My pace of at least one full post a day throughout this year’s Tiki Month got a little attenuated at the very end, not because I was burning out, but because I was ramping up to and recovering from a sort of doctoral dissertation on all I’ve learned so far about Tiki. We hosted an all-out Tiki party at home for about twenty of our friends. I’ve hosted a ton of cocktail parties, of course. And I’ve thrown in some Tiki elements or drinks from time to time. But I’ve never done the whole magilla, and I wanted to see how much Tiki knowledge I could employ and still pull it off with out some kind of capsize event.
I think it worked. I learned a lot of lessons in the process, and spent more than I needed to to get the effect I wanted and offer the refreshments I required. But I didn’t mess anything up, and I definitely got the atmosphere I was looking for.
I started with modifying my basement bar. I’ve written quite a bit about it already, and it is most definitely not a Tiki bar atmosphere in its bones. It is all black and aluminum and purple, with bright white lights. I started by replacing all the can lights with colored floods. I used red in the areas where guest were to go, and lit the far corners and service/inventory areas in a mix of blue and green. This gave the effect I was looking for of an evening, fire-lit environment. I then removed the barstools from the bar, and ran a long, fairly lush length of rush skirting along the entire length and around the end, enhancing/disguising the top edge with some fake flower leis. The soffit overhead, I covered with vinyl printed like bamboo, and used more to wrap the base of all the pillars in the room. I covered a table along the opposite wall with sand-colored fabric and “planted” two fake palm trees covered in Christmas lights. Two cheap flower door curtains did a remarkably godo job obscuring the messy inventory room in the back.
If I had been making a permanent Tiki bar, I’d have done much the same things, but with all natural, far more sturdy materials.
I also jacked up the ambiance with a few inexpensive hand-carved objects like a nice Tiki Bar sign, a small electric fountain for some running water, and lots of fresh cut orchids all over the place. Again, in a permanent installation, I’d have used potted orchids (with more variety of look), a larger fountain, and more wooden carvings, rather than the cardboard and vinyl Tikis I put in badly lit areas to disguise their nature.
I even dug into the Summer gear and lined the front walkway with burning Tiki torches.
I put in several hours putting together a really good iTunes playlist of Exotica and other Tiki-sounding music. Two songs that I just loved, and which served as some vocal moments in the list were Don Tiki’s Pagan Lust, and An Occasional Man. The music was especially effective in adding depth to the atmosphere I was trying to create, changing the lighting in the basement from merely dim and hard to see, into darkly exotic.
I always create a menu for each cocktail party I throw. That way I can control what I need in stock, and gives me my talking points for the booze portion of the evening’s conversation. I decided this was especially important this party, since most of the guests didn’t know beans about good Tiki drinks and would have had no idea what to order. You can read a copy here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. With this, I was able to keep the ingredients under control, or so I thought. I ended up getting way too much of most fresh ingredients, and my respect for the professionals who run real Tiki bars and manage to stay in business has gone way up. I wanted to do all juices fresh, and while this did show in the drink quality, it also means I have way too much juice lying around to drink in the aftermath. With the right tools, the juicing wasn’t that hard, but guessing the right amounts needed was beyond me this first time.
I bought a few extra stems of orchids for garnish, preserved pineapple tops, and had a bowl of kumquats, which are a great Tiki alternative to cocktail cherries. And I went to the local produce wholesaler to buy gobs of super fresh mint for garnish. I wholeheartedly recommend you find such a business, likely located on the backside of your airport, for times like this. In Columbus, the place I found is Sanfillipo Produce, who have a retail Cash N Carry in their warehouse.
My wife and I both managed to buy, without consulting each other, a box of each fun/tacky garnish toys available in Columbus. As a result I now own approximately two gross of paper cocktail umbrellas. (We probably used five during the party.)
