Better Tiki Than Tacky

Summer in a glass: the mai tai (left), zombie (center), potted parrot (right) and Navy Grog (front).
Summer in a glass: the mai tai (left), zombie (center), potted parrot (right) and Navy Grog (front). (Mark Finkenstaedt - Mark Finkenstaedt)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Drinking trends come and go, but tiki will always be with us. It keeps returning every few years or so, like the mustache or animal-print fabric. Tiki drinks occupy a space somewhere in the Venn diagram of the American psyche where escapism, irony and kitsch overlap, cutting across so many cultural divides. Hipsters with badly drawn Chinese-character tattoos love tiki. Shoppers at Urban Outfitters love tiki. Suburban cougars on the prowl love tiki. Guys in Tommy Bahama shirts who listen to "Cheeseburger in Paradise" love tiki. Marlene Dietrich loved tiki. Richard Nixon loved tiki.

Who doesn't love tiki? Only one person immediately pops to mind: Donald Trump, who shuttered Trader Vic's in the late 1980s after he bought the Plaza Hotel. He called the famed tiki bar "tacky." Yes, Donald Trump called something "tacky." You see, this is the strange sort of mindspace we get into when we start talking tiki.

The late 1980s might have been one of the few times in late-20th-century America when tiki was decidedly out. So it's odd that my first experience with tiki drinks happened during that period. But if you were a college freshman in Boston, as I was, and you didn't have a fake ID, there is a good chance you and a group of friends might have ended up some night in a Chinese restaurant, perhaps in a part of town that was once called the Combat Zone. And you and your friends might have ordered a drink called a Scorpion Bowl, served in a large volcano bowl with a flaming shot of 151-proof rum in the center, from which you all drank with long straws. Perhaps you ordered more Scorpions, and there were races. Perhaps that turned into your "that bad night in college" story you hear so many people tell when discussing spirits and cocktails. Anyway, because of my Scorpion Bowl experience, I sat out the last tiki resurgence, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In Washington, we've been tiki-starved pretty much since the Nixon administration, when Tricky Dick would drag the likes of Henry Kissinger to the local Trader Vic's for mai tais. But things are starting to come around.

Luckily, this time there is a new generation of fine bartenders who are making sure that classics such as the mai tai, the zombie, the Navy Grog and, yes, the Scorpion Bowl are done the right way. Just last week Agraria Restaurant, along the Georgetown waterfront, unveiled a collection of tiki drinks on the cocktail menu. "I think tiki is a great genre of classic cocktails that's been overlooked," says Jon Arroyo, executive bar chef at both Agraria and Founding Farmers. "These drinks haven't been done here in D.C. for a long time, or if they have, they haven't been done right."

Done right, these drinks seem to make the summer last just a little bit longer, which is why our summer cocktail package this year doubles as an offering to the tiki gods. Right now, as the days get hotter, it's the perfect time to bust out the grass skirt, restring the ukulele and dust off some old Martin Denny exotica albums while you try your hand at mixing up some classics.

The fact is, though tiki is often inseparable from tacky, tiki bars were conceived in the 1930s and 1940s as upscale nightspots. During their heyday, famous tiki joints such as Don the Beachcomber's in Hollywood and Trader Vic's in Oakland were the kinds of places where you put on your finest and hobnobbed. Don the Beachcomber's, in particular, was the Spago of its day, where such celebrities and bigwigs as Bing Crosby, Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes dined on Cantonese cuisine, which Don termed "Polynesian." Orson Welles was once refused entry because he wasn't wearing a dinner jacket.

"Tiki was a very unironic big night out," says Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who has spent the last decade researching tiki culture and writing a series of tiki books, most recently "Sippin' Safari." "There wasn't anything kitschy about it at the time. It was an escape. In the 1940s, people didn't travel. A tiki bar was where the mid-century Organization Man went to escape his white-collar job, his big mortgage and the threat of nuclear annihilation."

That being the case, I asked Berry why, by the 1980s, mainly lowbrow Chinese restaurants were the only ones serving such tiki drinks as Scorpion Bowls. "At a certain point in the 1960s and 1970s," Berry says, "Chinese restaurants finally realized they were already serving 'Polynesian food,' and so they decided to start serving tiki drinks, too. It just stuck."

So, what makes a tiki drink a tiki drink? They all have several common elements, according to Berry. The most obvious is that they have very complicated, multifaceted recipes, some with as many as 12 ingredients. "With these drinks, you're getting a complex culinary creation. It's really easy to mess up and make these drinks badly," Berry says.

Most tiki drinks have a citrus component and are rum-based, and a hallmark is the blending of numerous rum styles. You'll often find three or more types of rum -- a light, a dark, an aged, a smoky Guyanese Demerara -- all called for in the same recipe. "It was all about the right taste of the right rum. When I first looked into these recipes, I thought, 'Why do I have to buy 30 different types of rum?' One recipe called specifically for a 94.1 proof rum. I mean, why did it have be exactly 94.1? It's crazy. But it works. There's almost a scientific formula behind all these recipes."

Tiki, of course, is just about the only cocktail genre that calls for 151-proof rum. Berry says that when he revisited the recipes for "Sippin' Safari," he tried to maneuver around the over-proof rum, but the drinks just didn't have the same zing. "If you try to make a zombie without the 151, it doesn't fly," he says. I concur. Though I, too, tried to avoid it, I have to admit that a little 151 rum adds a layer of texture and flavor that certain drinks such as the zombie need.

Beyond the rum, good tiki drinks always balance flavor with some kind of sly flavoring agent, often a unique spice or secret-recipe syrup. "There's a strange, teasing layer of flavor that you can't quite put your finger on," Berry says. "You're getting pushed and pulled in different directions."

Berry has spent many years trying to decipher Don the Beachcomber's mysterious recipes. "Don kept all his recipes in code so his bartenders couldn't steal them," he says. One example: An ingredient in the zombie is "Don's Mix," a blend of fresh grapefruit juice and cinnamon-infused simple syrup. A more common tiki flavoring agent is orgeat, an almond-flavored syrup with hints of orange flower and rose water, another long-forgotten -- but essential -- ingredient in a mai tai or Navy Grog. Lack of orgeat is probably a key reason why the mai tai evolved into such a terrible cocktail. FYI: If a bartender uses orange juice and/or grenadine in your mai tai, he's making it wrong.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the presentation and novelty factors are high. And we're talking about more than little umbrellas. Classic tiki drinks come out elaborately flaming, sometimes adorned with flowers, sometimes in a ceremonial bowl.

"Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber wanted you to talk about these drinks over the water cooler on Monday," Berry says. "The zombie was the Cosmopolitan of its day."

I find that amazing, almost unbelievable, considering how high-octane the zombie is. Be warned: Even Don the Beachcomber limited his customers to two zombies a night, and that was during an era when much stronger drinks were commonplace. "You look at that original 1934 zombie recipe, and you go, 'Wow, that's a beast,' " says Arroyo. For that reason, Arroyo serves Don's more refined 1956 version at Agraria, and that is the recipe I've included this week.

It's still a very boozy drink, but since it's also very fruity, you don't really notice. Put it in a tiki mug, and you might even convince yourself that this can't possibly be the strongest drink you've ever quaffed. Which in the end may be all the explanation we need for the decades-old on-again, off-again love affair with the tiki drink.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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