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Tiki Drinks: From Bootlegging To Cultural Icon

The Rum-Based History of Tiki Culture

What says beach time better than a few tiki drinks at the end of a long week? The delicious mix of tropical fruit juices and rums, decorated with a tiny umbrella and fresh fruit is enough to make even the cloudiest day feel like a day on the beach. But where did these famous tropical cocktails come from and how did they become so inexplicably connected with escapism and sunshine? Simple, Tiki Culture.

The Tiki Drinks Movement

The word ‘tiki’ comes from an ancient Maori myth in which Tiki is the first man. The classic image that comes to mind of the little wooden figurines with large eyes and grimacing faces are based on ancient carvings of Tiki found on the Polynesian islands. Each ancient carving is completely unique, which could partly explain the wide range of tiki replicas you find today. Although the story of Tiki is thousands of years old, it really has very little to do with what we now consider Tiki Culture.

This island-themed culture began, not on the tropical islands of Polynesia, but in California with a couple of Americans who fell in love with the island lifestyle and decor as well as the delicious island rum. The two men were Ernest Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach, and Victor Bergeron, Jr. of the famous Trader Vic’s.

Ernest Gantt AKA Donn the Beachcomber

To put it simply, Gantt and his grandfather were bootleggers during the 1920s. His grandfather’s shipping company would sneak rum and other goods in from the Caribbean and Gantt was allowed to help out with the ‘family business’. This gave Gantt the perfect opportunity to experience both the wonders of rum and the beauty of island life.

After using his college fund to further explore the Caribbean and the South Pacific, Gantt decided to come back to America in 1933 and open a bar in Hollywood, California. He would use all of his knowledge of the islands as well as all the knick-knacks and souvenirs he had collected in his travels to create the first fully island-themed restaurant in America.

The story is that he decided to name the bar using one of the names he used while bootlegging, Donn’s Beachcomber which eventually became Donn the Beachcomber. With the great success of his restaurant, he started calling himself by the same name and within a few years, he had legally changed his name to Donn Beach.

Victor “Trader” Bergeron, Jr.

Only a year after the grand opening of Donn’s Beachcomber, in 1934, another man decided to open a bar in California, but this one was in Oakland. Since this was just after the end of prohibition, it was a good time to be opening bars, so Bergeron borrowed $500 and started what was then named, Hinky Dink’s.

Hinky Dink’s was not tropically-themed at first but eventually began to take on an island feel through tropical drink and menu items that Bergeron developed after a trip to Cuba. Since Bergeron was not as well-traveled as Donn Beach, nor did he have the money to go traveling just to collect souvenirs, he began trading free drinks to patrons who would bring him island-themed items and, thus was born Trader Vic. The name stuck so well that the bar was eventually renamed to Trader Vic’s and the first franchised branch was opened in 1949. The chain eventually expanded, becoming what is believed to be the first fully-themed restaurant chain. They expanded across America and eventually established restaurants around the world.

Tiki Drinks Cheers

Tiki Drinks Takeover

So how did two people opening separate bars in the 1930s lead to a cultural phenomenon, you may be wondering? Well, it was a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. Up until the opening of Beach and Vic’s establishments, there was very little access to island culture. This was just after the end of prohibition and at the start of the Great Depression, so there was a large cultural shift taking place.

As time went on, the Great Depression and eventually WWII played out, changing America forever. Somehow, the two bars held out and continued to act as the perfect escapist hangouts for those needing a break from an often tough reality. Not only did they offer the feeling of an island getaway, they also offered a way for people to experience interesting and exciting rum-based drinks and sizzling island cuisine. Much of the food they served, although not often authentic, was Cantonese-based or island-inspired, food genres that were not commonly found in popular American restaurants at the time.

Once the war was over, hundreds of thousands of soldiers who had been stationed on the islands began to come home. They came with stories about their experiences with Polynesian culture and island life and as a result, the tiki movement exploded. During the 1950s and 1960s, many more island-themed bars and restaurants began popping up. Families began hosting their own luau parties and the flowy flowery island-styles even made their way into the fashions of the times establishing a full tiki takeover.

The Magical Mai Tai

Going back to our tiki pioneers, Beach and Vic, the tiki explosion only served to increase their popularity and fully solidify their influence over American culture. Although the rum and tropical decorations were Polynesian, the cocktails were purely American inventions, especially the most famous of all tiki cocktails, the Mai Tai.

Although there is some argument over which of them actually invented this famous cocktail, both Beach and Vic had influence over the sweet fruity tiki drink we all know and love. The official story is that Vic invented the recipe in 1944. He was experimenting with different rums when he created an interesting combination of orange and lime with light and dark rum. He then served the experimental beverages to a couple of Tahitian friends who declared it to be, “Mai tai roa ae!”, which roughly translates to ‘the best in the world’ or ‘excellent’. Beach also claimed to have invented the famous drink in his bar in 1933, but it does not appear on any of his early menus, at least not under that name.

