The Tiki Culture Renaissance

Aug. 15, 2018

The Tiki Culture Renaissance

Photos by Annaleah De Masi 

Tiki cocktail culture first captured the imagination of America post-World War II. After a period of fading into mid-century kitsch, a new wave of innovative Tiki bars across the country has reignited interest in the movement known as “Polynesian Pop.”

Tiki CocktailsTiki culture emerged during the Great Depression, when American interest in unfamiliar lands were thwarted by the lack of funds to travel. The creation of Tiki bars, most notably Don’s Beachcomber Café and Trader Vic offered Depression era bargoers an escape from their financial woes. While these lush nightspots were not an authentic representation of Polynesia or the Caribbean, the novelty they contained, as well as the strength of the rum-filled cocktails, was enough to satisfy a customer’s wanderlust and dull the pain of the Depression. 

Offering an evening of tropical decor, Cantonese cuisine and perhaps most importantly, the exotic cocktails served in drinkware fashioned after Polynesian totems, Tiki bars continued to gain in popularity after World War II ended. American sailors returned with stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific and the emerging middle class supported the growth of Tiki bars and restaurants throughout the country. 

By the 1980s, Tiki culture had faded into kitsch, relegated to re-runs of “Hawaii Five-0” and cheesy attractions at Disneyland. However, in recent years, a new generation of mixologists and Tiki aficionados have reignited interest in Polynesian Pop. At a time when “out of office” no longer means “offline,” the novelty and escapism of Tiki bars – as well as strong rum cocktails – are being embraced by a new generation of customers. 

Tiki Cocktails

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The title of most iconic Tiki cocktail undisputedly goes to the Mai Tai. While there are countless interpretations of this staple, we’re starting with the traditional recipe, as served at Trader Vic in the 1930s. 

Mai Tai
2 oz. aged rum
.5 oz. orange liqueur
.25oz. orgeat syrup
.25oz. rock candy sugar syrup
.75oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
Crushed ice
Garnish: mint sprigs and left-over lime shelf
Equipment: Shaker
Double Old Fashioned
Method: Add ingredients to a shaker and fill with crushed ice. Shake well and strain into your glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with mint sprigs and the left-over lime shelf. 


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The Test Pilot was created by Donn Beach (proprietor of Don’s Beachcomber Café). Named to capitalize on the surge in flight advancements during the 1940s, this concoction was said to have inspired other aviation-themed cocktails such as the Astronaut, Space Pilot, and the Jet Pilot.

The Test Pilot 
1 cup crushed ice
2 oz. white rum
1 tablespoon falernum syrup
1 tablespoon orange liqueur 
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
6 drops ofanise liqueur
1 dash of Angostura Bitters
Equipment: Blender
Method: Put all ingredients in a blender and blend at high speed for 5 seconds. Pour unstrained into a double Old Fashioned glass, adding more crushed ice to fill. Garnish as desired.

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The Fog Cutter is another Trader Vic signature cocktail from Tiki’s golden era. Pairing rum with brandy and gin for a punch strong enough to cut through fog! Lemon juice and orange juice add some color to the proceedings. 

Fog Cutter
.25 cup fresh orange juice
1.5 oz. white rum
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
.5 oz. dry gin
.5 oz brandy
1 tablespoon toasted orgeat syrup
.5 oz. Amontillado sherry
Mint sprig
Garnish: orchid blossom, fresh orange slice
Method: Combine the orange juice, rum, lemon juice, gin, brandy, and syrup in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Cover and shake vigorously until chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with sherry. Gently slap mint sprig against your wrist to release oils, and place mint sprig in glass. Garnish, if desired.

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