The Triumphant Return of the Tiki Bar

For six years, Brian Miller hosted “Tiki Mondays with Miller” at various venues all over New York City. These workshops became an incubator for new ideas and, as he spread the Tiki gospel, thirsty disciples followed him faithfully from bar to bar. Brian’s vision reached an apotheosis earlier this year when he commandeered the opening of The Polynesian, a new rooftop multiplex in Times Square dedicated to all things Tiki.

“The Tiki movement has always been around,” Brian said over a neat snifter of Foursquare Premise Rum from Barbados. “There are plenty of people that have loved Tiki for many years. They’ve just been celebrating it in their own home Tiki bars.” If Tiki has always remained popular, I asked Brian, why all of sudden has it gone viral?  “In the state of our current political climate it’s no wonder people want to escape to the islands,” Brian smiled wryly and swilled the rest of the rum that was left in his glass.

Vaya Kon Tiki at The Polynesian

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail—the annual alcohol-soaked geek-out in The Big Easy—Tiki was having a moment. In the middle of the week, several hundred attendees filtered through the rooftop of the Hotel Monteleone for a “Pool Party” sponsored by Rum Barbancourt that featured its Haitian rums shaken in Tiki-inspired mashups. At another tasting event, the legendary mixologist Don Lee—who recently opened Existing Conditions in New York City—partnered with Tiki Tolteca conjuring island potions he’d created using Ming River Sichuan Baiju.

Reintroduced by a faithful cabal of Tiki evangelists like Martin Cate (of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco) and Paul McGee (of Lost Lake in Chicago), the canon of Tiki recipes—once the butt of bartenders’ jokes—has shown it can be about so much more than just fruity beach drinks. Bartenders are finding a new freedom—honoring Tiki tradition while also experimenting with ingredients outside of the lexicon. “I’m trying to expand the bounds of what is considered a Tiki drink,” Miller said, “by including other spirits like scotch, gin, bourbon, tequila, mezcal, sherry and cognac to try and appeal to wider audience.”

At Tales, mixologists from around the world, decked out in their most audacious Hawaiian shirts, flocked to Latitude 29—Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s iconic New Orleans Tiki bar—like making a pilgrimage to Mecca. My thirsty comrades and I tasted our way through the “Longpulls” section of the menu. Our favorite was Beachbum’s Kea Colada—an exotic blend of island rums, coconut cream, lime and pineapple. The cocktail had surprising depth to it, undoubtedly due to the quality of the rums he uses, with a soothing creamy coconut flavor that lingered but not in a way that lesser Piña Coladas make you feel like you just drank suntan lotion. The Beachbum himself worked the room—you could barely see his eyes peeking out from under the wide brim of his straw hat as he generously poured us a taste of a special Plantation limited edition Jamaican rum called “The Collector.”

Tiki bar
The Banshee at Latitude 29

At Cane and Table in the French Quarter, they have an extensive rum program and cocktails they refer to as “ProtoTiki.” The bartender there happily made us a delicious off-menu drink in one of their vintage-style Tiki mugs. He improvised—drawing from the bar’s comprehensive inventory of rums—shaking three different ones (Plantation, Hamilton and Banks 5 Island) together with passionfruit, cinnamon, orgeat and grapefruit. Of course, he didn’t forget to finish it with an umbrella (the Tiki umbrella was originally invented to keep the ice from melting in the hot Sun). “Proto tiki is a way to explain our focus,” said Kirk Estopinal, the owner of Cane & Table. “Drinks that deliver the tropical experience without throwing a million things into it.” Although Cane & Table is rum focused, Kirk is quick to point out that it isn’t really a Tiki Bar in the traditional sense. “Tiki is fun and a backlash to stuffy cocktail experiences and precious historical stuff,” he said, “but we aren’t interested in the kitsch.”

