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Tiki Drinks: From Exotic to Classy

June 1, 2013

As June signals the official start of summer, many Washingtonians will be happy to welcome its arrival with backyard barbecues, weekend trips to the shore and local bars opening up their outdoor patios. For me at least, the official start of beach season is signaled with a tropical umbrella drink. Nothing quite says summer like a tiki bar.

In recent years, retro-tiki culture has been gaining popularity. The original tiki bar was Don the Beachcombers, which was created by Ernest Gantt in 1933 in Los Angeles. According to Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails,” Gantt, who had spent much of his youth rambling about the tropics, rented a small bar and decorated it with items he’d gathered in the South Pacific, along with driftwood, nets and parts of wrecked boats he scavenged from the beach.

Gantt stocked his bar with inexpensive rums, which were available in abundance after prohibition, and invented an array of faux-tropical drinks, using fruit juices and exotic liqueurs. His bar became incredibly fashionable, attracting celebrities and prompting Gantt to legally rename himself Donn Beach.

The other iconic tiki bar was Trader Vic’s, which was founded in Oakland, Calif., by Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. who opened a small bar/restaurant called Hinky Dinks. It soon morphed into a Polynesian theme with tropical drinks and was renamed “Trader Vic’s” According to Curtis, Bergeron admits he swiped the tiki concept from Gantt.

Both bars expanded into multiple locations, sparking a nationwide craze that spawned dozens of imitators, who rushed to replicate and copy each other’s colorful tipples.

Gannt was a talented mixologist who crafted complex drinks with lengthy ingredient lists including multiple rums, homemade syrups and fresh fruit. But as more tiki-themed bars opened and Trader Vic’s expanded into franchises, the intricate cocktails became watered-down and simplified.

Perhaps the most duplicated tipple is the quintessential tiki drink – the Mai Tai. Both Gantt and Bergeron claimed to have invented it, even though their recipes vary wildly. The name is derived from “Maita’i” the Tahitian word for “good”

Before it fell out of fashion, the Mai Tai was one of the most popular cocktails in the 1950s and 60s. It was featured prominently in Elvis’ Presley’s chartbuster movie Blue Hawaii, which brings us to another popular tropical cocktail – the brightly ocean blue-toned tipple with the same name as the movie.

According to Jeff Berry, author of “Sipping; Safari,” a bartender named Harry Yee invented the “Blue Hawaii” in 1957, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa in Waikiki. Yee was asked by a representative of Bols to create a drink using the company’s new blue Curacao liqueur. After a little experimentation the brilliant sea-toned drink was born. Berry also credits Yee with being the first to use paper umbrellas and orchids as garnish.

In their heyday, tiki bars were popular place to celebrate a big occasion. Trader Vic’s at the Washington Hilton, was a hot spot for power lunches. It was a favorite of Richard Nixon, who had a fondness for Mai Tais.

Eventually the tiki bubble burst. With scores of cheap imitators and poor locations the Polynesian fad began to lose its luster. None of the original Don the Beachcombers are left in existence, and Trader Vic’s has only a few remaining outposts. Perhaps the final stand of the trend was in 1989 when the ever-brash Donald Trump closed the venerable Trader Vic’s in New York’s plaza hotel, calling it “tacky”.

Tiki crawled back into the spotlight in the 1990’s with the retro-hipsters who embraced it kitschiness. Its comeback grew the recent cocktail renaissance as modern mixologists began to uncover some of the original tropical recipes with their multi-layered rum profiles, fresh juices and handcrafted syrups.

The craft tiki cocktail movement arrived in full force at the Georgetown waterfront in 2009 with mixologist’s Jon Arroyo’s extensive list of authentic cocktails at Farmers and Fishers. Imbibers can sample homemade Mai Tais based on both Bergeron and Gantt’s recipes.

Last summer JP Caceres opened an outdoor tiki bar on the second floor of Dirty Martini. In December, Tom Brown, a partner in Washington’s craft cocktail palace the Passenger, launched Hogo, a Caribbean-themed rum bar featuring high-end island cocktails. So when the summer sun shines high in the sky, Washingtonians can flock to one of these funky spots for a bit of colorful refreshment.
Farmers Fishers Bakers: 3000 K St., NW; 202-298-8783;

Dirty Martini: 1223 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-503-2640;

Hogo: 1017 7th St., NW; 202-393-1313
The Blue Hawaii
Courtesy of Hilton Top Chef

Blue Hawaii

3/4 oz Light Rum
3/4 oz Vodka
1/2 oz Blue Curacao
3 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Sweet & Sour Mix

Combine ingredients and mix well. If using ice, mix in a blender. Serve in a tall glass. Garnish with an orchid.

Mai Tai  (based on Trader Vic’s recipe)
Courtesy of Jeff “BachBum” Berry  www.

Trader Vics Mai Tai

1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
1 oz Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique Rum
1 oz Appleton Estate Extra dark Jamaican Rum
1/2 oz Orange Curacao
1/4 Orgeat Syrup
1/4 Simple Syrup

In your shaker pour one ounce each fresh lime juice, Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum, and Appleton Estate Extra dark Jamaican rum; 1/2 ounce orange Curacao; and 1/4 ounce each orgeat syrup and sugar syrup.  Add at least two cups of crushed ice, then shake well for around 10 seconds.  Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass.  Sink your spent lime rind in the drink, and garnish with a mint sprig.