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.