Despite its exotic Polynesian motifs, the Tiki Bar is a uniquely American invention. Its history traces back to the post-Prohibition 1930’s when two Americans—Don “the Beachcomber” and “Trader” Vic—inspired by their Caribbean and Polynesian travels imported the laid back island style and attitude they’d encountered and paired it with great rum cocktails incorporating fresh tropical juices. The decor and menus of these bars had its own distinct flavor too—bamboo walls, signature ceramic mugs with Tiki idolatry and Americanized Chinese food. In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans needed an escape. The movement continued to flourish for several decades before fading into obscurity. By the early 1990’s, the Tiki Bar was all but extinct. 

Tki bar
Tiki Mugs from Cocktail Kingdom

Back in New York, Captain Miller—swaddled in his signature sarong and his face painted with dark eyeliner a la Jack Sparrow—serves his signature  “Vaya Kon Tiki” in a menacing ceramic skull mug with a flaming lemon carcass filled with smoldering coconut meat. Brian infuses rum with rooibos tea and shakes it with a cayenne pepper coconut cream to give it a warm, subtle afterburn. I was tempted to call for backup to sample the large format cocktails, but after my third drink I knew there was no way I’d be able to pronounce the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a Blue Curacao cocktail served in a fishbowl for four people.

It was fitting that Tales of the Cocktail concluded with Lost Lake, the famed Tiki Bar in Chicago, winning the award for Best American Cocktail Bar. It was the second time in the last three years that a Tiki Bar took home the national crown. Navy Strength, a new Tiki Bar in Seattle, also won the award for Best New American Cocktail Bar. “Tropical drinks never went away they just got gross,” said Estopinal of the Tiki trend. “The public has a keener eye than years past. No way are we going back to all the mixes made in a factory, so it’ll be around indefinitely. Or at least until I retire in my little corner of the world.”

9 Ways You’re Pissing Off Bartenders

Bartenders have a lot of power. They control the fun. Everyone wants to be their friend. Any given night they can get people drunk, laid or arrested. Also, they monitor the flow of alcohol, which means if you want to keep your whistle wet it pays to stay on their good side. So mind your P’s and Q’s and try not to piss them off! Here is a list of things you should avoid doing if you want to stay in your bartender’s good graces:

1. Waving your money around to get their attention – There is a fallacy that bartenders are more responsive when they see you flashing cash across the bar. This isn’t a strip club, Broseph. In most cases, obnoxiously waving money around will make the bartender perceive you as pushy and he or she will probably continue to ignore you. If they can’t get to you right away, it usually means they’re busy. Keep your money in your wallet—try flashing a smile instead.

2. Ruining top shelf spirits with unworthy mixers – Macallan 18 and Diet Coke? Really?? Really. You might be spending more money on drinks but your money can’t buy the bartender’s respect. Okay, okay—we know your banker friends will be impressed when you order your dirty martini with Stoli Crystal but the bartender serving you still thinks you’re a douchebag. We understand that calling for higher quality spirits helps circumvent the hangover-inducing effects of drinking from the well but sometimes respect comes with a price.

3. Insisting on complicated cocktail garnishes – You ordered a martini not a Greek salad so chill with the extra olives and cucumber slices, Hendricks Boy. We know you like to drink your vodka on the rocks with three ice cubes and five lime wedges so you can squeeze them in one at a time then ask for simple syrup and custom-make your own special little gimlet but it’s annoying. Just because we’ll do it for you, doesn’t make it right. Don’t even get us started on asking for blue cheese-stuffed olives. No, we don’t have them. No, we’re not going to make them for you.

4. Criticizing pour levels – In every watering hole, some drunken barfly will always blurt out, “You call that a drink?” when his Dewars-on-the-rocks arrives looking a little skimpy. Bartenders don’t set the measurements, management does. If you want more booze, order another drink (or ask for a double). If you don’t like the pour, go to another bar. But wasting energy giving your bartender the business won’t help the situation. It will only injure the relationship you have with them going forward. Ordering hard liquor in a wine glass isn’t going to make your drink bigger either. Nice try.