Which influential bartender truly invented the most popular tiki drink is really of little importance. They both created a wide range of delicious tropical drinks that are still popular today. More importantly, they popularized the flavor combinations that make tiki cocktails so appealing. They both studied rum in its different forms and invented drinks that would best accentuate its rich smooth flavor. In essence, both Beach and Vic are the founding fathers of American Tiki Culture and the drinks that go with it.

Tiki Culture beach

The History of Tiki Drinks

The magic behind what makes tiki-themed cocktails so good may actually come from an old Caribbean rhythm about mixing punch which goes, “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Some renditions add, “And five of spice to make it nice.” Or “A dash of bitters and sprinkle of spice, serve well-chilled with plenty of ice.” We’re assuming the part about ice is a more recent addition, but you get the idea. If you consider many of the classic tiki-themed cocktail recipes in the light of this simple poem you will start to see a pattern. There really is something to be said about established recipes for greatness.

Whether Donn or Vic knew this poem or not is unknown, but many of their tiki recipes follow this simple algorithm. Donn created over 60 cocktail recipes including such drinks as Tahitian Rum Punch, Navy Grog, Beachcomber’s Gold, and the Q. B. Cooler, the drink on which some believe Vic based his most famous cocktail. Although some of Beach’s concoctions may not be as popular anymore, you can always try them out in your home bar since he published most of his recipes in convenient mixology cookbooks.

Vic was no slouch in creating new drinks either. It is believed that he invented over 200 signature tiki drinks, many of which are still served in tiki bars around the world. Vic was most famous for developing unique drinks that were only meant to be served in specialty glasses such as the Scorpion. He even had a recipe for a hot buttered rum that was meant to be served in a particular ceramic mug in the shape of a skull. Vic published many of his recipes, not only for cocktails but for some of his favorite foods as well. He published no less than nine books of recipes and stories from his life.

Modern Tiki Influence

Like all pop culture explosions, the tiki craze wore off after a while. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s most of the American culture had shifted toward seeking more authentic experiences. Where the tiki experience offered dreamy escapism, they were seeking realism and radical change. Thankfully, not everyone gave up on tiki-themed bars and restaurants. There was a bit of a resurgence in the 1980s and it eventually settled into being just another fun element of American culture.

The island-themed bars and restaurants of today are not very different from that fun beachy island feel that Beach and Vic were trying to provide. You can still find the palm trees, floral fabrics, coconuts, and tiki carvings that those original tiki bars popularized nearly 90 years ago. Modern tiki restaurants may serve slightly more authentic island fare, but the cocktails are still the same. Mostly rum-based, full of tropical flavors with a little spice to make it nice.

Tiki Carving

What To Order at a Tiki Bar

Visiting a tiki bar can be a fun way to experience a well-loved American past-time and enjoy a delicious beverage at the same time. But the question is, what to order at a tiki bar? Should you go with the classic and most popular tiki cocktails or should you branch out and try something different? That, of course, is up to you.

The great thing about the tiki-style is that it was developed by a couple of guys who loved what they were doing. They loved the easy breezy island lifestyle, the tropical flavors, and, of course, the rum. The love of rum can be seen throughout the history of tiki drinks, not just in Beach and Vic’s drinks, but in the recipes developed by all those who sought to emulate them. So all you really need to know when visiting one of these establishments is how much rum you want and what tropical fruits you like. Here are a few solid picks for classic tiki drinks that are sure to improve any day, on or off the beach.

Want to make Tiki drinks at home? don’t forget to have the full experience and get your own Tiki mug cocktail set and get the full experience! Here is a recipe for one one of my favorites: The Zombie.

The Zombie: Why have one type of rum when you can four? Not only are there four types of rums, but this classic also includes apricot, lime, and pineapple juice for that bright island flavor.

The Fogcutter: White rum, gin, and brandy are combined to create a very powerful tiki drink meant to cut the fog, so to speak. This one has fresh orange juice and lemon juice, for a fresh kick, along with some orgeat syrup for an almondy twist.

The Hurricane: Mix a little passion fruit juice, lime juice, and orange juice with light and dark rum, throw in a little simple syrup and grenadine and you will have a hurricane of tiki flavors that are hard to resist.

Keeping Tiki Alive

As you now know, the tiki theme isn’t really about the islands that it was meant to represent as much as it is about the idealized lifestyle of those who get to enjoy the islands every day. Donn Beach and Victor Bergeron brought this culture to life through their own ideas and memories of island life, so it is more of a representation of their perspective of Polynesian cultures rather than a representation of the cultures themselves.

That being said, the tiki movement created a fun and exciting phenomenon that was desperately needed at a time when Americans were fervently seeking a means of escaping life’s difficulties. It gave people a way to experience things they never would have otherwise. The modern tiki experience may not be as exciting to those who have grown up with unlimited access to information about the outside world, but it is still a fun way to escape everyday life and try something new. So, why not stop by a local tiki bar and enjoy a little escapism for yourself. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a little rum, or a lot of rum, and know that you are taking part in a tradition that changed American culture forever. 

Now it’s time we hear from you what’s your favorite Tiki Drink and Why? Let us know down in the comments below. 

Want to learn more about cocktails and spirits? Read our post on Mezcal and the Traditions of Life.