The Tiki Pop Culture phenomenon did not happen overnight; it was born slowly on the California coast beginning in the 1930s. When Ernest Gantt, aka Donn Beach, opened up his first 40-seat bar and café he had no idea he was creating the foundation of a cocktail and dining experience that would sweep the nation. Loaded with Polynesian souvenirs and offering unique cocktails, he won the Hollywood crowd over, leading to him moving to a new location in just four years. As the popularity of his bar grew, others saw the potential of providing similar experiences to their customers. Inspired by his time drinking and dining at Don the Beachcomber, Victor Bergeron converted his bar-restaurant Hinky Dinks into the first Trader Vic’s. While Vic and Donn had a friendly rivalry, the competition between the staff of the two establishments was far from cordial. This led them to explore ways of making new and “exotic” cocktails using different kinds of rums, fruit juices, and on rare occasions, other spirits. This competition pushed the bartenders to elevate their craft and over time, form the basis of what would become the Tiki cocktail genre.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, all focus switched to the war effort, putting any ill will and competition on hold. Donn Beach sold Don the Beachcomber to his ex-wife Sunny Sund and volunteered to serve in the United States Army Air Force. After the war ended, sailors and soldiers returned home with stories and souvenirs from their time in the South Pacific. One of these was a naval officer by the name of James Michener, who published his book Tales of the South Pacific in 1947. This book, along with the availability of post war airline travel to Hawaii, captured the imagination of the public, and Tiki establishments rose in popularity from coast to coast.
During this time period the Don the Beachcomber bar and restaurant, under the leadership of Sunny Sund, was opening locations around the country. Victor Bergeron partnered with Conrad Hilton and began expanding Trader Vic’s locations from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Other entrepreneurs, such as actor Steve Crane, were developing their own ventures igniting new competition among the bartenders. This led them to build upon the rum, fruit juice, and syrup ingredients and add other spirits to their repertoire, all in the quest to bring new flavorful experience to the customers. Tiki culture has waxed, waned, and in recent years, experienced a renaissance, bringing the craft of Tiki cocktail creation to whole new levels.
Detailed below is a collection of three vintage cocktails and one modern cocktail that chronicles the evolution of this cocktail genre.
Samoan Fog Cutter
The Samoan Fog Cutter is a fine example of a multi-spirited cocktail for which ingredients have to be carefully chosen so that one flavor does not overpower the others in the drink. Like a lot of other cocktails created during that time, there was a swirl of competition and controversy about who originally created it. Many credit bartender Tony Ramos for creating it in 1940s for the Don the Beachcomber restaurant; others think it was Trader Vic’s variation invented in 1941 that caused a stir. However, classic cocktail recipes can sometimes be like a game of Telephone and the person credited for inventing them might not have been the first source. Ultimately, it was the Trader Vic’s version that won out in popularity. Limited to two per person, it was presented in its very own signature vessel (one of the first Tiki mugs) with a complex flavor that has helped it endure the test of time.
Blend all ingredients except sherry in blender with one scoop of shave ice. Pour into mug (use a fog cutter mug for optimal authenticity). Add ice cubes and float sherry. Decorate with mint and swizzle.
The Tropical Itch was the creation of Tiki Bartender and cocktail creator Harry Yee at the Hawaiian Hilton Gardens Resort in 1957. Yee was the head bartender for 30 years and is credited with creating drinks like the Blue Hawaii, as well as being the first to add paper umbrellas to his drinks. The popularity of his Tropical Itch cocktail led to many poor imitations but quality versions of the cocktail can be found today in Tiki establishments such as Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash.
Pull all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice except the Jamaican rum and bitters. Shake and pour unstrained into Hurricane glass. Float the Jamaican rum and add bitters. Add pineapple wedge and backscratcher for garnish.
While Donn Beach was inspired by Jamaican rum punch to create some of his cocktail creations, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron was influenced by what he learned in Cuba. Jeff Berry in his book Potions of the Caribbeanbelieves that Vic’s inspiration behind the Tortuga cocktail was the La Florida cocktail created by Constantine Ribailagua’s.
Pour all ingredients in shaker, shake hard, and pour in chimney glass.
In 2016 Martin and Rebecca Cate published a new Tiki cocktail book inspired by their Tiki Bar: Smugglers Cove based in San Francisco. The Expedition is a flavorful modern Tiki cocktail that was invented by Mr. Cate to honor and chronicle the journeys of Donn Beach. Combining flavors of New Orleans, The Caribbean, and California this complex and well balanced cocktail is sure to be a modern classic.
The Expedition from Smuggler’s Cove Exotic Cocktails, Rum and The Cult of Tiki
1 oz/30 ml fresh lime juice
½ oz/15 ml cinnamon syrup (make a 1:1 simple syrup with 1 cinnamon stick. Simmer syrup in pan with cinnamon stick for 10 minutes. Cool and steep for one hour. Remove stick before serving.)
½ oz/15 ml honey syrup (1 cup water and 1 cup honey. Combine ingredients in saucepan over medium heat. Stir until honey dissolves and remove from heat. Cool before serving.)
¼ oz/7.5 ml vanilla syrup (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 split vanilla bean. Combine water and sugar in saucepan over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add vanilla bean. After it has cooled: for a light vanilla flavor, strain syrup before bottling. If you want a more robust vanilla flavor, leave the bean pieces in the syrup when storing.)
Add all the ingredients to a drink mixer tin with 12 ounces of crushed ice and 4 to 6 small “agitator” cubes. Flash blend and open pour with gated finish into a mug or glass. Add garnish.
+Black Blended Rum is created when a blend of column and pot distillation rums has caramel and/or molasses added during the blending process. This gives the rum a darker appearance than its actual age. Martin Cate likes to use this kind of rum in exotic cocktails for the mouth feel and flavor.
Paul Senft is a Spirits Writer and Reviewer based in Metro Atlanta. His work has appeared in Got Rum? Magazine, Chilled, Distiller, as well as other publications covering a range of subjects related to Spirits, Travel, and the fun world of Tiki. He founded www.RumJourney.com and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/paul.e.senft.