Tiki bars are hot these days: you can enjoy a fruity tropical drink while surrounded by faux-Polynesian décor in most major cities around the U.S. and elsewhere, with new tiki spots opening every month. The trend is a revival of a nearly century-old American tradition—but the knowledge of how to make these classic tiki cocktails had been all but lost over the intervening decades. It took an amateur sleuth who went on a deep dive into cocktail archaeology and recipe cryptography to bring back the lost flavors. But, while the drinks he rediscovered are delicious, does the classic tiki bar interior, adorned with carvings that resemble traditional Polynesian gods, stand the test of time? Listen in for tales of Hollywood celebrities, backyard luaus, and a savvy restaurateur with a wooden leg.
When Donn Beach, né Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, opened his bar Don the Beachcomber in December 1933, Prohibition had ended just days earlier. Marie King, beverage director at the Tonga Hut, the oldest operating tiki bar in Los Angeles, believes he must have been doing some bootlegging or rum running on the side. "He had to have some kind of speakeasy to develop all the recipes," King told Gastropod. Beach, the son of a Texas wildcatter, had spent his youth—and his college fund—traveling the world, where he first fell in love with the South Pacific. When the money ran out, he ended up in LA, where one of his many hustles involved building movie sets for Hollywood. Beach decorated his new bar with what he called 'flotsam and jetsam' meant to invoke Polynesia, most of which he bought from the movie sets he'd once decorated.
A 1943 menu from Don the Beachcomber, from the California Historical Society
Don the Beachcomber was a huge hit, and the tiny space was usually filled with a who's-who of Hollywood: Howard Hughes, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. It wasn't just the décor, which capitalized on a 1930s fascination with the South Pacific—it was also Donn's inventive new drinks. The drinks were based on rum, says Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. Cuba was nearby and willing to sell to the U.S., she said, "And so rum was the only spirit that had been readily available in the U.S. while distillers were not in operation." Plus, she pointed out, rum was cheap at the time—a major selling point for a bar that opened during the Great Depression.
Don's cocktails blended multiple versions of rum, as well as multiple citrus juices, sweeteners, and spices in complicated, innovative recipes that took their inspiration from traditional Caribbean punch recipes but added layers of flavor and nuance, according to Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, owner of the tiki bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans. This was truly the second wave of American craft cocktails, Berry told Gastropod. "Nobody ever had drinks like this before," he said. "Nobody ever made drinks like this before."
Berry tasted his first classic tiki cocktail in the 1980s, when tiki bars had nearly disappeared and cocktails were limited to three-ingredient Harvey Wallbangers. Its balance and complexity stood out like a beacon of hope amidst the sea of cheap spirits and sickly sweet mixers that were popular that decade. But, as he set out to drink more of these delicious tropical cocktails, he realized he had a problem: most bartenders had no idea how to make Donn the Beachcomber's original drinks correctly, and, to make matters worse, Beach had written his original recipes in code.
This episode, Jeff Berry tells Gastropod about the story of how he decoded Beach's legendary concoctions and fueled today's tiki renaissance. And we do some detective work of our own to investigate tiki's rise, fall, and revival. Why did tiki bars peak in the 1950s and 60s, before nearly disappearing in the ensuing decades, and what brought about the revival today? Sarah Miller-Davenport, author of Gateway State: Hawai'i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire, describes how Polynesian-style bars and restaurants allowed mid-century middle class white Americans to feel cosmopolitan and adventurous, in part by playing on racist stereotypes of Polynesian sexuality. These stereotypes are part of the reason that Kalewa Correa, curator of Hawai'i and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, says tiki bars make him, a native Hawai'ian, uncomfortable—that and the ubiquitous tikis, Polynesian-style carvings that invoke images of Polynesian gods. Are tiki bars a form of cultural appropriation, a 20th-century fad that should offend our slightly more enlightened 21st-century values, or are they a purely American invention that provides harmless, escapist fun? Listen in for the story—and the debate!
Marie King and the Tonga Hut
Marie King runs the Tonga Hut, LA's oldest surviving classic tiki bar in North Hollywood, which was established in 1958. If you want to step back in tiki history, this is a great bar to check out.
Jeff Berry, the Grog Log, and Latitude 29
Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's decades-long cocktail sleuthing resulted in the revival of classic tiki cocktails, originally detailed in his Grog Log. You can still find copies of the original spiral-bound, photocopied version online! If that's too pricey, his other books include Sippin' Safari and Potions of the Carribean. Today, he runs Latitude 29 in New Orleans.
Sarah Miller-Davenport is a historian at the University of Sheffield, and her first book is Gateway State: Hawai'i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire.