Defining "Tiki" in the 21st century
Updated: Mar 17, 2020
If you love Tiki, and you did not grow up on a Polynesian island, you have World War I to thank. You can read numerous tiki history book and website sites from experts on the subject. I do not purport to be a particular expert on history. But allow me to set the stage. Prior to WWI, if you were an American, you either were an indigenous native to the Americas, or you were likely hailing from a European Immigrant family. (Yes, other immigrants, including Asian, were around too...see history of the railroads). But the likelihood of having ever stepped foot on a tropical island in 1910 was practically nil. "Join the Military, see the world!" And see parts of the world those troops did indeed. For much of corn-fed American farm boys, setting foot in the South Pacific might as well have been another planet, and so of course the enthusiasm, awe, and fascination was inevitable. Add to the equation post traumatic stress of war, and if your association with escape from the horrors was the warm arms of a sun tanned native girl or a strong drink with exotic fruit juices, why wouldn't you want to recreate that stateside?
And in a nutshell, that's how the fathers of tiki bars like Donn Beach and Vic Bergeron came (with significant help from the Hollywood-ism of the process) came about to start a now almost 90 year old trend/lifestyle/cult following. But how and why did we end up calling it "Tiki?" Here's where I have to be the boring anthropologist on the matter. Tiki, was the word used in South Pacific (think New Zealand) for "first man" similar to Adam, as in Adam and Eve. This by extension became associated with any carved of formed structure or idol resembling man. But have you ever played the Telephone game?? What happens when you take someone from one culture, throw them into another, no proper historical context and then add drunkenness to it? You get the word "tiki" being used to describe an undefined group of things, places, and drinks, that's what!
The term "tiki bar" is deeply embedded in American culture vernacular. Thank you parents for that (if they grew up in the 1940s - 70s). But here we are, 2019. What the heck does it mean to be a tiki bar?? Let's look at some defining features posed by some (a compilation from those I have interacted with, not representing my opinions....those come later).
1. A "tiki bar" must represent the cocktails made by the people who founded tiki culture in America, like Donn Beach and Trader Vic. Problem: If it wasn't served in one of their bars, according to their recipes, then it's not a tiki drink. So that means.....we can never have a "new" tiki drink? Are we all stuck using the same decor then to call it a Tiki bar? And how about the fact that 80% of the spirits/distilleries used in those recipes are no longer in existence? Can you still call it a Cobra's Fang if you change the rum? This rule requires a McDonald's like franchise application of tiki bars of 1930s-1950s to all subsequent bars.
2. A "tiki bar" must serve only rum drinks. Problem: This doesn't jive with the myth #1. Many of Trader Vic's libations used gin, brandy, sherry and a whole host of varying spirits.
3. A "tiki bar" must have copious tiki statues....apparently a prerequisite number. Problem: So is that authentic New Zealand tikis? Is Hawaiian Ku sufficient? Well what about any idol....Ganesh? Norse gods? How authentic is authentic?
4. A "tiki bar" must have Hawaiian print clad staff and have Hawaiian music playing in the background. Hmm....more on this in a sec.
5. A "tiki bar" must serve pupus platters, and other traditional tiki foods. Problem; okay so again, is this only items served in Donn and Vic's restaurants in 1933? Because let me preach to you about what the WWI & WWII canned foods movement did to American cuisine. Think green been casserole at Thanksgiving. Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber served hyped up Chinese food and called it exotic.
I could go on with more tiki myths.
Here's the issue folks: If you accept broad rules of what a tiki bar is, you get everyone calling themselves a tiki bar, and believe me THEY DO. A bar sticks some thatched roofing on their bar, and umbrellas in their cocktails and suddenly they are a tiki bar?? I'm not okay with this. But, if you accept narrow definition of what a tiki bar is, how do you draw the line? It's like when my daughter asks me a question like this: "Mom, what would happen if unicorns were pink and could fly?" How do you apply actual real life rules to something completely made up? Tiki is creation folks. Tiki is not any one thing. It's an amalgam of what one era of people thought were exotic, foreign and tropical all thrown together. It's what happens when Caribbean rum culture gets lumped into the same basket as Maori warriors in the South Pacific and then gets lumped in with Hawaiian culture suddenly when it becomes a state and all of America goes there for vacation in the 1950s. It's what happens when fruit whose origins come from South America get permanently associated with island life in the North Pacific. It's what happens when Hollywood sees a good movie idea and fiction becomes fact in the mind of main stream culture.
So what's my point? We need a new definition for Tiki Culture and Tiki Bars. Allow me to give you an example of a case study. A very talented couple in Seattle run Navy Strength. It is not a tiki bar. They've never said it is a tiki bar. The theme is fresh, modern, borderline hipster with a nautical theme. Their drinks are global inspired and give proper homage to "classic tiki drinks" of the 1930s/40s. What they have though is damn good cocktails that are not held back by only making 80 year old recipes. The place is fun, it's casual, it's inviting, it's escapist.
Second case study: Undertow, Phoenix. This hidden bar within a coffee shop takes on the strong theme of below deck on a ocean going circa 1800s vessel, complete with port holes, tropical storms and sound effects. Their cocktails are detailed on a vintage style travel log following a storyline. They are not original "tiki drink" recipes, they are original Undertow cocktails that make use of juices of tropical origins, with heavy emphasis on rum as the spirit. So is Undertow a tiki bar? Most would say yes. The resource many of us have used to find a "tiki bar" is www.critiki.com. Undertow is listed there.
Third case study: Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston. This place has never called itself a tiki bar. Craft cocktail bar, yes. Their menu however features a large selection of drinks from circa 1930s/1940s commonly found in "tiki bars." Not a single tiki, no thatch, no Hawaiiana, no tapa paper. But I have never had a more properly executed classic cocktail than at this establishment. I cannot say the same for most places that call themselves a tiki bar, who rely heavily on mass produced, low quality rum and other spirits, and use high fructose-laden mixers posing as tropical juices.
But does a bar have to have "good" tiki drinks to be a tiki bar? Or do they just have to have good drinks to be a "good tiki bar?" So I ask you......what do YOU think makes a tiki bar a tiki bar? Think about this before you read on.
Here's my first end point. Can we do away with the term "tiki bar"? Please. Can we just stick with calling it a "themed bar that serves classic tiki drinks or tiki-inspired drinks"? Can we stop pigeon-holing really talented bartenders and give them the creative reign to make new and amazing cocktails?
I recognize the irony of this blog coming from someone named Tiki Lindy. But that's where my second end point comes in. Let's refer to tiki culture, not tiki bars. Let's agree that decor, costumes and cocktails that represent a prime era of escapism to tropical and remote destinations as seen through the eyes of early 20th century are part of tiki culture. Let's agree that there can be new cocktails that are "tiki inspired." But let's all agree to insist on one thing: quality. I feel like if we want to idolize folks like Donn Beach and Vic Bergeron, we would honor quality. Quality ingredients, quality mixology and the spirit of adventure and experimentation, especially behind the bar.