Culture Over Cocktails: Going to the Heart of Tiki

This year, my body decided to let me know it doesn’t care for alcohol like it used to. I still love a good spirit or a cocktail—don’t get me wrong. Many of us Tiki folks do. But I don’t enjoy being drunk, and though I used to enjoy watching other people get drunk, it just messes with my anxiety now. And this lead me to realize I don’t really find fulfillment in Tiki-themed events that center around drinking.

Let me dive into a little of my own personal history with Tiki. When I first got into it in 2008, Texas was a complete Tiki desert, with the exception of Trader Vic’s, which had reopened at the time after being originally shut down in 1987. I only heard about it when a man I was dating took me there for happy hour, telling me it was his new favorite place in town.

Trader Vic’s Dallas—I spent many a happy moment here. (photo by Tiffany J. on Yelp)

When I think back to what it was that captivated me about Trader Vic’s, the cocktails are not the first thing that comes to mind. Or the second, even. Granted at the time, those cocktails were better than anything else I had in Dallas. But they took a back seat to the beautiful decor, the delicious food, and the feeling like I had just escaped the drudgery of Dallas and gone to another land.

I feel like this is what’s missing in a lot of the modern Tiki scene. It’s become a really cocktail-centric world, which probably suits some people well. It’s not what I mainly seek from it, though. The things I care about—the overall aesthetic, the art, the fashion, and Tiki as a piece of American pop culture history—no longer take center stage, it seems. It’s all about the drinks.

I feel a lot of this is because of changing attitudes concerning Tiki as being culturally insensitive and the rise of craft cocktail culture in general. I’ve also noticed many of Tiki’s naysayers work in the industry, and even if it’s not intentional, it’s…kind of convenient. Perhaps if the cocktails are the star of the show, the things they find “unsavory” about Tiki can be tossed away, where future generations and newer Tiki fans don’t see them. It’s a form of indirect, subtle censorship, if you will, and it usually results in (for me) a sterile and uninspired vibe.

I’m sure the now-defunct Polynesian in NYC likely had great drinks, but for a bar touted as a “Tiki” bar, its aesthetic was ho-hum. (photo by Noah Fecks of Michelin Guide)

Of course, a big part of the Tiki revival was the discovery of the drinks and the fascinating and complex history behind them. And we have the great Jeff “Beachbum” Berry to thank for that. One of my favorite things in many of Jeff’s books is reading about the people he talked to and what he did to acquire so many of those lost recipes. And I really enjoy a delicious tropical cocktail, especially in a true Tiki space (sorry, nautical/pirate bars aren’t Tiki). But I also believe the drinks were (and still are) an embellishment to far more meaningful and special things.

The authentic Polynesian floor show is what I loved most about visiting the Mai-Kai. The drinks took a back seat. (photo by me)

I’m grateful there are still people out there who care about Tiki as a pop culture entity and either work to educate others about it or embrace it as consumers. Sure, we may not have all the same resources that were available during the original revival, but fear not—there are people out there working hard to pick up where others left off. I’ll include some of these resources at the end of this post.

I hope to delve further into Tiki and experience it through a slightly less rum-soaked lens moving forward. I know there’s a lot I could learn from those who have studied it from a historical standpoint, as well as about the regions and cultures that inspired it. I intend to be a steward for authentic Tiki and what it encompasses, and I feel like in order to do that, the cocktails should play a supporting role rather than the starring role.

Educational Tiki Resources

  • This website hosts a comprehensive catalog of user-generated info, some aggregated from other Tiki sites which are now defunct, such as Critiki and Ooga Mooga.
  • TikiCentral: The old classic is finally back from the dead! It’s a treasure trove of information dating back a couple of decades.
  • Sven Kirsten’s Books: OK, so I know The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern have become prohibitively expensive (try borrowing from a friend who has a copy or check your local library). BUT you can actually buy a smaller-sized version of Tiki Pop—his third book—from Amazon for under $30!
  • Sippin’ Safari & Potions of the Caribbean: These incredible books by Jeff Berry detail not just cocktail recipes, but cocktail history.