The mid-century archetypal over-the-top, rum-heavy Tiki tipples—drinks like the Mai Tai and Zombie—became instant classics. Made popular by the original Trader Vic’s California-based chain of Polynesian-inspired restaurants, those two cocktails were widely credited to seminal saloon-keeper Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) of “Don the Beachcomber” bars found from Hollywood to Hawaii. His first spot opened in LA in 1934 and is still serving up everything Tiki today.
Cultural historians are quick to point out that the concept of “Tiki” drinks, restaurants and associated bar décor are a thoroughly American invention. University of the Pacific food studies professor Ken Albala notes that Tiki bars, home cocktail parties and entertainment (like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical South Pacific) really took off in the U.S. following WWII, with the return of thousands of service men and women who had served in the Pacific Theatre. In an interview with NPR discussing some of the more curious aspects of Tiki culture, Albala says, “It was a weird moment in history, when the whole country became fascinated with the South Pacific … just because it was unknown and exotic.” Tiki bars and restaurants became wildly popular even though he says they “made no pretense to being authentically Polynesian.” The menus often featured a mish-mash of Chinese-American food with lots of pineapple and maraschino cherries added to the mix. It becomes further problematic when keeping in mind that “Tiki” is a Maori word for stone or wood carvings, sometimes representing gods or other sacred icons. Digging further into the murky depths of Tiki paraphernalia, it also becomes apparent that Polynesian spiritual culture and story-telling dances were portrayed in U.S. Tiki culture as highly sexualized. Ponder that conundrum the next time you’re at a Disney luau.
In the spirit of harmless fun and fluid re-invention, most Tiki cocktail revivalists make modern versions of mid-century classics using top-shelf aged rums and super fresh squeezed juices served in festive glassware. Also, Utah state laws still keep the alcohol content relatively low compared to the original off-the-charts amount of rum in recipes. This might not be such a bad thing: in July 1936, Howard Hughes killed a pedestrian while driving home drunk after a night imbibing at Don the Beachcomber. Our advice: Pace yourself with the rum and leave the driving to the professionals.
Careful with this one, bar owner Sara Lund says. “I had two a while back and felt more dead than alive the next day.” In true Tiki fashion, this frothy cocktail is served in a hurricane glass and sports four kinds of rum, three varieties of bitters, coconut syrup and a healthy pour of citrus juice to pull it all together. Even with Utah liquor restrictions, it packs a potent punch.
Dead Or Alive
311 S. Main, SLC
1 ounce aged Cruzan rum
½ ounce Wray & Nephew light rum
½ ounce Appleton VX signature rum
1 ounce coconut syrup
1 ounce lime juice
¾ ounce pineapple juice
4 dashes Honest John NOLA bitters
4 dashes Honest John lemongrass- cardamom bitters
2 dashes Honest John Aromatic bitters
Dry shake all ingredients (no ice) and pour over crushed ice in a hurricane glass. Top with a mound of crushed ice, float ¼ ounce Bacardi 151 black rum on top. Garnish with a mint sprig and pineapple wedge.
The only thing murky about this beverage is the name. Full disclosure: This is one of my top five favorite cocktails I’ve tried in years, and that’s saying something with all of the delicious bartending talent in our salty city. Bright, complex and whimsical, it hits all the notes that keep an imbiber sipping, thinking about just how these crazy disparate ingredients work together and make this cocktail even better than the sum of its delicious parts. “I’d been fussing around with squid ink for seven months, trying out different combinations to make it work,” Richardson says. A big fan of heavily thematic cocktails, he thought it’d be a perfect combination to meld classic Tiki flavors like black rum, allspice, orgeat (that almond flavor that makes for a key Mai Tai) and citrus juices while also making a completely unexpected presentation with a steampunk turbulent ocean vibe.
From the Depths
111 E. 300 South, SLC
1 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal rum
1 ounce Lysholm Linie aquavit
¼ ounce St. Elizabeth Allspice dram
¾ ounce pineapple juice
½ ounce lime juice
½ ounce orgeat
2 droppers diluted cuttlefish ink*
Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a coupe. Garnish with an octopus cocktail marker.
*Note: Cuttlefish ink is too thick to be incorporated easily into cocktails; Richardson mixes it with equal parts water to thin it enough to flow easily through a dropper dispenser. It savors all of the flavor—and a nice saline bit of serendipity to go with that citrus—while keeping the intense color punch.
Although most Tiki cocktails have a big rum-forward base, Tupelo Bar Manager Tony Goodkid recommends playing around with other spirits with a similar sweet-bright profile alone or in combination with rum. In this case, his Tupelo Tiki uses crisp tequila as the base and it’s topped with an India Pale Ale beer to give body, volume and a little additional kick. Even better, this beverage is built right over ice directly into the glass, no bar stirring or shaking equipment necessary. Fewer glasses to wash, in other words. My perfect kind of summer break.
508 Main, Park City
1 ½ ounces Luna Azul tequila
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
About a generous ¼ teaspoon Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters
1 ½ ounces Park City IPA.
Pour all ingredients over ice in a rocks glass and give it a quick stir to mix ingredients. Garnish with a skewered orange slice, cherry and few quick drops of tiki bitters on the orange for added color and flavor.
A mid-century icon of all that’s over-the-top about tiki tipples, the Zombie is a classic cocktail made popular at the original Trader Vic’s in California. According to booze historian Wayne Curtis, owner Donn Beach blended up the primordial version of this powerful potion using five kinds of rum totaling at least eight ounces (with some accounts upping the content to twelve whopping ounces!), all mixed with fresh pineapple and lime juice to jump start the day of a badly hungover customer by serving not just the hair of the dog, but apparently the whole damned hide. Beach later claimed the customer said he felt like “the living dead” until revived by the drink, and thus, the name Zombie stuck. This West Coast sensation swept the nation after the Hurricane Bar at Flushing Meadows served Zombies during the 1964 New York World’s Fair ($1 each, limit one per customer. It was the fair’s best seller).
Tiki cocktail revivalists like the folks at Lake Effect make modern versions of the Zombie with top-shelf aged rums. Bartender Daniel Flavin recommends that if there’s one thing home bartenders can do to up their flavor game, it’s use only fresh-squeezed juice. “At Lake Effect, we juice every day and use very pure ice. It makes a huge difference,” he says. Utah state laws keep the alcohol content low compared to the original recipes, but the flavor is still Tiki through and through.
155 W. 200 South, SLC
Zombie recipe adapted from Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947)
½ ounce lime juice
1 ounce orange juice
1 ounce lemon juice
½ ounce grenadine
1 ounce light Puerto Rican rum
¾ ounce dark Jamaica rum
½ ounce curaçao
Blend in an electric drink mixer with 1 scoop shaved ice. Pour into 14-ounce block optic chimney glass. Decorate with fresh mint and a stirrer.