Over the course of the past year, fantastic new tiki bars have sprung up everywhere.
The tiki comeback is real. It almost seems like Mai Tais are pouring forth from every park fountain across the country. Over the course of the past year, fantastic new tiki bars have sprung up everywhere, with dedicated bartenders really focusing on the art of these fanciful, happy-making, delicious drinks. Mother of Pearl in NYC’s East Village has become an Instagram phenom for its Shark Bite cocktails, served in fantastic porcelain shark glasses, complete with bitters blood. Tiki’s foremost historian Jeff Beachbum Berry opened his own bar, Latitude 29, in New Orleans this year. Paul McGee’s new Lost Lake serves its drinks with banana dolphins under a thatched roof. And later this year, Owen Thomson (of Rose’s Luxury, Bar Pilar and Café Saint-Ex fame) will give Washington, DC its own rum haunt, Archipelago.
These drinks have been around since the ’30s and ’40s—why such the resurgence now? Jeff Beachbum Berry thinks the impetus is threefold: “The tiki comeback couldn’t have happened without the craft cocktail renaissance," he says. “The craft people discovered that these were the first culinary, farm-to-glass craft cocktails made after Prohibition. In the ’30s, Trader Vic was making cocktails with fresh juices, housemade syrups and liqueurs 70 years before those terms existed. And the craft cocktail movement rediscovered that.”
Once these brave mixologists came to see that tiki drink culture placed the same importance on ingredients, they’ve been able to settle in and give over to the genre without overthinking it. The cocktails are really meant to imbue a sense of pleasure.
“I think the tide has turned in cocktails from being reverent and academic about cocktails. People were taking cocktails very seriously, and I think eventually too seriously, and what you have with tiki with the elaborate glassware and theatrical garnishes and large, generous serves, all that kind of stuff puts the fun back in drinking,” he says. “You’re going to a bar to enjoy yourself; you’re not going to church for some sort of hardline historical thing about how cocktails used to be.”
Perhaps even more profound, says Berry, “Tiki has historically done really well the worse things got in the world. Tiki started in the Depression, when people needed a mini-vacation from all the paranoia and misery and poverty around them, and tiki bars and restaurants were an escape from that. When you couldn’t afford to go to Hawaii, maybe you could afford to go to Don Beachcombers for a couple of hours. So first you had the Depression; then that died out and then World War II happened. Once the war was over, you had absolute paranoia and stifling conservative morality in the Eisenhower era—and more than all of that, you had the threat of nuclear annihilation over your head. Long story short, if the world’s depressing and upsetting, you’re going to have a good resurgence of tiki.”
As we all make ourselves feel better with cocktails, it’s important to take matters into our own hands and become an expert with at least one tiki drink. Berry thinks the Mai Tai is the one that every home bartender should know. “It’s the cliché, but it is the single most famous tiki drink and I think in the same way that someone working at a speakeasy needs to know how to make an old-fashioned or martini, with tiki that’s the Mai Tai.”
Berry says the mix of rums—molasses-based Jamaican rum and grassy rhum agricole from Martinique—is the most important part of the drink. “The combination of the two rums together does what no one rum can,” he says. Victor Jules Bergeron, of Trader Vic’s restaurant, invented the drink in 1944. “It’s a basic rum sour, but the trick that makes the drink what it is is orgeat syrup, made with almonds. Everything is there to support the rum,” says Berry.
Here, Berry’s recipe for the proper Mai Tai.
1 ounce Jamaican rum, like Appleton 12 Year
1 ounce aged or amber Martinique Rhum Agricole, like Rhum Clement VSOP
1 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce curaçao
1/2 ounce orgeat (Berry has his own version, Latitude 29 Formula)
1/4 ounce simple syrup
Combine all the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake it really well and strain it into a double old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice.
Here, seven more tiki drinks to master: Essential Tiki Drinks.
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