It's Always Tiki Time at Archipelago

photo by Jake Emen
photo by Jake Emen

It's been a landmark year for D.C. residents who happen to be fans of very specific drinking subgenres, what with must-go hotspots for specialties such as mezcal and cider opening their doors. As of this March, another hole in the city's cocktail culture has been filled as well, tiki, and it's thanks to Archipelago, a two-story joint located on the bustling corner of 12th & U St.

Archipelago is the work of Joseph Ambrose, Noah Broaddus, Owen Thomson, and Ben Wiley, all of whom wanted to create a spot that was more about simply hanging out and drinking well, than the often pretentious, buttoned up world of the District. "We're just four bartenders who opened a bar," says Thomson. "So we did it with whatever money we had in our pockets. Small amount of investment. Sort of threw it all together."

They built the bar from the ground up, handled all of the decor themselves, are behind the stick every night, and then come in for repairs and more work when the bar is closed on Mondays. They don't have a sign outside, they didn't hire a PR company, and they didn't really even announce their debut. "Our whole theory when we opened the bar... we didn't tell anyone," says Thomson. "We just unlocked the door one day, and a few of our buddies showed up."

courtesy Archipelago
courtesy Archipelago

It didn't take long for word to spread though -- there's tiki in town! Step inside and hear the music, see that decor, and taste your potent drink through a bright straw from a shark mug, and the stresses of the world tend to dissipate. "You have people walking around staring at their phones all day," says Thomson. "And this sort of stuff is fun."

Archipelago is first and foremost a place to simply relax, with good drinks you could geek out over if you wanted to, or simply enjoy knocking back if you couldn't care less about the concept of tiki itself. "Think all of that serious bartending and vests and sleeve garters and all that stuff, this is the tail end of that natural pendulum swing, dudes wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking coconut," says Thomson.

That low key appeal was the emphasis from the start for the Archipelago team, who collectively have worked at dozens of bars in all types of settings. "I may have been in suspenders here and there, I'm not gonna bullshit -- but I get more satisfaction from this," says Ambrose.

"Stylistically people appreciate it because it's real laid back," adds Thomson. "I've been through phases of bartending in this point, when it's real serious, but this is like... you don't have to know anything about what's in any of these drinks to just come in and have a good time. If you wanted to, you can find out what the three different rums are in this drink, but if you don't, just enjoy the drink. We can bring out a pineapple that's on fire."

Owen Thomson, photo by Jake Emen
Owen Thomson, photo by Jake Emen

Archipelago's Own Interpretation of Tiki

Before opening, the crew crisscrossed the country visiting some popular tiki haunts, from Chicago's Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash, to Portland's Hale Pele, and found a range of different takes on tiki. "There are just as many styles for this new interpretation of tiki as there are regular bars," says Thomson.

After that field research, they came up with their own formula. "We skewed more towards the laid back neighborhood style," says Thomson. While tiki aficionados can ogle the intricacies of the menu or the handy work behind the bar on quieter weeknights, the place is packed on the weekends with large groups, half of which tend to peel off from the tiki menu after a round or two, and start ordering beer, or vodka sodas, or whatever else.

"People are coming here as a fun destination to go to," says Ambrose. "People celebrate their birthdays here."

That's when those fiery, large format cocktails become popular choices. "It probably helps that they're all on fire," says Thomson with a laugh. "So if people see those they start flying out. Half the time, that's why it's less relevant listing what all the ingredients are, people are just like 'What's that? I'll take that!'"

They have three of those large format drinks on the menu right now. The list is spearheaded by the popular Pineapple of Hospitality, described on the menu as made from "rum, secrets." There's also the Stolen Mercedes, with gin, Scotch, Thai tea, and guava, as well as the All Bets Are Off, with Jamaican rum, overproof rum, citrus, and St. Germain.

Several points of pride for the crew are their Mai Tai, as well as their frozen Piña Colada, served up from a frozen drink machine with that just-right, hard to master texture. "We can't do that with our bare hands," says Ambrose.

"It took us a while to figure out the texture, but once we got that down, well, we go through a lot of pineapple," says Thomson.

The bulk of the cocktails on their menu aren't vintage tiki staples though, but rather, their own creations. They don't shy away from going in nontraditional routes, either, such as using tequila, a not so common tiki liquor. It's put to use in the Retired Stripper, where a base of tequila is paired with rhum agricole and a house-made melon cordial which they prepare via sous vide.

"We don't really feel tied to any style requisite for the drinks, we want to use whatever," says Thomson. "You should be able to use whatever you think will make it come out."

Beyond the melon cordial, the bar also makes their own peach brandy, as well as orgeat and falernum syrups, and assorted other ingredients. "We pretty much make everything we can," says Thomson.

photo by Jake Emen
photo by Jake Emen

Other unique highlights on the cocktail list include the Oil Can Boyd, made with olive oil-infused Jamaican rum and falernum, the Drowsy Gator, with demerara rum, white rum, bitter grapefruit cordial, and cinnamon syrup, and the Going Down With The Ship, with spiced rum, Jägermeister, vanilla, orange, and Angostura bitters.

Some drinks are worth it for the name alone, like the Truck Bed Funeral, or Joey's Banana Hammock. And again, that's the idea here to begin with. "That's kinda my thing with this whole vibe in general, the atmosphere is more important than the drinks," says Thomson. "The whole point is that it's supposed to be fun, relaxed, laid back."

So if you really care about the specs on their house-made orgeat syrup, by all means ask. Otherwise, order a drink made from rum and secrets because it's on fire and it seems freaking cool, and don't worry so much about it.