While I planned to spend more time behind the bar this party than most, I still hired my regular bartender Tony to assist. With the planned on number of guests, one guy would certainly not be enough when making the kind of Tiki drinks I was offering. A little more than a year ago, I kinda went postal on some hapless Brooklynite who declared you shouldn’t have a party if you’re too poor to swing a bartender. There are plenty of party formats where you don’t need staff, no matter how large. But if you are having a drinks geek party, (and why would I have anything else?) and you are having more than 10 guests, you won’t get out from behind the bar to enjoy your guests if you mix things yourself.
Tony is particularly great because, while he’s ten times the pro I’d ever aspire to be, he is always willing and able to absorb whatever new tricks and/or schtick I’ve got up my sleeve for my parties. Cultivate at least one good working pro bartender in your town who can work your own occasional parties with or for you.
I placed the barstools around a small high-top table across the room from the bar. This gave me a place to serve the bowls on my menu, with their flaming garnishes and make a big stinking production out it. The fire extinguisher is there but not visible in the picture….
Always have plenty of better than average fake flower leis on hand, in case an actual Tiki shows up at your event….
A few other tips that worked out well:
- A chunk of dry ice is a cheap and easy way to liven things up. Tony usually had one or two mugs frothing away on the bar, and he and I dropped a sliver here and there into random drinks to keep people’s attention.
- There is genuinely something fascinating about a swizzle stick being employed properly. People really dig it.
- People are afraid that Tiki drinks are too sweet. It took me a while to understand that what I thought of as “sweet” drinks on my menu weren’t all that sweet to them.
- Cultivate a good relationship with your fishmonger. I was able to get mine to give me 15+ pounds of crushed ice from his machine and it was plenty usable for the party a couple of hours later.
- No one wants to order a bowl drink. Everyone wants to drink out of them.
Of course, some drinks worked, some didn’t. My earlier idea that Dr. Funk might be a good Absinthe Entry Drug? Yeah, no. The kindest comment I got from this group of Absinthe virgins was, “It tastes like Good n’ Plenty”. The surprise hit was a new drink I learned about just that week on Mixology Monday, Gilligan’s Ginger Swizzle by Ed at Wordsmithing Pantagruel.
And of course the number one cocktail (almost everyone had one) was the Mai Tai (half Appleton’s V/X, half Smith & Cross). It is a never-ending surprise and delight to me to see the look on a friend’s face the first time they take a sip of a really well-made Super-Weapon of Tiki. If you are any kind of cocktail geek, you have no excuse not to know how to make a good Mai Tai. Even with Tiki Month six months away in either direction, when I am in full Pegu, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Aviaton, Gin Rickey-mode, I always have the means to make Mai Tais. Not only is it among the easiest Tiki Drinks to make (the orgeat is the only remotely weird ingredient), not only is it likely the best Tiki Drink, but it is simply hard to make the case that Trader Vic’s Mai Tai isn’t one of the best straight cocktails ever invented.
The food looked like it was going to be hard, but turned out easy.
Easy for you to say, Mister!
I didn’t see you in the kitchen making any of it….
True. But at no point in the process did you threaten to take a hostage, so in comparison to the usual situation, I’d rate this party as pretty easy.
You may have a point.
Anyway, the key to remember in Tiki food, as with everything else Tiki, is that the key is in selling the presentation rather than in any kind of authenticity. Our most successful dish was a South Georgia and Carolina Low-Country specialty, Shrimp Sea Island. (Note: That’s not our recipe. No one gets our recipe.) There is nothing remotely Tiki about this dish, but skewer the shrimp on bamboo skewers with chunks of mango and serve on a bed of the lemons and Bob’s Your Uncle.
Sous vide chicken chunks, skewered with pineapple bits and finished under the broiler made for a second delicious main dish. Between the two of them, all the bamboo spears made the table look like the aftermath of Magellan’s last stand. Beyond that, we surrounded some pre-made spring rolls with fresh fruit and crudité, and were left with a tropical-looking spread that helped the guests extend their evening quite nicely.
Here’s the bottom line: Tiki parties aren’t hard. Certainly no harder than any other kind of party. Nor need they be much more expensive, especially if you plan on having them ore than once. But they do take planning, and especially imagination. Use plenty of both, and your Tiki party can be one you really hit out of the park.