Mix Mix Kitchen Bar
Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Santa Ana, California, serves a “Tiki for Two” cocktail with two brands of rum, beetroot powder, strawberry shrub, Banane du Brésil liqueur, and lime juice.

The Rise of Rum and America's Love Affair with Tiki

Underline Image
A beautiful transition happened with rum during the cocktail renaissance as tiki bars made a comeback and are better than ever.
By Alia Akkam May 2017 Spirits

In January I joined bartenders from Istanbul and Vienna to judge a Diplomático Rum competition in Budapest. One by one, enthusiastic Hungarian barkeeps took the spotlight, showing off concoctions starring the spirit—my favorite featured pineapple juice and Ethiopian cold-brew coffee—that they hoped would garner them a plane ticket to Venezuela for the April finals. In between the two rounds of jigger pouring and shaking, the judges were asked to make brief presentations on topics of our choice to the industry folks in attendance. 

I left the nuts and bolts of running a bar to the professionals and settled on tiki, a far more lighthearted theme, yet one deeply embedded in American drinking culture. I love my tart Daiquiris and heady rum Old Fashioneds, but I also am fascinated by the country’s love affair with tiki—admittedly more so than the bevy of crushed ice cocktails synonymous with the movement—and it’s a story that simply cannot be told without underscoring the importance of rum.

The first slides I showed were nods to the symbols that have long defined the style of breezy, layered rum cocktails associated with tiki. Pineapple and coconut of course led the pack, as did those ubiquitous palm fronds and hand-carved masks inspiring so much of the kitschy glassware for serving tiki drinks. Tangled knots of driftwood, fishing nets, and thatched roofs also made an appearance. 

But as I talked, I grew more taken with the cultural touchstones that dovetailed with the ascent of tiki rather than the standard-issue decorative elements. It’s hard not to imagine herds of friends from the 1950s slurping up giant Scorpion Bowls when hearing the strings of a ukulele get plucked, seeing rattan furniture on a porch, or watching the Beach Boys with surfboards in tow. Loud Hawaiian shirts and re-runs of “Gilligan’s Island” are all part of the carefree tiki lifestyle that, at first glance, seems limited to hula girls and petite umbrellas dressing up drinks. 

I then delved into the history, the ancient Maori totems and those pioneering forays into the Pacific by the likes of Herman Melville and Paul Gauguin, translating to books and paintings that piqued American interest in tropical, out-of-reach lands. The crux of tiki’s allure, I remembered, is its power to transport patrons to such far-off places by creating a theatrical ambiance and an escapist vibe. 

Don the Beachcomber and Victor Bergeron of Trader Vic’s fame were indeed visionaries for capturing these worlds through their Hollywood and Oakland bars, appealing antidotes to the realities of the Great Depression. Amid post-Prohibition chaos, rum—which found new popularity during the bootlegging era—and the goes-down-easy characteristic of tiki cocktails promised a welcoming return to the bar life. Over the next few decades, colorful postcards, menus, and matchbooks kept Americans hooked on the idea of the tiki bar as a haven.

They kept drinking their Zombies and Mai Tais until the 1970s, when the age of disco and platform shoes put tiki in a hokey contrast. The whole concept unraveled further in the 1980s, when tiki persisted, particularly in Waikiki Beach resorts, only in downgraded, sickly sweet fruit-juice form. Craftsmanship wasn’t as much a priority as escape.

Yet in the aftermath of the quality cocktail renaissance, a beautiful thing happened in the process: The tiki bar was back in full swing. Datassential, in its January “Creative Concepts” report, reveals that 74 percent of consumers want to visit a tiki bar. This is not because they are clamoring for sad renditions from circa-1985 suburban Chinese restaurants, but because in recent years a spate of talented bartenders has proved that the tiki bar remains a magical entity. Certainly, the prevalence of air travel and the Internet haven’t marred Pacific intrigue. Visionaries like Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in New Orleans, Martin Cate in San Francisco, and Paul McGee in Chicago—through their thoughtful bars Latitude 29, Smuggler’s Cove, and Lost Lake respectively—have made today’s tiki temple a destination for fresh-to-order drinks made with citrus juiced daily. (And it’s no coincidence that these guys comprise half the team that formulated the recipe for Plantation’s new O.F.T.D. Overproof Rum.)

Along with the roster of midcentury classics, they also serve originals. Smuggler’s Cove, for example, turns out the Dead Reckoning (rum, pineapple, fresh lemon, vanilla liqueur, maple, tawny Port, Angostura bitters). Lost Lake is home to Some Days Last a Long Time (Scotch, sherry, coconut, lemon, absinthe), while there’s the Paniolo (bourbon, macadamia nut liqueur, lime, cranberry syrup, molé bitters) at Latitude 29. Both of these prove that the genre’s evolution now encourages for spirits other than rum to get the tiki treatment. 

What is especially profound to me is that today the tiki bar is not a novelty. Instead, it is as entrenched in the American cocktail scene as, say, the dive bar or speakeasy. Some nights it’s a beer and a shot of Jameson that is craved; others a Negroni in the company of jazz. Tiki now unleashes nostalgic joy through vibrant libations, and a number of restaurants are attempting to capture this playfulness by placing these types of drinks on menus that otherwise focus on different culinary realms.

For instance, one of the newest cocktails on offer at the globally influenced dining concept Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Santa Ana, California, is Tiki for Two (Caña Brava rum, Angostura 5-year-old Caribbean rum, beetroot powder, strawberry shrub, Banane du Brésil, lime juice). Likewise, at Santa Rosa, California, bistro the County Bench Kitchen + Bar, the specialty is the Piña Colada (Plantation rum, house-made cardamom and lime-infused coconut milk, lime juice, cayenne). Across the country in the Sunshine State at Jacksonville’s Unity Plaza, the Unitiki Plaza is a sought-after drink at HOBNOB Food + Social Exchange pairing light, dark, and spiced rums with lime and pineapple juices, Amaretto, Cognac, allspice dram, and orange bitters.

With joints like Lost Lake and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Three Dots and a Dash, now helmed by ace veteran bartender Julian Cox from Los Angeles, Chicagoans are particularly keen on tiki. When James Knittle started working at the vegetarian classic Green Zebra, his background working at Hala Kahiki Lounge in the suburb of River Grove informed his decision to whip up drinks like the Broken Bow (Gosling›s dark rum, El Dorado 8-year-old cask-aged rum, grapefruit juice, lime juice, allspice dram) for the fittingly Zen space.

Summer-perfect punch is the highlight of TAMO Bistro + Bar inside the Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center in Boston. Last spring the restaurant launched Tiki Tuesdays, highlighting communal versions like the Boomerang Bowl with Bacardi Tangerine and Black rums, pineapple juice, and passionfruit purée. Even the low-key Publik Draft House in Atlanta, known for its bourbon and beer selections, brightens up its menu with a Mysterious Tiki Punch. The Continental in Miami, the retro hangout from Stephen Starr, serves a rum punch for large groups, but drinks like the Melolo Swizzle (Martinique coconut rum, Banane du Brésil, pineapple, fresh basil) also have the tiki touch.

Those Budapest folks listening to me wax poetic about tiki seemed particularly thrilled about the tiki bars closer to home, such successful lairs as Aku-Aku in Oslo, Aloha in Barcelona, and Dirty Dick in Paris. The Trader Vic’s legacy even carries on in Munich. Currently, there is one tiki bar in Budapest called Rumpus. Judging by the rum-loving bartenders I encountered during the competition, it certainly won’t be the last.