On What is “Properly” Tiki

One of these things is not like the other....

One of these things is not like the other….

At least once every Tiki Month, I try to write something about the underlying nature of Tiki. The question of if something is Tiki, and what makes it so; be it attire, decor, or beverage, is a source of fascination for the student of the genre. Even better, it is a source of controversy. I’ve gotten into the Tiki weeds with a lot of Tikiphiles, amateur and professional alike, and it is impossible to find two who agree on everything… and nearly impossible to find three who all agree on anything. In the drinks world, any topic that you can’t easily have a good argument about while consuming the subject matter isn’t really worth the time.

So my argument this year is based on a piece by Humuhumu from back in November that I have been saving until now to talk about. For mainstream readers who may not know her, it is tough to make out whether Humuhumu runs some of the essential internet Tiki resources, or if it’s better to say that she is the essential internet Tiki resource. Her sites are Ooga-Mooga, the best place on Earth to learn about ceramics and other Tiki drinking vessels, and Critiki, the Yelp of the Tiki world—minus the culture of horrible people infesting the reviews. She also writes quite a bit about Tiki herself, and went on a tear at the end of last year about the difference between Tiki and Tropical. The best bit of this for my purposes is What is a Tiki Drink?

Part of me wishes that I’d had access to this post early on in my Tiki explorations, as it neatly identifies the essential essence of Tiki in eloquent fashion. But I’m also glad I didn’t have a chance to read it when I started out, because I think it misses certain subtleties that are critical to why Tiki works.

Her contention is that the origin of a drink is the critical factor in knowing whether it is a Tiki drink or not. Tiki drinks, she believes, can only be Tiki drinks if they were created to be served in a Tiki environment.

Tiki drinks are not merely drinks you find on a menu at a tiki bar. By that standard, a Brandy Alexander would count, you see those on old tiki bar menus all the time. Tiki drinks are tropical drinks that were born in a tiki bar. Drinks that were created with an eye to the role they would play in this theater, the immersive, transporting world of the Polynesian themed establishment.

When we lump other tropical drinks under the “tiki” label—drinks that were not created in or for mainland America’s faux Polynesia, drinks born in totally different circumstances, for different audiences, to play different roles—we dilute the story of tiki, and worse yet, we strip these other tropical drinks of their true provenance.

This is all true, as far as it goes, but I think it is unnecessarily didactic and limiting, especially for a movement with the specific characteristics of Tiki. The phrase that I have settled on in my Tiki explorations to encapsulate the nature of Tiki is “gloriously inauthentic”. It is important to remember that there are precisely zero authentic Polynesian elements in Tiki. The music is an agglomeration of disparate western genre music. The drinks are Caribbean in heritage, style, and (for the most part) ingredients. The closest Tiki comes to authentic is in bamboo building materials and carved wooden idols. But the tikis are cartoons of authentic aboriginal icons, and 99% of all the bamboo in any commercial or home Tiki bar is a veneer over steel or American white pine 2x4s.

Simply, a drink is a Tiki drink if it is plausibly believable as such. Does it possess that elusive, exotic blend of flavors that is characteristic of Tiki drinks? Can it be properly presented as a Tiki drink, icy and/or frothy, and garnished in elaborate tropical style? If you can answer both “yes”, I say that it’s a Tiki Drink. Let’s look at some illustrative drinks, some drawn from Humuhumu’s post.

Manhattan. No way, no how a Tiki drink. This is an obvios gimme to start this off, and to demonstrate that there are rafts of drinks that are not open to debate. The Manhattan’s flavor profile is all spirit, a Tiki no no. Plopping a pineapple leaf or orchid garnish would be about as welcome as inviting Donald Trump to a La Raza fund-raiser. And the slightest hint of ice shards or aeration in a Manhattan is enough to give people like me an aneurysm.

Dark ‘n’ Stormy. One of Humuhumu’s examples, and I agree with her. It’s not a Tiki drink, but because it doesn’t taste like one. And you can garnish the heck out of it, but a properly made one will still not look like a Tiki drink.

Jungle Bird. Another of Humuhumu’s examples, and she’s dead wrong about it. The Jungle Bird is indeed not an invention of an American Tiki bar, but it’s origins make it more of an authentic South Pacific creation than 99% of Tiki drinks. Besides, authenticity doesn’t matter, remember? A Jungle Bird tastes inarguably but ill-definedly “Tiki”, as any good Tiki drink should. It looks, in most classic interpretations, like a Tiki drink. And while the Jungle Bird doesn’t have to be dressed up for Tiki, and has a considerable following in classic mainstream bars (I had my first at Attaboy, as un-Tiki a bar as exists), it is not just a Tiki drink, it is a modern Tiki staple. It has been adopted fully into the family, so to speak. Attempting to deny that an adoptee is nonetheless a true child leads only to heartbreak and Ragnarok.

Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail. This example of mine fails all Humuhumu’s tests. It is from outside the continental US, it predates the opening of Don the Beachcomber, and it possesses no Polynesian pretensions. But come on. It is just this sort of drink, if not quite possibly one of the actual drinks, that Ernest Gantt modeled his life’s work after. It may not have been created for the glorious faux-Polynesian grottos of the mid 20-th century, but it is truly at home there.

I understand Humuhumu’s desire to keep the idea of “Tropical” and “Tiki” distinct. Let’s look at her first example, the Piña Colada, a tropical “classic”. It looks and sounds for all the world like a Tiki drink, but it sure as hell is not. Its bland profile and goopy consistency are not remotely Tiki. Its decade of popularization, the 1970s, is the beginning of Tiki senescence. The Piña Colada is perfectly suited to a decade where everyone drank this kind of drink to keep their energy levels up and their cocaine jitters under control, rather than to appreciate anything about the drink itself. I agree wholeheartedly with Humuhumu that we would do well to maintain a distinction between Tiki and Tropical. It protects consumer’s perceptions and connoisseurs’ taste buds. But let’s base the distinction on what is in and on the glass, and what it does for the drinker, rather than arbitrary distinctions of origin.

Give Leonard Da Vinci a time machine and a $10,000 gift card for Blick’s and see what you get…

Update: I likely won’t have time to link this before Tiki Month is over, but I cannot more heartily endorse any bar business post more that this one of Humuhumu’s about televisions in Tiki bars.


RELATED POST

  1. Humuhumu

    26 February

    Love this, and I think we’re more in agreement than you think (and that’s my fault). Much of that post was more of a fun mental exercise for us all to engage in together. I totally call the Jungle Bird a tiki drink in casual parlance. But I think it’s worth hitting pause now and then to think about origins.

    My personal aim in distinguishing between drinks that were born in tiki bars and those that aren’t has two sides: I’m hoping folks learn a bit about and respect the historic origins of the tiki drinks, sure… but just as much—perhaps even more—I don’t like that the origins of the other drinks get stomped on. It’s not fair or true to lump everything in under the banner of Polynesian Pop. I want to know what inspired those other bartenders, I want to understand where they were coming from, who they were serving, the story they were trying to tell. Is it a beach story? A sunshine story? A Southeast Asian story? A Caribbean story? A weird, mainland American warping of Polynesia story? I want to hear all of it, and it does a disservice to lump it all under that last category and stop imagining and dreaming. I think there’s room to put ourselves in the original bartenders’ shoes a bit more often, rather than making assumptions based on current environments and presentations.

    But it’s really for nerdy times. I like nerdy times.

    (Thank you for the kind words!)

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  2. Doug Winship

    26 February

    Humuhumu,

    I too love the nerdy times. It’s why I got into a loud argument last week with two bartenders, a liquor rep, and a fellow enthusiast about whether French 75s are better with cognac or gin… in the middle of a Tiki party.

    And yes, we are pretty close in view, you were just wearing your historian hat in your post, and I was wearing my consumer hat in this one!

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  3. Swanky

    26 February

    It is important to remember that there are precisely zero authentic Polynesian elements in Tiki.

    This is a myth I want to dispel. My next book will address this head on and my new book will get at it. This is the sort of assumed statement that reporters carry under their hat as the go into the Mai-Kai to write a snide review that starts out with the word “tacky” somewhere. It leads inevitably to the sneer at the Polynesian revue that wants to remind us we are white people who killed natives and it is a shame we force them to entertain us with their kitschy dancing. THAT is the uneducated view, not the other way around. Certainly Tiki is a fauz Polynesia, but it is not a flat zero in authenticity. Donn Beach died in Hawaii and was buried there. He spent most of his life on the islands and worked for them and the natives throughout. We can’t make too bold a statement here, but just as the typical Mexican, Indian, or Chinese restaurant cannot be said to have ZERO authenticity, neither should we deride our own genre that way. It’s an uphill battle already. We have just begun to get respect perhaps for the first time since 1933.

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  4. Swanky

    26 February

    It took my quote out above:
    “It is important to remember that there are precisely zero authentic Polynesian elements in Tiki.”

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  5. Doug Winship

    26 February

    Swanky,
    I never understand what comment software is doing…. It took me a minute to realize that it had indeed stripped it out, since it shows on my dashboard! I’ll see if I can edit it back in.

