The anonymous email came in a few months after Owen Thomson and Ben Wiley opened Archipelago, their tiki bar on U Street NW. “Don’t you have any Tiki drinks with more than four to five ingredients? Technically, that’s pretty anti-Tiki in my opinion,” Mr. Congeniality opened his missive. It “works great for the bottom line, but quite frankly, insults any long-standing fan of real Tiki.”
“In short,” the email concluded, “whoever created your beverage program is a mere fanboy at best — not someone who is well grounded in the traditions of the past.”
Dude, I thought, sipping my delicious, complex cocktail and reading the printout — which the bar keeps pinned up in the back for the staff’s amusement — you’re being verrrrry un-Dude.
From their origin in California in the 1930s, first with Don the Beachcomber, then Trader Vic’s and countless imitators since, tiki bars have long been a kind of tropical fantasia, a rum-soaked refuge from postwar anxieties and the daily grind.
But they clearly provide no refuge from the age of trolls. The email confirmed my belief that within every subculture — be it Star Wars buffs, vinyl aficionados or lovers of Siamese cats — there is a sub-subculture so obsessed with arguing about the subject that they’re willing to risk ruining enjoyment in the name of dogma. (Wiley referred to these tik-tators as “strict constructionists,” a Washingtonian’s tiki term if there ever was one.)
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not making a case for #FakeBooze, nor saying that tiki aficionados shouldn’t respect their mixological history. But particularly with tiki, angry accusations of violating some eternal rules seem particularly wacky.
That’s partly because tiki bars, with their fruity rum drinks and laid-back ethos, have long run blissfully counter to the bitters-forward, cocktails-you-have-to-think-about trends that have defined much of the cocktail renaissance. Tiki drinks, says Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco bar Smuggler’s Cove and author of a James Beard Award-winning book on rum and tiki, are meant to delight, not challenge. They’re “not there to pick a fight. They’re not, like, nine kinds of amaro and some Laphroaig,” he says, referring to the heavily peated Scotch whisky that, according to a drinker in one of its ads, tastes like a burning hospital.
But moreover, tiki culture — the 20th-century American style, not the Polynesian mythology it’s loosely drawn from — is by nature a pastiche, borrowed from other cultures in ways that are sometimes informed and respectful, sometimes problematic. Some argue that certain elements of tiki iconography exploit genuine elements of Polynesian and other “exotic” cultures, turning them into escapist kitsch. These days, one can slurp from a bowl bedecked with scantily clad island girls or vaguely “African” idols for only so long before sensing, beneath the pulse of rum, that these things should make you go “Hmmm” — and give you pause before launching attacks based on tiki “authenticity.”
Defining a tiki drink can be tricky business. Is it only “tiki” if it came from the recipes of Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic’s? What about imitators? Should tiki drinks incorporate only ingredients that were available in the 1930s, the dawn of tiki? What about all those blended tropical drinks that share tiki’s “come with me and escape” aesthetic? If a palm tree is standing within 50 feet of the bar, are you automatically drinking a tiki drink?
It’s an oversimplification, but tiki drinks are basically “Caribbean drinks with Polynesian names,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of Latitude 29 in New Orleans, and author of multiple books that detail the history of tiki drinks. Without Berry’s work tracking down recipes from early tiki bars in California, we would have little idea what most original tiki drinks tasted like.
Berry’s definition is based on Don the Beachcomber’s approach: A tiki drink, he says, is a Caribbean drink squared, and in some cases cubed. Don’s inspiration for almost all of the drinks he created was the Planter’s Punch — rum, lime and sugar and maybe some bitters. “And he took that very simple construct and multiplied everything by a factor of two or three. Instead of lime juice, what happens when you put lime and grapefruit together? Multiple sours, multiple citrus. Same thing with the sweetness. Instead of just sugar, what happens if we put in honey, or honey and falernum, or honey and falernum and passion fruit syrup?”
Trader Vic’s, Cate says, added to the approach by blending rum with other spirits to make more complex drinks, and substituting the base spirit in some classic templates.
This background helps make sense of some of the strange outliers in the tiki canon: the Singapore Sling and the Suffering Bastard, for example, which aren’t rum-based and are neither Polynesian nor Caribbean in origin. The gin-based Saturn, a recipe Berry found printed on the side of a cocktail glass in a vintage store, has become a regular on modern tiki menus, as has the Jungle Bird, a delicious weirdo that is rum-based but adds Campari (unusual in tiki, but that bitterness “is catnip to craft cocktail people,” Berry says).
These oddballs slid past the velvet rope by a variety of means: adventurous or boozy-sounding names that matched the aesthetic, origins in a perceived “exotic” locale (the Suffering Bastard was invented in Cairo in the ’40s). Others showed up in beach bars and got mistaken for a member of the club (as with the piña colada, which Berry says has nothing to do with tiki).
Many of these seeming interlopers, though, make sense, Cate says: They have baroque recipes that balance sweet and tart and spice appropriately. But some drinks that turn up under bars’ “tiki” headings aren’t. Cate says Smuggler’s Cove tries to separate the “welcome guests” from the “slushy Visigoths” — the Mudslides, Lava Flows and Bushwackers that may be served in tropical locations but don’t really follow the template of a real tiki drink.
Cate and Berry understand the need for some pickiness. It took a while for modern cocktailers to grasp that tiki drinks were the first truly “craft” cocktails, Berry says, and Cate says that failure to protect their quality helped lead to the disrepute tiki fell into for decades, an age of sour mix and powdered flavorings. But the notion that “as long as I put 11 ingredients into the shaker it’s an exotic cocktail” is also off-base, Cate says.
