Tiki drinks are on the rise, but what are they, really? Before I tell you about tiki drinks, let’s go over something bigger: tropical drinks.
Tropical drinks are vacations in a glass. In contrast to the classic brown-bitter-stirred profile, these drinks are often large, fruity, icy, and bring thoughts of palm trees, warmer climes, and fun times. These drinks go by some other names: exotic cocktails, umbrella drinks, boat drinks… and tiki drinks?
Using “tiki drink” to mean “tropical drink” is a somewhat recent development. It’s an understandable thing, “tiki” is just fun to say. Do I jumble them up? Oh yeah, all the time. I’m guilty of it, too. But let’s now look at what a tiki drink is, so we can consider how interchangeable we want these terms to be.
A quick catch-up on tiki bars for the uninitiated: There is a grand tradition, born in California in the ’30s and exploding from there, of Polynesian-themed drinking establishments. When I say “themed” I mean themed. To the hilt. Fully immersive environments, ones that transport you to another time and place. This style of establishment, and the style of drink served in them, all started with Don the Beachcomber, who opened his restaurant in Hollywood in 1933. Don knew rum, Don knew spices, Don knew the wonderful drinks of the Caribbean, and Don loved Polynesia. When he combined them all into one over-the-top hangout, it was a hit. From there, hundreds and hundreds of Polynesian-themed establishments opened, all over the country, and eventually, the world. The word “tiki” in “tiki bar” is referring to the carved tikis, from or inspired by Pacific island cultures, used to decorate these places. The concept continues today, in the grande dame establishments that survived, and in newer places that are carrying the torch for a new generation. The drinks are now thriving (thanks largely to the efforts of historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry), and just as importantly, the completely immersive Polynesian theme lives on in these establishments. The drinks and the room together make an elevating experience; one without the other falls flat.
Tiki drinks are not merely drinks you find on a menu at a tiki bar. By that standard, a Brandy Alexander would count, you see those on old tiki bar menus all the time. Tiki drinks are tropical drinks that were born in a tiki bar. Drinks that were created with an eye to the role they would play in this theater, the immersive, transporting world of the Polynesian themed establishment. Some of these drinks include: Three Dots and a Dash, Navy Grog, Zombie, Missionary’s Downfall, Mai Tai, Black Magic, Sidewinder’s Fang. All of these drinks were born in American Polynesian-themed bars, they have a common ancestry and share a common story. It’s a cool story. There are dozens and dozens of these recipes, and the best way to get to know them is through the works of Beachbum Berry.
When we lump other tropical drinks under the “tiki” label—drinks that were not created in or for mainland America’s faux Polynesia, drinks born in totally different circumstances, for different audiences, to play different roles—we dilute the story of tiki, and worse yet, we strip these other tropical drinks of their true provenance. That’s a shame.
Here are some examples of famous tropical drinks that lately have been saddled with the “tiki” label, sadly masking their true, and fascinating, origins:
Piña Colada – not a tiki drink!
The Piña Colada comes from Puerto Rico. It had a very slow emergence, with fuzzy origins in the ’50s, the name perhaps not even showing up until the ’60s… and it didn’t really become a hit outside of Puerto Rico until the late ’70s, when tiki drinks were waning. Just pineapple, coconut, and rum: clearly aiming for a very different experience than your typical complex tiki drink.
Painkiller – not a tiki drink!
The Painkiller is the Piña Colada’s kissing cousin, born in the ’70s at the Soggy Dollar Bar in the British Virgin Islands. It’s essentially a Piña Colada with orange juice and Pusser’s rum.
Daiquiri – not a tiki drink!
The daiquiri predates tiki drinks by decades, going all the way back to the turn of the last century. Born in Cuba, it’s simply a rum sour, made with lime juice, and is one of the very best ways to appreciate the diversity of rum. It can be seen as an ancestor of sorts to tiki drinks. A daiquiri variation, the Derby Daiquiri, was born in a tiki bar, and is a tiki drink: it was created by Mariano Licudine at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale in 1959. It adds a bit of orange juice to the lime juice, and it’s blended, served in a coupe.
Dark ‘n’ Stormy – not a tiki drink!
Created by British Naval officers in Bermuda towards the end of World War I, around 1918. Gosling’s dark rum, ginger beer, and a bit of lime.
Singapore Sling – not a tiki drink!
Dates back to before 1915, and was created by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The hotel still stands today, but the recipe they serve there has changed over the years. An earlier version is gin, brandy, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, lime juice and soda water, while more modern versions also include pineapple and grenadine.
Jungle Bird – not a tiki drink!
Born in 1978 at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in Malaysia. Pineapple juice, lime juice, Campari and dark blackstrap or Jamaican rum.
Suffering Bastard – not a tiki drink! Unless…
This refreshing drink of gin, brandy, lime cordial and ginger beer was created by Joe Scialom at the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo in 1942. But here’s a tricky bit of business: Trader Vic took the name (it’s a great name!) and applied it to a completely different drink. Vic’s version was essentially a Mai Tai with a bit more rum and cucumber instead of mint for the garnish. The Suffering Bastard name also eventually made its way onto a clever little ceramic hungover tiki sold by Trader Vic’s. So there is a history of a Suffering Bastard in tiki, but it’s the non-tiki one created by Joe Scialom, which is really delicious, that shows up on menus today.
These wonderfully varied and transporting tropicals, do they belong in tiki bars? Absolutely! They play together with tiki drinks quite nicely, much more nicely than that stodgy old Brandy Alexander. But they have their own stories to tell, don’t they? The mighty category of Tropical Cocktails is full of diverse flavors, approaches, stories, and destinations for the mind. Let it be awesome. When we shoehorn all of Tropical into Tiki needlessly, we do both a disservice.