A Crash Course in Tiki History and Its Classic Cocktails

By Carey Jones and John D. McCarthy |

© Carey Jones

Imagine a tiki drink and odds are a picture of tiny umbrellas floating in a funky Polynesian-style mug comes to mind. And all that's more or less true. But tiki is a whole, proud genre of cocktail, with intrigue, history, epic stories and tons of cool props, too.

Credit two guys—"Don the Beachcomber" and "Trader Vic"—for launching this crazy movement. Founding father Ernest Gantt (who later changed his name to Donn Beach) traveled around the world and developed an obsession with everything South Pacific and Caribbean, from tropical fruits to historical artifacts. It all came together at his Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood, where the flavors and paraphernalia of these various tropical locales collided into fruity, rummy, crazy-complex cocktails and vaguely Hawaiian-Polynesian food.

Then along comes Victor Bergeron, known as "Trader Vic," inspired by the entire Don the Beachcomber aesthetic; he enterprises expanded opened his own chain of restaurants in Northern California. Both rapidly in the post-WWII era, spawning tons of knockoffs along the way. Eventually the broad, eclectic movement they started came to be known as "tiki."

So what exactly are the building blocks of a tiki drink? Rum is the common denominator across the vast majority of cocktails—all kinds of rum. Then, you need fresh juices. Lime is a frequent player, but only the beginning.

And then, there's everything else. You can't make tiki with an appropriately stocked bar. After picking up a couple types of rum (white, dark, probably an over-proofed 151), you’ll want some velvet falernum, some orgeat and some curaçao (NOT BLUE). And with tiki drinks, garnishes are absolutely mandatory—both the edible kind (mint, pineapple, orange) or non-edible (umbrellas, straws, little plastic figurines).

The good news? Once you've stocked up, you'll find that tiki is endlessly fun, both in terms of what you're drinking and how much room there is for experimentation. But tiki neophytes should start with these classics. Oh, and we're serious about those cocktail umbrellas.

Mai Tai

Odds are you've never had two Mai Tais that taste the same, and odds are, most of them have been all about sticky-sweet fruit juice and not much else.

So let's return to the classic recipe from "Trader Vic" himself, which starts with good Jamaican rum, almond-based orgeat, the orange liqueur curaçao, and lime. Not too complicated, right? 

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine 1 1/2 ounces Jamaican rum (we're using Appleton Estate Signature Blend, previously known as Appleton V/X), 1 ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice, 1/2 ounce orgeat 1/2 ounce curacao and a dash of Angostura. Shake that all up and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with mint and a cherry.

Jungle Bird

This lesser-known tiki classic takes all the fun of rum, lime, and pineapple, and adds a strong bitter backbone (and gorgeous red color) thanks to the use of Campari. Campari balances out the sweet pineapple juice so you've got a super-balanced drink that even those who shy away from tiki can enjoy. The darker the rum, the better in this drink; blackstrap rum is traditional, though something like Gosling's will do the trick as well.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine 2 ounces dark rum, 1 1/2 ounces of pineapple juice, 1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime, 1/2 ounce of simple syrup and 3/4 ounce Campari. Shake that all up and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with whatever pineapple creation you want; we recommend using the fronds.


Even in the tiki world where drinks are sweet, boozy, and oh-so-complicated, the Zombie is a special case. It is so fully loaded with booze that tiki bars might not serve you more than two.  We're talking three different rums plus grenadine, velvet falernum and lots more. We love upping the warm spice character with allspice dram, although that's not exactly orthodox.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine 1 1/2 ounces Jamaican rum (again, we're using Appleton Estate Signature Blend), 1 1/2 ounces Puerto Rican rum (we like Bacardi's 8-year), 1 ounce of overproof rum (151 will work, but we prefer Jamaican classic Wray & Nephew). Add 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice, 1/2 ounce of the velvet falernum, 1/2 ounce of grenadine (recipe here), 2 dashes of Angostura, and, 1/4 of an ounce of allspice dram. Shake that all up and strain into a tall glass with fresh ice. Garnish with as many umbrellas as you can find.