The tiki craze of the 1950s was a very unique moment in America. Soldiers stationed in the Pacific during World War II – who had also seen the horror of war – returned home with some of the island lifestyle still in their heads.
And as anyone who has ever been on an island can tell you, the sandy beaches, ocean waves, surf culture, hula girls and exotic cocktails are difficult to leave behind.
So what better way to preserve it than by importing it?
This is what many servicemen did after the war, but as far back as the early 1930s, an already well-traveled 24-year-old Texan named Ernest Gantt had opened America’s first true tiki bar in Los Angeles. He called it Don the Beachcomber, and it was born out of a love of rum drinks and laid-back island culture. In fact, his grandfather was a rum runner during Prohibition who often took his grandson along with him.
Don the Beachcomber was the true birth of the tiki movement, and the reason that so many midcentury Americans flocked to bars offering a bamboo-filled atmosphere and exotic cocktails such as the Singapore Sling, Mai Tai, Fog Cutter and Zombie.
However, the fun lasted only until the late 1960s, when tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants started to seem kitschy to a large majority. Though a number of tiki bars still remain, such as Trader Vic’s (est. 1934), the tiki movement has never made a huge comeback.
What does remain, however, are the recipes. The Mai Tai alone is viewed as a classic cocktail, though one that has been widely misinterpreted throughout the years. Other concoctions are less well known, and some have likely disappeared forever as many bartenders dared not share their trade secrets.
It’s not difficult to re-create many of these drinks given the right ingredients – fresh juices, syrups and plenty of different rums. My contribution to the tiki kingdom comes in a drink I call the Coconut Bikini, laden with cinnamon syrup and a specialty coconut rum from Don Q. It is sweet, exotic and the perfect way to slip away into an island daydream. Serve it with a lazy nap in your favorite hammock. Mahalo.
2 oz. Don Q Coconut rum
.5 oz. Don Q 151 rum
.5 oz. Lemon cordial
.5 oz. Cinnamon syrup
1 oz. Pineapple juice
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Pineapple leaf garnish
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake for 20-30 seconds and strain into a tiki mug or Collins glass. Garnish with a pineapple leaf. Sip. Then sip again.