The Bottom Shelf: Take a Tiny Trip to Tiki with Tikis

Illustration by Shani Berenholz

By Samuel Woods

Walking into a dimly lit room you hear a voice cry out “hey man, blaze it,” followed by the spark of a lighter. Surprisingly you are not in your cool friend in high school’s basement or a Wiz Khalifa music video — you’re actually in a kitschy tropical bar, one of the many that have popped up following the resurgence in popularity of Tiki culture. The bartender is about to light the top of a “volcano bowl,” a shared drink that comes in a large ceramic bowl with a raised flaming centerpiece; think an alcoholic’s version of a Bundt pan.

For the final Bottom Shelf of the year, I will share my passion for Tiki history, culture and drinks, and send everyone (of a legal age) off to summer with tropical drink recipes. As always, although Tiki culture and history is fun for all ages, PioLog does not endorse underage or unsafe drinking.

To understand Tiki culture, we have to go way back to 1931 Los Angeles. A young New Orleans transplant, Ernest Gantt, who would later change his name to Don Beach, opened a bar — Don the Beachcomber, which he decorated with odds and ends collected while sailing the Pacific islands. Rum was the cheapest spirit available at the time, which likely contributed to its prevalence within Gantt’s cocktails. At the time these cocktails were a carefully guarded secret and Don himself was the only person to know the real recipes.

Don was paranoid about competing bars stealing his customers, so he taught the drinks to bartenders in code, where at least one ingredient of the cocktail would be listed as some variety of “Don’s mix #4.” Don would personally mix these syrups and spices to ensure that he was the only one who knew how to create his cocktails. Don the Beachcomber’s became immensely popular and served as a celebrity hangout with its own notoriety, such as when Howard Hughes famously killed a man driving home, likely drunk, from this bar. There was, however, one patron that would always hassle Don Beach by asking for the recipes to drinks.. This patron was eventually banned after trying to bribe one of Don’s bartenders for the recipe to his most famous drink, the Zombie. The name of this customer was Victor Bergeron, who is remembered today as Trader Vic. Trader Vic brought the Tiki craze to San Francisco and invented the Mai Tai, along with many other classic Tiki drinks.

The cheapest way to embrace Tiki culture is by simply buying a Hawaiian shirt. They’re super comfortable and a great way to start getting into the tropical escapism headspace. The best way to find these is to cruise thrift stores, but you can always just hit up the closest Tommy Bahama outlet if you feel impulsive. Music is also essential. I recommend the aptly named “TIKI Ultimate TIKI LOUNGE Exotica Space Age Bachelor Surf island mix 2018” on Spotify or the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds.” At this point, grab any potted plant that looks vaguely tropical and you’re good to start making drinks. Extra points for inflatable kid pools with adults in them, plastic leis, yard flamingos or just a big fire. It’s important to remember that the atmosphere you’re trying to achieve is not truly reflective of any South Pacific culture. You’re really looking for a half-assed suburban and campy version of any and every culture that would be seen as “exotic” in the ’30s without appropriating any legitimate cultures. Tiki culture is an American invention based on how Americans at the time perceived other cultures rather than any one specific culture. Tiki bars and enthusiasts are criticised, and rightly so, when they directly appropriate any culture. A great example of this would be the Tiki’s themselves. If a Tiki mug was shaped after a specific Tahitian idol, that would not only be in bad taste, but also appropriation. However, a Tiki mug that looks like Hemingway’s head or a volcano is totally fair game. It’s a loaded issue that I would recommend navigating carefully.

Finally we are ready to start getting into the best part — the drinks. I’ve been fielding some complaints recently that The Bottom Shelf has become more of the top-shelf. This issue will feature the cheapest way to make these classic drinks. Tiki cocktails are complicated, but to cut costs I tried to limit the number of different types of liquor in each cocktail, so don’t be intimidated by the large ingredient list. Also, always make sure to juice your own fruit. It really makes a big difference in the resulting cocktail. If pressed for time I’d recommend using a bougie juice from Whole Foods; try to avoid fruit juice that comes from concentrate. If you have a little more money to spend, or are just interested in further reading, I would recommend picking up “Smuggler’s Cove” by Martin Cate for the authentic (but more expensive) recipes and more Tiki tidbits.

Bottom Shelf’s Mai Tai

The Mai Tai is the iconic Tiki drink. Invented by Trader Vic, this drink has become bastardized by pretty much every bar. Every cocktail with orange juice gets called a Mai Tai, including a drink I was once served at Willy T’s bar in the British Virgin Islands which was just orange juice and rum without even a token hint of grenadine. This is an unacceptable affront against Tiki culture that I’m here to remedy. The original recipe calls for a mix of Martiniquais and Jamaican rums (Martinique makes light rum that is grassy and floral, Jamaican rum is darker and traditionally aged with vanilla, caramel and molasses notes). I recommend using Plantation Grande Reserve Barbados Rum, which provides a little of both flavor profiles and can be found for under $20.

2 oz. Plantation Grande Reserve rum

¼ oz orgeat syrup

½ oz. Cointreau

½ oz. simple syrup

1 oz. fresh lime juice

Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice, then shake and strain into a rocks glass. Top with crushed ice until the glass is full. Garnish with mint, a slice of orange or a tiny umbrella. Orgeat syrup is a simple syrup flavored with almonds. It may sound weird, but it is a pivotal ingredient in many cocktails and shouldn’t be excluded. If you’re really trying to make this on the cheap, substitute the Cointreau for ½ oz. of orange juice.

Bottom Shelf’s Zombie

The Zombie didn’t only make Don the Beachcomber’s famous; it could be credited with the growth of Tiki culture entirely. Legend goes that Don whipped this up for a brunch customer who was complaining about a hangover. It “reanimated” him, like a zombie, so that he could go back to work. Most Tiki bars limit these to 2 per customer, due to the obscene amount of rum and as a fun marketing gimmick. I’m omitting falernum and absinthe, which are two traditional ingredients, to cut costs.

2 oz. Plantation Grande Reserve rum

2 oz. Dark Jamaican rum (such as Appleton Estate)

2 tsp. grenadine (high quality, not the cheap food coloring)

½ oz. Don’s mix

1 oz. Lime juice

¼ oz. White grapefruit juice

A few dashes of Angostura bitters

 First make your Don’s mix. This is a 2:1 mix of grapefruit juice to cinnamon simple syrup. To make your cinnamon syrup, combine 2-3 cinnamon sticks with equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan. Cook on low heat until the sugar dissolves, strain out the cinnamon. Add to fresh grapefruit juice and you have your Don’s mix. Use any extras to make a great whiskey sour. Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake, then strain into Collins or Zombie glass. Top with scored grapefruit slice or another, tiny umbrella.

 

Bottom Shelf’s Daiquiri

This final cocktail is for people who think the above drinks seem like too much work, but still want to experience Tiki culture. The Daiquiri is essentially a margarita made with a light rum. I recommend Bacardi for the best mix between price and drinkability. This is a fun recipe to play around with, try using different rums or substituting half the lime juice for white grapefruit juice.

2 oz. light rum

1 oz. lime juice

½ oz. simple syrup

Add all the ingredients and ice to a cocktail shaker, shake, then strain into a coupe glass (a rocks glass works also).

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