Words by: Simon Difford
Tiki is so much more than a Faux-Polynesian theme, it is a culture. The heady mix of exotic drinks, décor, music, clothes and a laid back attitude that combine to form tiki culture sprung from the imagination of one man, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt when he opened his tiny bar in 1934 in Hollywood, California. Only Hollywood could invent the escapism that is tiki.
America was in need of some escapism. Although Prohibition ended in 1933, the country was still reeling from the October 1929 Black Tuesday stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt was a larger than life character who was well travelled, particularly around the Caribbean. His first bar, which he opened the year after Prohibition was repealed, was a mere 13' x 30' space on McCadden Place, just off Hollywood Boulevard. He decorated this with a mix of stuff he'd collected on trips (he'd circled the world twice) and his romantic interpretation of exotic destinations - a blend of the Caribbean and South Pacific.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt
The clutter fitted the bar's 'Don the Beachcomber' name and Ernest Gantt became Donn Beach, an alter ego that suited the outgoing raconteur.
Prohibition was over, but only just. However, rum was already both plentiful and cheap. Rum also neatly fitted the bar's tropical theme. Due to his time in Jamaica Donn was well aware of the traditional rum punch formula of "one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak" and he used this as a building block to create a brilliant range of rum based drinks using other ingredients he'd experienced in the Caribbean such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, falernum, orgeat, lime, orange and pineapple juice - being in Southern California meant fresh citrus fruits were abundant.
He also understood that the name sells a drink, christening his creations with names such a Missionary's Downfall, Vicious Virgin, and his most famous creation, The Zombie. But it wasn't just the names that were remarkable, the drinks were as well. Donn's drinks were dangerously alcoholic, very fruity and very tasty. Served in hand cracked coconut shells and hollowed out pineapples inside his mock tropical surroundings accompanied with his tales of travel and adventure, he offered a very different experience to the humdrum neighbourhood bars he competed with.
While Ernest Gantt started Tiki with his Don the Beachcomber brand, it was another, arguably an even more gregarious Californian, Victor Bergeron, who further shaped what Tiki was and made it a national, and then international phenomenon with his Trader Vic's brand.
Bergeron opened what was originally called Hinky Dink's serving Chinese, Jananese and Tahitian dishes accompanied by tropical, largely rum-based cocktails in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. But after visiting Don the Beachcomber and a trip to Tahiti, like Gantt, he assumed an alter ego and by 1936 Bergeron was The Trader and his bar was Trader Vic's, decorated with all the now recognisable Tiki accoutrements such as fishing nets, stuffed fish and carved totem pole-like tiki idols.
The tiki trend spread along the Californian coast and then throughout America as Donn, Vic, and others opened copies of what was a very successful exemplar. Tiki culture had been created and it, along with its exotic cocktails, would thrive for over 30 years, serving escapism to a post-war, Cold War world.
It wasn't just lounge bars - all manner of businesses assumed the tiki architectural look - including numerous motels and hotels. Tiki was the height of fashion. Plastic hip swaying hula girls danced on car dashboards. Waterfalls and carved tiki gods adorned backyards where the cocktail parties were replaced by luaus - a traditional Hawaiian party.
As Martin Cate wrote in a piece for Difford's Guide, "In 1953, Trader Vic was commissioned by the Matson Steamship Company to bring his now famous Mai Tai to their Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki and fleet of cruise ships. Soon the Mai Tai became synonymous with Hawaii, and eventually sported (much to the Trader's dismay) a paper umbrella. It was a time of renewed prosperity for Americans, and travel was again within reach of the average family. Hawaii became a top destination, as did many Caribbean resorts, and the exotic cocktail flourished in both areas. Now the exotic cocktail was not only associated with far off lands, it was now forever coupled with vacation. The "umbrella drink" was now the perfect symbol of a lazy day at the beach. Before, it had been a symbol of "vicious savages", "lusty native women"- a vague yet non-threatening sense of danger. Now it also meant family holiday fun. It had truly spread to the masses. And that's when things fell apart."
While the drinks made by Donn, Vic and other accomplished tiki bartenders were balanced and tasted great, sadly others weren't so good at making drinks which often seven plus ingredients, including freshly squeezed juices, served with elaborate garnishes. Frozen concentrates, powdered sweet 'n' sour mix and garishly coloured, sickly-sweet abominations of tiki were the result. The "tropical drink" stopped being special.
To quote Angus Winchester, "With the dawn of the hippie scene and the Vietnam War, Tiki's mug was running dry. As Tiki became ubiquitous and commodified it was cheapened: any food could be Tiki with a touch of pineapple. When 'free love' was the way of the new generation, Americans no longer needed to fantasise about grass skirts and bare breasted women. When Vietnam was burning, few needed to see palm trees and Tiki huts. Blue Hawaiians gave way to Purple Haze as young Americans found new ways of escaping. The potent, rum-laced drinks Donn Beach and The Trader had created were replaced by overly sweet, mass produced cocktails. Tiki was doomed to oblivion."
While Tiki all but died in the 1960s, the cocktail revival that started in 1990s was bound to revive tiki, a revival particularly helped by the work of both Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry and Martin Cate. Both have researched and written extensively about tiki and have been evangelists for what tiki should be and represents. Jeff Berry's Latitude 29 and Martin Cate's Smuggler's Cove stand as examples of what a proper tiki bar should be, both serving original Donn and Vic concoctions as well as their own signature creations.
While listing great tiki evangelists and their bars it would be rude to omit Paul McGee's fabulous Lost Lake in Chicago and his old stomping ground, Three Dots and a Dash in the centre of town. If in L.A. be sure to visit one of the originals, Tiki-Ti. We also very much like Hale Pele in Oregon.