Blog: The Cocktail Spirit

Doing the TIki

Posted on February 23, 2009 by Robert Hess

Some folks give me a little flack for my interest in Tiki cocktails, or as Jeff Berry prefers them to be referred to “Exotic Drinks”. I suspect some of this comes from the sad state of affairs that has befallen this once-proud category over the years. These days, most folks think of Tiki cocktails as just “rum and juices”. Which, when you compare what you might often find being served, isn’t too far from the truth.

The time once was, when the drinks being served up by the bartenders at “Don the Beachcomber” and “Trader Vic’s” restaurants were works of art in more ways than one. The drinks themselves represented a carefully balanced recipe which had both a “fruitiness” to invoke visions of far off Polynesian islands, but they were also served in fanciful ceramic glassware, often with exotic garnishes as well. As with all properly done mixed drinks, balance was extremely important. This meant that the flavors being used needed to provide the customer with a flavor balance which wasn’t just a “fruit punch”, but also contained hints of exotic, if not unusual flavors. Likewise the presentation needed to be one which helped transport the customer to far off lands, but not be so comical as to shatter the illusion.

The mystic of the “Tiki” restaurant, was that it provided the customer with a quick transport to far off and exotic lands. The American vacation in the day was mostly confined to within the US, traveling to Tahiti, Hawaii, or other exotic locales was seen as extravagant and expensive, so having the opportunity to simply make reservations at a local restaurant and have a quick evening get-away was seen as a very special occasion.

In addition to Don the Beachcomber, and Trader Vic’s, various other Polynesian themed restaurants gradually came onto the scene through the late 40’s, 50’s, and even the 60’s. Those which came on during the early days often did a great job at maintaining the class, caliber, and most importantly the cocktails, which started the trend, but later on the facade started to get strained, and gradually it became more of a humorous motif than a serious imagineering of the environment.

Today, it isn’t necessary to take on the exotic trappings of a Tiki restaurant in order to serve great “Exotic Cocktails”. In fact, with the familiarity that many people have with traveling to various world-wide locations, perhaps the need to have an “instant vacation” packaged within the setting of a restaurant is no longer as valuable as it once was. But a well balanced and “Polynesian” inspired cocktail can still be a work of art, and a wonderful way to either enjoy a hot summer evening, or to even have in the dead of winter and just pretend you are on a hot sandy beach in the middle of the Pacific.

DJ HawaiianShirt 24 Feb 2009
9:15 am

Huzzah, Robert!

xian 10 Jun 2009
8:09 am

Hey Robert;  A late follow up but check out Jason Wilson’s column in the Washington Post today:

Not only a nice piece of writing but also some great recipe ideas.

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