Archipelago’s recipes include ingredients not on classic tiki menus — pandan, guava, Thai iced tea — but are used in ways that bear out tradition: complex layering of booze, citrus, spice and sweeteners into delicious drinks. To paraphrase the oft-quoted line about defining obscenity, I know tiki when I taste it.
The bar also has a semi-secret “old school tiki” menu, consisting of recipes from tiki’s golden age, so purists can get there from here. But, Wiley says, while they’re aware of the history of their particular cocktail thread, “we don’t treat tiki like a museum. Things evolve.”
And given the unease many have started to feel around some elements of tiki, I’d say amen to aware evolution. The tiki school of beverages includes some damn tasty drinks, and I’d like to be able to enjoy the island reverie without worrying that I’m indulging in the cocktailing equivalent of lawn jockeys. A fan of real tiki should know the history and be clear about what’s classic and what’s new. But tiki has long taken charming strangers into its embrace, and modern tiki can afford to open its doors — to welcome new and charming guests, and throw some older aesthetic baggage (and some trolls) out in the street.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
High-quality passion fruit puree (such as that from the Perfect Puree) can be ordered online, but in a pinch, the passion fruit concentrate made by Rio Grande (available at many international markets, such as New Grand Mart) makes for a passable substitute. Orgeat is available at Ace Beverage and Batch 13 in the District, as well as online.
MAKE AHEAD: Simple syrup can be refrigerated for months.
From Jeff “Beachbum” Berry of Latitude 29 in New Orleans.
1 ounce lemon juice
½ ounce passion fruit puree (see headnote)
½ ounce simple syrup (see NOTE)
½ ounce falernum (such as John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum)
½ ounce orgeat
2½ ounces gin
1½ cups crushed ice
Cocktail cherry, for garnish (optional)
Chill a snifter or double Old-Fashioned glass.
Combine the lemon juice, passion fruit puree, simple syrup, falernum, orgeat, gin and ice in a blender; puree until smooth.
Pour into the glass; garnish with the cherry, if using.
NOTE: To make simple syrup, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring just to a boil, then cool. Transfer to a heatproof container. Cool, then cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Smuggler’s Cove makes passion fruit syrup by whisking equal parts simple syrup and Funkin passion fruit puree, which can be ordered online. You can also order passion fruit syrup online (BG Reynolds’s line is very good). In a pinch, the passion fruit concentrate made by Rio Grande (available at many international markets, such as New Grand Mart) can be mixed with simple syrup as a substitute.
MAKE AHEAD: The honey and passion fruit syrups can be refrigerated for a month and for 10 days, respectively.
Adapted from “Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, Revised” (Doubleday, 1972); recipe adapted by Smuggler’s Cove and published in “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki” (Ten Speed Press, 2016).
1 large egg white (1 ounce; see headnote)
2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
¾ ounce honey syrup (see NOTES)
½ ounce passion fruit syrup (see headnote and NOTES)
Crushed ice, plus a few small cubes
Chill a Pilsener glass.
Combine the egg white and bourbon in a cocktail shaker. Seal and shake vigorously for 10 seconds, then add the lemon juice, honey syrup, passion fruit syrup and all the ice, then transfer to a blender. Blend quickly — 3 or 4 pulses of the blender to fluff and chill the drink; much of the ice should remain intact.
Pour the drink, ice and all, into the chilled Pilsener glass until it is nearly full, then pour the last of the drink through a strainer so as not to accidentally overfill the glass (or get ice chunks that plop in and splash at the end of the pour). Garnish with a swizzle stick.
NOTES: To make the honey syrup, combine 1 cup honey and 1 cup boiling water in a liquid measuring cup, stirring until the honey has dissolved. Transfer to a heatproof container. Cool, then cover and refrigerate until chilled.
To make the passion fruit syrup, combine 1 cup sugar and ½ cup water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to barely a boil, just until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat; whisk in 1 cup of passion fruit puree. Cool, then cover and refrigerate before using.
It’s worth ordering the guava puree in advance from the Perfect Puree, which supplies terrific fruit purees and concentrates to many bars. In a pinch, though, the guava concentrate from Da Fruita (available at many international markets, such as New Grand Mart) is an adequate substitute, and you can pick up the Thai tea at the same place.
MAKE AHEAD: The Thai tea syrup can be refrigerated for up to several weeks.
From Owen Thomson, beverage director, co-owner and head dishwasher at Archipelago on U Street in the District.
1½ ounces gin
¾ ounce blended Scotch, such as Pig’s Nose
1 ounce Thai tea syrup (see NOTE)
¾ ounce guava puree (see headnote)
½ ounce fresh lime juice
Mint sprig, for garnish (optional)
Lime wheels, for garnish (optional)
Fill a tiki mug with crushed ice.
Fill a cocktail shaker two-thirds full with ice cubes, then add the gin, Scotch, tea syrup, guava puree and lime juice. Seal and shake vigorously until well chilled, then strain into the mug. Garnish with mint sprig, lime wheels and other tiki tchotchkes, if using.
NOTE: To make the Thai tea syrup, combine 1 cup water, 1 cup Demerara sugar and 3 bags Thai tea (or ⅛ cup loose-leaf Thai tea) in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, cooking until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture becomes a deep orange color. Cool slightly, then discard the tea bags (or strain out the loose-leaf tea). Transfer to a heatproof container. Cool, then cover and refrigerate until chilled.
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