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.”