bar-etiquette

5. Having unrealistic expectations for virgin drinks – It’s not a coincidence that the word mocktails contains the word “mock.” The bartender will try to hide his or her disdain. It won’t be easy. Asking a bartender for a virgin cocktail is like asking a sportscar salesman to recommend a nice ten-speed bicycle. Maybe they’ll cut some slack for pregnant women, but otherwise if you’re looking for something fancy without alcohol most of the time you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

6. Ordering Cosmos – We don’t care if it’s your mom’s favorite drink. The Cosmopolitan is an outdated cocktail that tastes like powdered Crystal Light pink lemonade mixed with vodka. Sure, one day in the future it might be considered retro and cool, but right now it’s tacky and 90’s. Servers and bartenders—unless their restaurant is adjacent to a mall—will look down on you for ordering one. We need to move on. We did it with Hootie and the Blowfish, and we can do it with the Cosmopolitan.

7. Talking about “ABV” or “IBU” when you order a beer – You’re the only one who cares. It’s just beer. Unless you’re drinking in an establishment that specializes in craft brews, the bartender doesn’t give two shits about the alcohol content or bitterness quotient. Most bartenders can’t tell the difference between pilsner and lager. If you ask for something “sessionable”—you should be cut off immediately. Order a Heineken and shut your pie hole, dude.

8. Staggering drink orders – When you’re with a large group of people, try your best to order drinks as a round instead of in a million fragments. Bartenders can get annoyed when your group is constantly running them around, one mojito at a time. If you show sensitivity to their needs by consolidating your drink orders, they will return the favor by being more attentive. Maybe they’ll even buy you some shots.

9. Lingering with empty glasses – Real estate at a bar is a valuable commodity. Camping out after you’ve finished drinking inhibits your bartender’s ability to monetize those seats. So don’t sit there taking up space with your watered-down, whiskey-soaked glass of melted ice. Order another drink! If not—for the love of God—stop hitting on drunk Cougars.

The King Of Bitters

Take a poll of modern mixologists asking the few essential ingredients a bar cannot live without and you’ll likely find Angostura Bitters at the top of most lists.  Despite evolving trends in cocktail culture, Angostura has endured and its production methods—almost 200 years later—have remained faithful to the original.  The diminutive bottle with the oversized paper label is ubiquitous in every serious cocktail bar and every amateur’s stash at home… but what is it? 

The recipe for Angostura Bitters was developed by a German Doctor, Johann Siegert, who was a Surgeon General in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela.  He created his tincture, “Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters”, to treat soldiers with upset stomachs.  Siegert originally produced the tonic for sale in 1824 in the town of Angostura where he was based in Venezuela, now known as Ciudad Bolivar.  In 1875, commercial production of Angostura Bitters moved to a plant in Port of Spain, Trinidad not long after Dr. Siegert passed away.  It continues there today.

Why does that label hang over the edge like that?
Why does that label hang over the edge like that?

So, why doesn’t the label fit right?  When Dr. Siegert’s two sons took over the production of their father’s bitters they decided to enter them into a competition.  One brother was responsible for designing the bottle and the other would be responsible for designing the label.  Without consulting each other, the labels and bottles produced were ill-fitting and did not adhere properly.  By the time they realized the mistake, it was too late.  Though they lost in the competition, a judge suggested that the awkward label could make the product more memorable and a useful tool for marketing.

The ingredients that make up Angostura are closely guarded. There are only five people at the plant, called “manufacturers”, who are responsible for preparing the secret ingredients that go into Angostura production.  Many of the ingredients are flown in from England.  It is bottled at 44.7% alcohol by volume diluted with water, brown sugar, and caramel coloring.

The Pisco Sour

Popular classic cocktails that traditionally contain Angostura are The Old Fashioned (whiskey, bitters, muddled orange, and sugar), The Manhattan (rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters), and The Pisco Sour (topped with a few swirled dashes of Angostura).  Though there are many new upstart brands of bitters emerging with boutique ingredients and flavor combinations, Angostura continues to be the most popular brand of bitters in the world.  It’s impossible to imagine any bar without it.