It’d be hard to envision any major part of the world today where you wouldn’t be able to enjoy fruity alcoholic beverages with tropical garnishes and paper umbrellas. Tiki culture has been a pervasive part of the cocktail scene since the 1930s; for the better part of the past century, these “mini-vacations in a glass” have presented a liquid escape from the worries of everyday life. Perhaps you’ve read stories of Trader Vic and his encounters with Hollywood, or luaus serving Mai Tais on the beach in Hawaii. But there is a lesser-known truth, and it is this: tiki cocktail culture was born out of some pretty ugly stuff. Its history has heavy doses of imperialism, persecution, and slavery—with a generous pour of cultural appropriation thrown in.
“Rum mixed with sugar and lime made the nasty, brutish, short life of the average Caribbean combatant worth living,” tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry writes in his latest book, Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean. From 1492 until the 1900s, West Indians were invaded, extorted, persecuted, enslaved, and killed by the English, French, Dutch, Danish, Americans, and Spanish, all looking to capitalize on the Caribbean’s vast production of sugar.
In Potions—a historical, cultural, and biographical account of the drinks the Caribbean has produced over the past 500 years—Berry sets the record straight, shedding light on how invaders appropriated the tropical trinity of rum, lime, and sugar and made them suitable for the modern Western palate. “Tiki popularized Caribbean cocktails by dimensionalizing them,” he explains. “It capitalized on the drinks that had already been there for a hundred years.”
This is particularly useful to know given the sudden resurgence of tiki culture. Tiki’s first heyday went all the way from the end of Prohibition to the Age of Disco, but in the past five years, new-school establishments have emerged in cities from Chicago to Houston with a renewed focus on quality spirits and homemade cocktail components. “Historically, the crappier things have gotten in the world, the better it’s been for tiki. There was nothing better than a little mini vacation for a few hours,” he says.
An understanding of what really happened in the past is an important part of appreciating the craft of the tiki cocktail today. Here Berry dispels a few popular misconceptions about tiki culture, from the real origins of the Mai Tai to the dirty truth about Captain Morgan.
1. Tiki bars were all tacky kitsch, complete with thatched huts and cheap, sugary drinks.
Berry says: “In the golden age of tiki, from the 1930s to the 1970s, [tiki bars] were part of white tablecloth fine dining. There were tiki places that catered to all the strata of society: blue-collar spots, beach bars, and even suburban places for the middle class. But wherever you were, the drinks were really good. From the 1940s all the way to the ‘70s, the Trader Vic’s chain, the Kon-Tiki chain, Don the Beachcomber, and The Luau in Beverly Hills—all these places were where movie stars and really rich people went. These were top-dollar, high-end luxury restaurants. It was considered very sophisticated fine dining for a while. There was nothing tacky about it.”
In 1948, Don the Beachcomber was charging $3 for a Zombie cocktail—the equivalent of more than $29 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These were farm-to-table, craft cocktails. Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber were making their own syrups, squeezing fresh citrus, mixing premium spirits, and they had huge bar staffs to do it all. Just the garnishes alone would probably be more overhead than most bars could handle.
When [the trend] went away in the ‘70s, tiki just collapsed because they couldn’t keep paying that overhead. The only thing that was left were all the cheap knockoff places that had lower overhead and could afford to stay in business, so that’s what most people know today. All they know of tiki is cheap, crappy drinks.”
2. The Mai Tai is a Hawaiian drink.
Berry says: “Everyone associates the Mai Tai with Hawaii—it’s served at luaus at every hotel—but it was really invented by Trader Vic’s in Oakland. The Matson Cruise Ship Company, which was ferrying passengers from the West Coast to Hawaii, hired Vic [Bergeron] to come up with the cocktail menu for the Matson line, as well as a cocktail for the hotel owned by Matson, the Royal Hawaiian. The Mai Tai, a drink that he’d invented in the Bay Area back in 1944, was among the drinks that Vic put on the menu. It wasn’t even at the top of the menu. It was second to the bottom, but it just took off because people thought it was a Hawaiian drink.”
3. Captain Morgan was a fun party guy.
Berry says: “You did not want to name your spiced rum brand after this guy. His men raped, killed, and destroyed whole towns; they sliced up the ears and noses of people to interrogate them; they burned a village idiot alive in one town that they seized. They were horrible people, and they were led by Captain Morgan, who ended up being knighted and got a bunch of land in Jamaica—because nice guys finish last. Believe me: you do not want a little Captain in you.” As the pirate lifestyle became more romanticized thanks to Hollywood swashbuckler roles and authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Morgan became more of a legend for different reasons, and morphed into the reveler we’re familiar with today. Adds Berry: “He didn’t look as trim and hearty as the captain on the label.”
4. Rum punch was a product of the pirate life.
Photo: Brethren Coast
Berry says: Rum punch didn’t come from pirates; from the 1600s to the mid-1800s, it was the genteel drink of the aristocracy at the time, and the aspiring gentry followed the fashions of the upper class. Punch—which often was made with tea, sugar, citrus, nutmeg, and rum—was extremely expensive to drink. “Pirates drank rum punch because they could. These were extremely expensive ingredients in Boston or London; getting your hand on lemons and nutmeg and things like that was really expensive because they weren’t native to the area. Sugar was cost prohibitive too. The pirates of the Caribbean had free access to all that stuff: they plucked things off the trees, and there was sugar being carted across the ocean in boats that they robbed. There was plenty of booze. So pirates were actually drinking punch, which was something you’d normally have to be really rich to drink in the old country. Pirates were just one group of people who were drinking it, but they didn’t invent it by any means.”
5. Tiki drinks originated in the South Pacific.
Berry says: All of tiki’s South Pacific-themed drinks had roots in the Caribbean. According to Berry, because of the colonial oppression associated with the Caribbean, it was not as romantic and pleasant in peoples’ minds as the South Pacific was. The creator of tiki, Don the Beachcomber, used the Caribbean cocktail template but marketed the drinks with Polynesian names. “Don applied his genius, taking Caribbean drinks and turning them into what he called ‘rhum rhapsodies.’ Then he gave them Polynesian names and stuck them in his tiki bar, because that was the theme that was attracting the public.”
Plenty of Polynesian-sounding venues (like The Tonga Room in San Francisco) and classic tiki cocktails with misleading names, like Puka Punch and Tahitian Punch, still exist today. “There’s nothing Tahitian about Tahitian Rum Punch. It’s basically a variation on Planter’s Punch, but instead of just rum, lime, and sugar, Don used passionfruit, lime, and a couple of different rums, complicating the base spirit and sour element. And then he used the blender—the latest in 1930s culinary technology—which was kind of revolutionary.”