rum Shack, the Banana Nut Bay and Hot Damn! (light Puerto Rican rum, honey liqueur, cinnamon syrup, fresh lime juice, cranberry juice).

New York has seen a mini Tiki resurgence with the opening last year of the ambitious Hurricane Club and cocktail queen Julie Reiner’s Lani Kai, among others, both focusing on tropical rum drinks made with a  nod toward historic rigor and sophisticated palates. At the Hurricane Club, bartenders serve up to 500 customers nightly from a menu of 35 drinks, with the kitchen responsible for prepping fresh sugarcane juice, house-made grenadine and orgeat and other ingredients.

THE ROOTS OF THE RECIPE
Berry has been instrumental in drumming up interest in authentic Tiki in books like “Sippin’ Safari” and his forthcoming “Potions of the Caribbbean,” covering five centuries of drinks. He unearthed many of the original recipes from Beach and Bergeron, not only for drinks but also for the syrups and batters and spice blends integral to their creation. Berry considers Bergeron, credited with a perfect palate by his book editor, a genius at managing flavors in such vanguard drinks as the Mai Tai and Fog Cutter.

The drink recipes themselves are often complicated, using many ingredients — rum, cordials, fresh fruit and juices, spices — but the real problem was knowing how to make the syrups and batters that made the original drinks special. Beach and Bergeron were known to keep those recipes closely guarded secrets to prevent employees from copying and disseminating them. Beach, for example, developed dozens of mixtures for his many tropical drinks, identifying them only with names like “Donn’s Spices #2.”

Once deciphered by Berry and others, the recipes are fairly easy to execute, according to bartender and consultant Brian Miller. Take his version of “Donn’s #4,” in which he muddles cinnamon bark in one cup each of water and sugar, bringing it to a boil, covering and briefly simmering before letting the mixture rest overnight. Simple for a chef, but not common prep work for a bar shift, until recently.

“The best lesson I learned was using cinnamon bark rather than stick — the bark makes all the difference in the world, with a depth of character much better than simple syrup infused with cinnamon sticks,” says Miller.

Some of the other mixes call for fresh juice to be similarly reduced or infused with spices, or are combinations of two or more of the basic syrups.

“What makes Tiki interesting is that there are so many syrups and combinations involved,” he says. “The more people gain exposure to these ingredients and take pride in making them, like a really great grenadine or ginger syrup, the more they can really elevate any cocktail.”

Fresh fruits and juices — like pineapple and peach in T.G.I. Friday’s Tropical Mai Tai — play a big part in the balance of sweet and sour. Photo courtesy of t.g.i. friday’s. REFINING SWEETNESS
Putting together all the components of Tiki is a continuing culinary process, says Cate. At Smuggler’s Cove, he and his staff concoct nearly 20 in-house syrups and ingredients for drinks. His primary simple syrup requires three types of sugar — white, muscovado and Demerara.

“We found that if you use 100 percent Demerara, for instance, you get a syrup that’s too rich and too strongly tasting of molasses. We needed this syrup to be more flexible but to have flavors more like historic sugar — not so thoroughly refined that it has only a neutral sweetness,” Cate explains.

But he also makes a simple syrup with a richer molasses quality, and one with only white sugar to use in his passion-fruit syrup and coconut cream, where that neutral sweetness is more desirable.

Beyond the rums and simple syrups, it’s the application of baking spices to cocktails that was Tiki’s main contribution to culinary cocktails.

“In the Caribbean, they’ve been putting allspice, clove, cinnamon and ginger in their drinks forever,” says Cate.

The flavors of various Caribbean baking spices were common in cooking but not in drinking, at least not in the United States.

It’s also essential not to understate the importance to Tiki of fresh juices and fruits, says Cate, especially as many of the drinks are inspired by the ditty behind the Planter’s Punch — “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak” — the sour and sweet frequently coming from citrus and other tropical fruits.

Miller went to Hawaii in 2003 to find that, even there, Mai Tais were rarely well made, and he returned to New York to find precious few historic tropical drinks served well. He began tinkering with recipes found in Berry’s books, tweaking them for his own tastes, and even using them to make Tiki-influenced drinks, as he does in one that mixes cinnamon syrup with Scotch whiskey.

He’s recently been working on Donn Beach’s batters — one that calls for butter and honey to be mixed with cinnamon-bark syrup and a vanilla-allspice combo; another incorporates coconut cream, butter and honey. Once he masters them, Miller works them into new cocktails.

TIKI SETS NEW TRENDS

Tiki’s resurgence may not be evident in all parts of the country, but Berry says it’s taking hold internationally; in a recent book he asked for readers to submit new Tiki recipes, and he was flooded with submissions from Germany, Slovakia, England and all over Europe, with recipes “way more ambitious than Donn or Vic ever did. It’s incredibly cool, and definitely still a building trend.”

Among the trends that can be traced to Tiki is the mixing of more than one of the same type of spirit — tequila or gin, for instances — in a drink. There’s been a quiet emergence of house-made grenadine — a Tiki staple — with as many recipes as there are bartenders and beverage programs.

And, as bartenders learn to manage production of the many syrups and mixes at the core of Tiki, it’s feeding directly into a pastry/mixology connection; when Miller worked for Audrey Saunders at New York City’s Pegu Club, for instance, she directed him to pastry books for inspiration when he started to explore Tiki and the need to balance different sorts of sweetness, acids and flavors.

Despite the tropical cocktail’s surging popularity, as Cate reminds us, there’s a ways to go in reestablishing the quality of the classic Tiki drinks.

“On the coasts, we can be guilty of being myopic about our consumers and their palates. An enormous section of the country still thinks the Mai Tai is pink and slushy, so first we should get that right.”

 

About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.