    As for the authenticity thing, please don’t think I’m one of those “cultural-appropriation” idiots! I just believe that you can pay affectionate, respectful homage to a culture while using it to craft your own vision!
    I feel that Tiki is a glorious art form, and it works because it co-opts whatever the hell cultural odds and ends it wants, and applies them to its larger-than-life canvas.

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  6. Dagreb

    26 February

    Bravo! Bravo all!

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  7. Tiare

    26 February

    I both and agree and disagree…the Jungle Bird def FEEL tiki to me even though not having any tiki background and in my mind it`s always been sort of “tiki” still, and if it´s a “faux tiki” I think it still fits in….

    The Pina Colada is not a tiki drink (but Daniele Dalla Pola sure makes them very very tiki-ish…. but it´s not a tiki drink though, maybe only at the NU Lounge Bar… 🙂 in any case the Pina Colada is a very tasty and underestimated drink…

    The Queens Park swizzle…no, not to me, it´s more like a Caribbean swizzle belonging in the tropical drinks department together with the Pina Colada.

    A tiki drink is a tropical drink that is tiki – it has a tiki background and all the tropical elements and any drink containing anything that is not tropical can never be a tiki drink….it HAS to be tropcial – but it also has to be backed up by something “tiki”…In the case of the Jungle Bird, I think it`s the feel paired with it´s flavor and then it´s old age or something., it´s like a non tiki drink still feeling tiki.

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  8. Andy

    27 February

    Thanks for the post. What do you think about drinks that don’t contain rum at all but a different core spirit like whisky? Can it ever be tropical / exotic enough to be called Tiki? Are there any example recipes out there that are labelled Tiki but that aren’t based on rum at all?

    P.S.: Would be aweomse to have links to the recipes of the drinks you are talking about in this post.

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  9. Doug Winship

    27 February

    Andy,
    Heh. I actually have spent quite a bit of time this month talking about non-rum Tiki Drinks!
    I’ve directly blogged four in the last four weeks, of varying degrees of legitimate Tiki-ness:
    Honor Among Thieves (Cachaça and Bourbon)
    Lazy Bear (Rye and Rum)
    Lost Lake’s GFY (Calvados, Swedish Punsch, and Rum)
    Permanent Holiday (Bourbon, Averna, Licor 43)
    To me, the all-time greatest non-rum Tiki drink is the Port Light, which is indisputably Tiki by my estimation or Humuhumu’s (being a creation of the Kahiki, one of the most over the top Poly Palaces to ever be built). It’s a Bourbon one.

    And I’m about to go back and put up links to the drinks I mention in the main post. Thanks for the idea!

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  10. Doug Winship

    27 February

    Tiare,
    I mostly agree with you about the Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail. I chose it originally for the list because it is emblematic of the category Joe Garcia and I call “Tiki Compliant”. These are drinks that are not necessarily created to be Tiki, and may not even seem like a Tiki drink in a non-Tiki environment, but shine quite happily as a member of the group when made and dressed in a Tiki environment.

    This was supposed to be a bridge between Humuhumu’s line on what a Tiki drink is, and mine… Then I totally forgot to articulate the thought!

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  11. Andy

    27 February

    Doug Winship,

    Thanks alot. Quite interesting drinks indeed!

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  12. Joe

    27 February

    This post and thread reminds me of the discussion I had some time ago with the estimable Doug in which I used the term “Tiki compliant” to denote drinks which, while not within the parameters the lovely and gracious Humuhumu mentioned in her piece, certainly work in a Tiki context.

    Another way of looking at it is like this: Certain drinks are “natural born” Tiki (Zombie) and others are naturalized (say, Jungle Bird). The distinction is important in one context (historical) and less so in another (gustatory).

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  13. Joe

    28 February

    Doug Winship,

    I mentioned the “compliant” angle in my previous comment (GMTA, etc.) and alluded to why, in real-world terms, such a thing is…uh…a thing.

    To expand on something else I stated, it bears noting that whatever divergence in thinking you and the lovely and gracious Humuhumu may have is almost certainly due to the “port of origin” from where you have arrived at the discussion of Tiki drinks.

    She comes from the Land of Tiki, where cocktails are but one of many, many facets (along with architecture, fashions, music, etc.) whereas you approach from the Land of Cocktails, where Tiki is but one of many, many genres (pre-Prohibition, speakeasy, molecular, etc.) to consider.

    Therefore, it is only natural to exhibit a difference among yourselves, since at the core of it you are likely discussing what fits how within your context of origin.

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