Come back to the luau with Tiki
Thanks to entrepreneurialism, Thor Heyerdahl and his classic Kon Tiki and WWII, the “Polynesian” motif (or Tiki) had its day in the sun in 20th-century Americana. Under an extravagant thatched A-frame, one would approach a burnt cedar door with ancestral figures disguised as door pulls and Moai heads masquerading as sentinels. After crossing the threshold, one would wind through a catacomb-like paradoxical paradise made up of palm-leaf lined passageways and nautical lounges adorned with puffer-fish lamps, fishing nets, tapa cloth, black velvet paintings, peacock chairs, volcanic dioramas, clamshell fountains and Maori panels. Exotic vibraphones would duet with manmade bird calls as one sipped tipples featuring every shade of the sunset, sometimes flaming, sometimes smoking, perhaps served in a custom ceramic mug, a hollowed-out pineapple or an oversized snifter, and garnished with fruit, gardenias, swizzle sticks and sprigs.
Tiki establishments, at one time a common phenomenon in the States, are few and far between in 2013. It takes a dedicated tourist to dive for pearls in the ocean of interstate chain restaurants repeating ad infinitum like the background to a Silly Symphony. Therefore, the easiest port of entry these days to the lost world of Tiki is through a tropical cocktail, sometimes referred to derisively as an umbrella drink. It is the most purely preserved and accessible of all the exotic elements, largely in part to Tiki archivists like Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (New Orleans), Martin Cate (San Francisco), Tim “Swanky” Glazner (Knoxville), and Jim “Hurricane” Hayward (South Florida).
Tropical cocktails, or “rhum rhapsodies,” as Tiki pioneer Donn “The Beachcomber” Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beau Gantt) called them back in 1934, are interweaves of lively ingredients designed to enhance their main feature, rum (or, more often than not, a blend of rums). Fresh juices or nectars of pineapple, mango, guava, grapefruit, papaya, coconut, orange, lemon or most commonly, lime, are essential to the rhapsodies. Depth is added with the aid of liqueurs such as allspice dram, macadamia nut, Curaçao, Maraschino, and Pernod. The deal is sweetened with syrups: ginger-lime (falernum), almond (orgeat), pomegranate (grenadine), passion fruit and cinnamon. Especially in hot after-dinner drinks—but not without great success in certain cold cocktails—spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are employed alongside coffee or coffee syrup. Occasionally a dash of bitters, a splash of white soda or a float of 151 tops off a top-shelf and top-notch cocktail.
The tropical cocktail spread in the States thanks to The Beachcomber. At age seven, he began to spend his winters rum-running alongside his grandfather in New Orleans, the birthplace of the cocktail, and cruising the Caribbean, the birthplace of rum. Independently, in his adolescence, he explored the South Pacific before washing ashore penniless and optimistic in Los Angeles in 1934. Hollywood provided the perfect backdrop to Donn’s blend of Polynesian, Caribbean and American ingredients. It was here where his original creations, such as the Zombie, Missionary’s Downfall, and the Cobra’s Fang, were consumed liberally by the Hollywood elite. After closing time, the bar doubled as Donn’s bedroom.
His and his successors’ (e.g., Trader Vic, Ray Buhen, Mariano Licudine) creations took classic foundations and amplified them. The Daiquiri (rum, sugar, lime), British Navy grog (rum diluted with stagnant water and made tolerable with lime), and punch (derived from the Hindi word panch, or “five”) are merely the starting points for the mixologists’ symphonic elaborations and experimentations. Their complex inventions are nothing shy of alchemy, a mix of balance and conflict. With every sip, a new ingredient comes to the forefront. Overall, no ingredient leads or follows. As you drink, “You are pulled in different directions, successfully,” notes Kenneth Burnap, sous chef at St. John’s Restaurant.
Donn Beach often said, “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.” Why wait? For, as Martin Denny pointed out, “Exotic is everywhere.” With the right pair of eyes, one can enhance or transcend the everyday. And with the right ingredients plus a jigger, shaker and strainer, one can make a mean and lovely dream-like drink. I recall that, during my first three wintry months of living in Chattanooga, the house I occupied had a rat problem, broken central heating, and a roof gradually caving in over the kitchen sink. My fellow co-conspirator Evan Lipson and I would spend evenings in this collapsing tomb-like kitchen, tinkering with magical liquid masterpieces in chilly conditions. After shaking and straining, and after the first taste of the “nectar of the gods,” my gloomy disposition would lift and the environment would transform.
The cocktail had served as the “divine transport,” as musician Zack Kouns would put it. In the 1300s, Jean de Roquetaillade would have called it aqua vitæ, or “water of life.” My experience was proof to me that one can bathe in the warmth of the sun anytime of the year and under most any circumstance. Autumn is nigh and winter shall follow. What better time to cross the threshold into exotic and playful realms?