There was a time when the classiest thing you could do was to put a paper umbrella in a drink…
“Tiki drink” is actually a retro term. Their inventors called them Exotic Drinks. They were also known as Faux Tropicals (faux because they weren’t invented in the tropics, but in the continental U.S.). Today they are often derided as “umbrella drinks,” but from the 1930s through the 1970s—an unprecedented lifespan for a drink fad—Exotics were considered the height of cocktail chic by the rich, the famous, and the most finicky of food critics; they were served in lavishly appointed Polynesian-themed restaurants, often designed by Hollywood art directors.
Tiki drinks, bars, music, and culture became more popular as American GIs returned from the South Pacific following World War 2. Their tales of warm tropical waters, swaying palm trees, and beautiful island girls became embellished over time. The reality of the South Pacific, especially Hawaii, was a far cry from the Hollywood fantasy that helped push Tiki culture deep into America’s conscious.
Tiki drinks can be as simple as a three-ingredient daiquiri cocktail (not the awful Slurpee version of a daiquiri!) to twelve-ingredient, complex culinary concoctions using eye droppers for some of the more exacting drinks. Most are rum-based, and almost all contain fresh citrus juice; the best of them throw your palate a curveball with unexpected, unidentifiable layers of taste, usually accomplished through the sly use of syrups that unauthentic tropical bars tend to ignore (such as orgeat, passion fruit, vanilla, falernum, allspice, and cinnamon). A proper Tiki drink juggles sweet and sour, strong and light, fruity and dry, to provide new layers of taste that keep the flavor evolving from the opening notes through the mid-palate to the finish. Expert mixocologists will balance the need for crushed versus cubed ice and how that changes the character of the drink as the ice melts (a dark rum float on top can balance how the cocktail can become watered down as crushed ice melts).
Other Minor Historical Figures
(compared to Cap’n Jack, that is)
Donn Beach (1907-1989) single-handedly created the Tiki bar and the Tiki drink in 1934, when he opened Don The Beachcomber’s in Hollywood. His innovative rum drinks (such as the Zombie, Navy Grog, Chi Chi, Mai Tai Swizzle, and the aptly named Missionary’s Downfall, to name a few of his 70 originals) formed the template for the cocktail menus of virtually every other Polynesian restaurant that followed his original over the next 40 years. No small boast, considering that literally thousands of these places thrived during that time.
The son of a New Orleans hotelier turned Texas oilman, Donn’s real name was Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt. He had it legally changed to Don E.R. Beachcomber, Donn Beach for short, after his bar’s first flush of success with the Hollywood movie crowd. In 1946 he moved to Hawaii, where he opened several restaurants, as well as a shopping and entertainment complex called The International Marketplace. A genuine beachcomber, he retired to Tahiti, where he lived on a tikified houseboat before succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 82.
Victor Jules “Trader Vic” Bergeron (1902-1984) was the second great innovator of the Tiki drink. Inspired by a 1937 visit to Don The Beachcomber’s Hollywood bar, Vic converted his Oakland BBQ joint, Hinky Dink’s, into the Polynesian-themed Trader Vic’s. Over the years his business grew into a worldwide chain of over 25 Trader Vic’s restaurants, some of them still open today.
Vic came into his own as a tropical mixologist in the 1940s, the decade he found his own style apart from Donn Beach’s. Vic’s most famous creations—the Mai Tai, the Scorpion, and the Fog Cutter—used lighter rums than Donn favored, and pioneered the use of orgeat syrup. Vic retired to take up painting and sculpting. He died of a stroke in California at the age of 82.