[caption id="attachment_11067" align="aligncenter" width="1500"] One of these things is not like the other....[/caption] 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. abc
Hey bartenders! You know many of you number among my favorite professionals in the world. Ofttimes, I will value some of your opinions above my own. (Well, sometimes....) But there is a current complaint about customers going the rounds among a lot of even the elite among you that you all need to realize is a bad conceit. I was triggered to write this little rant by an otherwise excellent post at Spirits & Motors by Robby Nelson named I'm a Bartender. He has seven enumerated points that are each funny, true, and ought to be required reading for any number of idiot customers out there. Read the post. It's good. But in the final wrap-up, he throws out this:
For your part, trust that I know what I’m doing. When you tell me that you want a drink that’s “not too sweet,” all I hear is that you don’t want me mess up your drink, which makes me think that you think that I’m a hack, which makes me sad. Do you ask the chef to make your food “not too undercooked?” I recommend abolishing that “not too sweet” phrase from your vocabulary.Um, no. Robby, here's the thing: I am a very experienced bar customer. I know what I like, and more importantly, how my tastes differ from other people. I probably have one of two very good reasons for asking you to, yes, not mess up my drink. One, I may have drunk at your establishment in the past. I therefor know how your house recipes are balanced. I may have even ordered this particular selection before. And I judge that your house profile is too sweet for my taste. Two, I my know that my own taste in drinks runs to the very dry. You may well have had your Cosmopolitan recipe handed down to you by Dale DeGroff himself, inscribed on a stone tablet. But I know I want mine less sweet than that. I am, in fact, trusting you to either punch up the lime, or use a drier orange liqueur, or whatever you, in your professional opinion, believe will produce a less-sweet drink with the same underlying flavor profile. If you know that you make that drink a lot less sweet already than most, feel free to do your regular thing. Sophisticated palates can and do disagree about the amount of sweet they need to make any given drink perfect. It is frankly insulting to the customer to grump about how you know better than them about their desires. It's a bit like a server who says the chef recommends the duck be medium rare, then gets all huffy when the customer says he'll have it medium anyway. Here's the point. I am giving you valuable information about me (and my desires) when I say I want my drink "not too sweet". I am going to be, without doubt, one of two guys. I could be, well, me: a customer who has long experience with cocktails, who understands the market, who is making an educated judgement that your drinks may well run sweeter than he really wants, and who knows that you (like him) could fix a drink with too little sugar, but you'd have to dump one that is too sweet and start over. I could also be the cocktail version of the wine poseur who asks for "any Loire red from the north bank, nice and tannic, maybe with a hint of plums or elderberries." All I know is that I've read on the blogs that most cocktails are designed overly sweet to appeal to inexperienced drinkers, and since I fancy myself to be sophisticated, I signal my elite status by asking for my Lemon Drop to be "not so sweet". If I am the Idiot pole of this Boolean gate, you could make that Lemon Drop with 50-50 vodka and lemon juice, or 50-50 sugar and Citron, or just back off the sugar in your regular recipe a bit. As long as you slide it over the bar to me with a conspiratorial smile that will say to them, "Lots of my better customers agree with you about Lemon Drops being too sweet. I think you'll find this to your liking," they will guzzle it down and run off to Yelp to bugle about how they've finally found a bartender who "gets it". But if I am the other possibility, and you choose anything other than the last option, I'm going to think you are a hack, or a douchebag, or possibly both. I singled out Nelson here only because he was unfortunate enough to have me read his post right when I had time to rant about it. I've been hearing this increasingly lately and it has got to stop. Let's not put another row of bricks in the Craft Bartenders Are Rude, Douchey Snobs wall, shall we? Save your (well-hidden) scorn for Tanqueray Martinis with no vermouth, or Piña Coladas, or guys who order friggin' Grey Goose on a first date while she's knocking back Knob Creek neat. It'll be a helluva lot more profitable for everybody. Trust me. abc
Had I been at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, one panel I'd have been interested in was the one on intellectual property rights and cocktail creation. It was lead by mixology superstar Eben Freeman, along with a copyright lawyer and an official from the US Trademark Office. The panel discussed the value of innovations in the world of mixology, and how, if possible, to protect and/or monetize that value. Eben is one of the true innovators behind the mahogany in the world today. He's a legitimate master of promoting himself and the craft of bartending as well. And he's one pissed off camper. Eben's concerns run from simple pirating of his recipes, to the co-opting of his inventions, such as "fat washing". (Fat washing is the disgusting-sounding but yummy-making process of infusing fat-based flavors such as bacon into spirits) His complaints run from a simple desire to be compensated for his ideas in some way, to a more parochial desire to prevent other young spirits professionals from using his ideas to advance their own careers. I heard nothing of this issue or this presentation until Gaz Regan started a Facebook discussion on it. (Update: Gaz has posted an extended open letter on this subject. It is very zen... and very Gaz.) But the stone that hit the water and started the ripples was an Atlantic article entitled The Era of Copyrighted Cocktails? Those ripples have spread all over the place, and well beyond the Cocktailosphere. I'm going to stick my oar in because I care about the craft, and because as a writer, I care deeply about intellectual property rights. I'm also sticking in my oar because, while I admire Eben and his work a lot, I apparently can't help but bash him on this blog (as noted just in my last post, which I swear I'd written before I started in on this). He brings up real concerns and an important issue here, but much of the damage he claims is belied by the evidence, at least as regards him personally. And his complaints reveal a guild-like mindset that is the sort of thing that leaves me spitting nails.
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