A little lesson in Booze History (Part Three)

Last week, we discussed little tidbits about the Prohibition Era and how drinking culture changed during that time. Once the Prohibition Act was lifted in 1933, a new age in drinking had to take over. These things come in cycles (as with everything else in life), and what took over from the Prohibition Era of speakeasies and bathtub gin was the elaborately designed, Polynesian-influenced Tiki Bars. 

I mistakenly flubbed the timeline at the end of my last article, when I mentioned that the Tiki Bars emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The trend actually took up where the Prohibition left off. I’ll tackle the two main people who drove this style of bars, and the reasons why the Tiki Bars became popular and why they declined.

Tiki cocktails are still served in modern bars and concoctions range from classic to contemporary mixes Photo by Star Sabroso

Tiki bars are Polynesian-themed drinking establishments that serve elaborate, mostly rum-based drinks and decorated with dark wood, rattan, bamboo, plus an assortment of other South Pacific-inspired decors. The golden age of Tiki could be placed at the end of Prohibition to the dawn of Disco. 


Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who is best known as Don the Beachcomber (and later changed his name to Donn Beach), is credited for starting Tiki cocktail culture. He spent several years in the Caribbean and South Pacific and learned about drinks. He came back from his travels with suitcases filled with souvenirs and a head full of drink ideas and set up the world’s first Tiki bar called Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles in 1934. The idea to bring the vacation and South Pacific lifestyle to people during a time when international travel was uncommon proved to be a successful one. People came in droves, including the Hollywood elite. 

Gantt is credited for creating the zombie (supposedly so “manly” men would be enticed to drink the fruity Tiki cocktails) among 70 original cocktails in the 1930s. At that time, no one wanted to drink rum, as it was associated with sailors and poor people. Don learned to mix rum drinks in the Caribbean and tweaked them to make some pretty innovative concoctions. The Planter’s Punch (from Jamaica), used multiple syrups and citrus fruits and used multiple rums as well, which was a new idea at the time. Rum is more varied, in the sense that there are so many different kinds, from dark rich heavy rums to light dry floral rums. Don was one of only a few people who knew all the nuances of these rums and no one had tasted drinks like his.     

The Tiki cocktail glass is sometimes used for rum based Tiki cocktails  

Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. A visit to Don the Beachcomber prompted “Trader” Vic Bergeron to open a similar bar in Oakland (renaming his bar from Hinky Dinks to Trader Vic’s) in 1937. You can thank him for coming up with the quintessential beach drink, the Mai Tai. Because of the popularity of the Tiki concept and the cocktails that they produced, all sorts of questionable behavior sprouted as well. Bartenders were getting poached by rival bars, recipes were being stolen, accusations sprung left and right. This prompted bar owners to write recipes in code and kept them under lock and key to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Sounds a bit like a spy movie, don’t you think? 


Apart from the novelty of new drinks and design aesthetic, there were several reasons why the Tiki bars grew popular. The people who were stationed in the South Pacific during World War II found familiarity with the breezy, beachy, Tiki bar atmosphere and began patronizing them. The post-war economic boom made the drinks affordable to people who wanted to escape the humdrum of city life, even momentarily. It became very chic. Hollywood artists who did film sets designed restaurants and furniture, leading to homes being decorated in the same Tiki bar style. There was Tiki fever everywhere. 

The Tiki drinks were sweet, colorful, and ornately garnished. It wasn’t uncommon to see cocktails garnished like a garden. But they weren’t all for show, though. The ubiquitous tiny paper drink umbrella is said to prevent the ice in the drink from melting too fast, as it protects the drink from the sun’s rays (as the drink is meant to be savored by the beach). 


But all good things come to an end, as they say. Trends come and go, and the end of the Tiki bar came around the 1970s. While previously the idea of a remote island beach seemed appealing, the horrors of the Vietnam War no longer incited relaxation and vacations. Soon enough, the Tiki fad was over. 

What could the next thing in drinking culture be after this? Stay tuned, dear imbibers. Cheers! 

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Topics: Tiki bars

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