In February, we set out to bring a little warmth and sunshine into the cold, dreary winter by celebrating the tradition of Tiki cocktails in our tasting room. As it turned out, February had a record number of days above 60 degrees. Coincidence..? Probably. More importantly, this exploration of the Tiki scene led to us falling in love with a cocktail called the Saturn, which will be featured on our Spring menu (coming out in a few weeks!).
A world champion classic from the 1960s, the Saturn is a gin-based Tiki cocktail that layers lemon and passion fruit into a surprisingly complex tropical escape that brightly realigns your orbit.
One of the things that led to the creation of Lifted Spirits Distillery is our love of exploring the history and tradition of various spirits and cocktails. We’re nerds, but at least you get to benefit from the fruits of that passion, right? So, we spent some time exploring the story behind Tiki drinks this month. If you’re a history nerd like us, take a look at this brief history of Tiki!
Meet the Real Tiki
What’s your first thought when someone mentions Tiki drinks? Unnaturally bright, syrupy things that are basically adult Kool-Aid served from a grass-skirted bamboo bar? As craft distillers, we appreciate spirit-forward cocktails made with fresh ingredients that highlight the liquor(s) rather than mask them. So, Tiki cocktails may seem like an odd choice for the tasting room of a Kansas City craft distillery. However, history tells a surprising story about Tiki’s entrance to the world’s stage.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans had become fascinated with Hawaii (not yet a state); but though clubs started using palm trees, coconuts, and other island-themed decorations, they were still serving the same classic cocktails. It wasn’t until 1933 that someone would think to create cocktails that would complement the decor, inviting the Depression-era populus to escape into the mysterious, exotic world of the Polynesian and Caribbean islands. And that someone was Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt.
Donn Beach – The Pioneer
After helping his bootlegger grandfather during Prohibition, 18-year-old Gantt sailed around the globe wracking up adventures until he returned to the United States penniless at 24. He settled in Los Angeles and eventually saved up enough money to buy a small building a few blocks from Hollywood Blvd in 1933, which he turned into the first Tiki bar — Don’s Beachcomber Café — an unexpected haven away from the hustle of the city, decorated with the various Polynesian curiosities he’d accumulated on his travels.
Inspired by the Caribbean tropical classic Planter’s Punch, an ever-changing recipe based on an easy-to-remember rhyme “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak…and a touch of spice to make it nice,” Gantt’s “Rhum Rhapsodies” were cocktails no American had even imagined. And not only did he figure out how to mix a good tasting drink, he also crafted an inviting escape — enter an exotic, mysterious world while drinking vacation from a glass.
By 1937, Gantt had to move to a bigger place (Don the Beachcomber) and even changed his name to Donn Beach.
Trader Vic – The Entrepreneur
Victor Jules Bergeron (nicknamed “Trader Vic” because he’d trade food and drinks for decorative curios) was forever changed by his first visit to Don the Beachcomber in 1937. Already the popular restaurateur of Hinky Dinks, Bergeron couldn’t shake the experience of being completely submerged into a mysterious island wonderland.
Replacing his restaurant’s previous hunting decor with nautical themed pieces, he changed the name to Trader Vic’s and started selling the growingly popular westernized Chinese dishes paired with these new tropical cocktails. A natural storyteller, he spun tales of his South Seas adventures (which he’d never had), happily riffing off his wooden leg (the result of having tuberculosis in childhood).
Soon Trader Vic’s restaurants spread across the United States and eventually the world (and they’re still thriving today); from 1973 to 1996, there was even one in Kansas City in the Crown Center Westin Hotel.
It was also during the 1960s that the Tiki carvings, a combination of age-old island traditions and Hollywood imagination, became an integral part of the decor — the word “Tiki” is originally from New Zealand and refers to a carving of a first man or god.
While Trader Vic’s contribution to Tiki cocktails is smaller in breadth to Donn Beach’s, he did invent the Mai Tai (“the best” in Tahitian) in 1944. Sadly, it’s become one of the most bastardized cocktails in history, but when made well its name does it justice.
Tiki’s Great Fall and Slow Resurgence
The 1970s nearly saw the death of Tiki. Between the new cultural awareness of the broader world noting all the misperceptions of Polynesian culture and the experiences of the Korean and Vietnam wars making the islands no longer an escape Americans wanted, the world of Tiki was swiftly losing its mystery and allure.
As the once-thriving venues closed their doors, the great Tiki bartenders disappeared with their recipes, which were often written in code anyway. With the increase in synthetic ingredients that were cheaper and more readily accessible, new bartenders were less likely to create labor-intensive 11-ingredient cocktails, resulting in the sugary imitations that most modern drinkers naively consider as the way Tiki drinks have always been.
Thanks to the Tiki Revivalists who cropped up in the 1980s and 1990s and refused to let this part of cocktail history be written off as mere tacky kitsch, we’re now experiencing a resurgence of these finely crafted exotic cocktails.
Another common misconception — Tiki cocktails are not all rum based. The Saturn, one of the most famous, is gin based, as is the Singapore Sling. And another classic from the 1960s, Hawaiian Sunset, is a vodka Tiki cocktail.
What has your experience been with Tiki cocktails? Any particular favorites? Come by during our Tasting Room hours to experience the otherworldly Saturn.