The Tiki Cocktail

Tiki started over 80 years ago, and can be attributed to two men; Don the Beachcomber and Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic. Don the Beachcomber had a restaurant in Hollywood and Trader Vic opened his restaurant in Oakland.

Don the Beachcomber was actually Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gant, who later in life legally changed his name to Donn Beach. He spent time as a young man in the Caribbean and South Pacific and came home inspired by the area, wanting to make drinks from rum, flavored syrups, and fresh juices. He liked to pair them up with foods based loosely on Asian and Polynesian cuisine.

When World War II started, Don the Beachcomber went off to Europe, and used his restaurant experience to run rest-and-recreation centers for servicemen. While he was away, his wife expanded his empire to 16 locations of Don the Beachcomber. They later divorced, and his ex-wife retained control of the company and, in the United States, control of the Don the Beachcomber name. Beach took the concept to Hawaii in the 1940s, prior to statehood, where he could legally open his own Don the Beachcomber bar. Beach remained in Hawaii until he died in 1989.

Victor Bergeron opened his restaurant a few years later after having visited Don the Beachcomber with the same idea of using rum, fresh juices and syrups. Bregeron had to take a different path to his success however…Trader Vic had tuberculosis in the knee as a child; as a result, his leg was amputated when he was six. Later in life, he told all sorts of stories about losing his leg in heroic escapades in exotic locations. Bergeron spent the war years franchising the Trader Vic's name, starting with a Seattle franchise in 1940. Eventually, the Trader Vic's line grew to 25 tiki bars around the world. At his death in 1984, the Trader Vic's empire was a multimillion-dollar business. Don the Beachcomber's restaurant was popular with Hollywood celebrities in the late 1930s and 1940s, and his success was eventually copied by many other restaurateurs, not just Victor Bergeron.

The Tiki Bar was huge in the 1950s, since many servicemen were returning from the South Pacific and shared stories of their travels. Americans developed a romanticized obsession with the tropics, and tiki bars helped them to get their fix at home. The musical South Pacific was a hit on Broadway and then later at the movies. In 1959 Hawaii became the 50th state, and shortly after, Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii, further driving the Tiki craze.

Tiki Fundamentals

What makes a great tiki drink? First, start with rum. Not every tiki drink is rum-based; there are recipes that have gin, Scotch and other whiskies, pisco and other brandies, and tequila. But Tiki is inspired by the tropics, and rum is the drink of choice there, so start with rum. Don Beach stocked nearly 140 different rums at his Don the Beachcomber restaurant.

The four basic rums to have:

• Demerara

• Rhum Agricole from Martinique

• Jamaican rum

• Cuban/Puerto Rican style.

Second, you need fresh juice. This is an absolute must!

Third is the layering of flavor. Both Donn and Vic would both start new drinks by finding the perfect blend of two or more rums, and then slowly add nuance with fruit juices, liqueurs, bitters, and other ingredients.

Fourth, you want spice or other flavor accents. Syrups and liqueurs flavored with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, almond, and pomegranate are critical in tiki drinks for developing the layered flavors. Be willing to experiment! Start with what you like and go from there. Don’t be afraid of failing…at least now you know what doesn’t work!

Have fun!

-- Kerry Ichimasa, Assistant Wine Director