To Kitsch And Back: Tiki Drink Culture, Past And Present
The next time you sip a mai tai, thank Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt. Don’t recognize the name? How about Donn Beach? It turns out they’re the same guy, and we have a lot to thank him for.
In 1934, the year after prohibition was repealed, Beach (née Beaumont-Gantt) opened a small Los Angeles bar and called it Don the Beachcomber’s. It served Cantonese cuisine and exotic, fruit-based drinks.
While the menu was creative and interesting enough to engage the curious public, what really set the bar apart was the décor. The brightly-colored fabric walls were filled with masks, flaming torches and other artifacts collected by Beach during his years of meandering around the South Pacific. Everyone sat on rattan furniture. Even the drinks were served in mugs carved to look like Polynesian gods and adorned with leis, flowers and impossibly red Maraschino cherries. Although loosely-based and stylized on the south seas, the effect was unmistakeable. Tiki culture was born.
Beach is generally credited with single-handedly creating the concept of mixing fruit juices, syrups and rum together as the backbone of tiki drink culture. He’s not the only progenitor of the world of crab rangoons and Suffering Bastards as we know it, however. A few hundred miles up the coastline another titan of tiki was just getting started.
Around the same time Don the Beachcomber was serving up rummy goodness in the City of Angels, Victor Bergeron open a small bar and restaurant in Oakland called Hinky Dinks. As it’s popularity grew the menu and decorations took on a more tropical theme. Soon after, Victor changed the name to Trader Vic’s, eventually growing the company to the chain of restaurants it is today.
Incidentally, Beach and Bergeron would maintain a bitter rivalry for the rest of their lives. Both claim to have invented the Mai Tai, considered to the the quintessential tiki drink. They actually taste rather different, with Beach’s recipe being significantly more complex than Bergeron’s.
While the tiki experience garnered a faithful following from the start, it truly exploded after World War II.
Tropically-themed books like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki inspired countless coconut drinks with more impossibly red Maraschino cherries. The South Pacific drink craze went steady until the 1970’s, when once-charming thatched huts and pineapple chunks became tacky.
By the end of the 1980’s, tiki had fallen out of cultural favor.
Suffering from relegation to strip-mall outposts serving overly sweetened drinks and cheap food, tiki culture stayed dimmed until the late 1990’s, when embers of nostalgia bloomed into a full-blown revival. This time, however, was different. This iteration would tone down the bawdy trappings, and take the mixology a lot more seriously.
Leading the charge for libation legitimacy was Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a California-based writer who painstakingly hunted down recipes of old, including Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber’s original recipes, and published a collection of books highly regarded for their authenticity and scholarship.
With Berry’s books in hand, serious cocktail bars began crafting tiki cocktails and a new wave of legit tiki bars sprung up, including Berry’s own Latitude 29 in New Orleans and Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco.
Today tiki culture is alive and well although it will never command America’s manic attention the way it did so long ago, and that’s a good thing.
With the mainstreaming of fruity drinks with exotic ingredients, it’s not uncommon to see daiquiris saddling up to the same bar as martinis. Tiki drinks have been accepted into everyday cocktail culture, and because of that a whole new generation is learning to appreciate them, with or without hula skirts.
So blend up some rum with fresh fruit juices and maybe an impossibly red Maraschino cherry or two. Inhale the intoxicating aromas, take a sip, and offer up a mahalo to Donn and Trader Vic. The gaudy decorations may have died down, but the love of the culture they started has not.