We need to talk about paper umbrellas. Few items say more about Tiki than paper umbrellas. They are cute, funny, kinda stupid, a little bit dangerous, wildly inauthentic, and more fun for most of us than we will admit—just like Tiki in general.
Trader Vic’s son says his dad stole the idea from Don the Beachcomber, who had in turn stolen it from food garnishes in L.A. Chinese restaurants. (Note to the uninitiated in this period of history: Everything Don did that was worthwhile, Vic stole. Everything Vic did with it that was worthwhile, Don stole right back.) In general, Don stole his drinks culture from the Caribbean and his food from China. Here he stole his drink paraphernalia from China. Of course, Vic’s grandson says Trader Vic’s has never served umbrella in their drinks. And Beachbum Berry, the Indiana Jones of the Tiki world and general spoil-sport, claims the umbrella was first employed twenty years later by some bartender in Hawaii with a clear genius for marketing. We may never know the truth about their origins, but I feel confident in declaring that rumors that paper cocktail umbrellas were first employed to keep the sun from melting your ice are #FakeNews. I grew up in the tropical sun. It. Would. Not. Work.
One theory about cocktail umbrellas that seems awfully sound is that they grew in popularity because chicks dig them. Think I’m being sexist? Ask anyone who has ever served drinks to a group of people, professionally or in the comfort of their own home. Give one person a umbrella in their drink and almost every woman in eyesight will be jealous and demand an umbrella in their next round, even if their next round is a Dry Martini.
Just stick it in the olive, please!
Don’t give in to this pressure to put umbrellas in cocktail glasses, please. The things will put an eye out. Always serve umbrella drinks with a straw.
But here’s the problem with these glorious, kitschy little drink ornaments… They are kinda… um… boring.
Yeah. Let’s be honest. They take no skill or flair to employ, and they are literally a couple of dimes a dozen to buy. When serving a large group of people, you are getting crushed, and you are low on fancy garnish, breaking out the paper umbrellas is a quick, crowd-pleasing cheat. They will get you off the hook, but these days, they won’t impress any one.
Unless you up your game.
Here’s a simple way to make your umbrella-fu stand out in the jaded minds of your guests: When serving up Dark n’ Stormys, Hurricanes, or other Jim Cantori-themed cocktails, pop the umbrella inside out like a rookie weather man’s. It’s a simple trick, but adds some whimsey.
At the other end of the ease of execution spectrum, make your cocktail umbrella from scratch. Here’s one way to go about it that I tried out for a 151 Swizzle back in the day. Take a spent lime half, flip it inside out and use a toothpick to secure it to a cinnamon stick. I know I came up with this on my own, and I’ve never seen it in a picture older than this one. Does anyone know of someone who had done this trick before New Year’s 2012? I’d love to call First, but I’m not that good.
You can also make the umbrella a supporting player. Often times, you spend a good amount of time crafting some glorious, edible garnish, and it just needs a little something, be it size or whimsey. Jam a cocktail parasol in the at just the right angle and voila!
I’ll wind up with a slightly more extensive mod than the Hurricane Hack. Take a pair of scissors or, better yet, pinking shears to the paper. Cutting or tearing the tissue paper allows you to more artfully distress the umbrella. It also allows you to essentially sculpt your umbrella into a more ornate, interesting shape. More importantly, you make a basic umbrella look unlike something your guest has seem a million times.
This last picture is of my rendition of a drink with a name too awesome not to share: The Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, which can be found on page 144 of Martin Cate’s Tiki masterwork Smuggler’s Cove. I’d post the recipe here, but I’d feel bad about giving a Tiki drink as interesting and non-standard as this one short shrift at the end of a long piece. It’ll get its own on the next post.