Zombies Come Back from the Grave!

In Los Angeles, the all-star bartending team of Audrey Saunders, Christy Pope, and Chad Solomon launched the Tar Pit in 2009 (the team has since left). About 25 percent of the menu is reserved for rum drinks, says Solomon. While the Tar Pit is definitely not a tiki bar—it’s more old Hollywood and art deco than bamboo hut—Solomon says they were drawing on tiki for inspiration. “We are not looking to be full-on revivalists,” he says. “We are looking to carve out a new niche: New Age tropical or neo-tropical. We are looking at rum drinks, but we’d like to define them on our own terms.” Why go that direction? “Things [in the bartending industry] got really serious; it’s gotten a little stuffy,” says Solomon. “Tiki has always been fun.”

Neo-tropical drinks also open up room to play with flavor profiles from all over the world, says Solomon, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Not only is there a huge range of rums, but there are also spices such as cardamom and coriander and exotic ingredients like mauby syrup (a Caribbean syrup with an anise flavor) that he is looking forward to experimenting with.

Even Rickhouse, the offshoot of San Francisco speakeasy Bourbon & Branch, has neo-tropical drinks on its menu, like the Capricorn, made with rum, pineapple, falernum, and arrack; and the soon-to-arrive Little Monster’s Exotic Punch, made with allspice, Jamaican rum, oloroso sherry, and grated nutmeg.

Tiki as we know it starts with a fellow named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. Gantt spent most of his 20s bumming around traveling the world, including Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Along the way, he picked up a bunch of souvenirs: art, fish floats, block and tackle, and other flotsam and jetsam. When he decided to settle down, he landed in LA, parked cars for a living, and rented out his collection of island and nautical décor as props to movie studios.

In 1934, he packed all his island relics into a small building on North McCadden Place in Hollywood and opened a bar. The place was such a hit that he expanded, moving to a larger space across the street, and called it Don the Beachcomber. (Gantt even eventually changed his name to Donn Beach.) Celebrities like Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, and Marlene Dietrich flocked to the bar to drink Beach’s “rum rhapsodies”—special rum-based cocktails carefully crafted with fresh citrus juice and spices such as allspice and cinnamon—and eat the then-exotic Cantonese food on the menu. Beach’s Zombie, a potent mix of three types of rum with fresh lime juice, grapefruit juice, cinnamon syrup, falernum, and a hint of Pernod, took off. Don the Beachcomber was an upscale, jacket-and-tie type of place, not the shorts-and-flip-flops Margaritaville that we now associate with tiki. There was even a special chopstick case installed on the wall to hold celebrities’ personal chopsticks. “[It was] the Spago of its day,” says Jeff Berry, tiki detective and author of Beachbum Berry Remixed.

Around 1937, the owner of Hinky Dink’s, a snow-lodge-themed bar in Oakland, California, redecorated his joint with a tropical theme. His name was Victor Bergeron Jr. He’d soon be known to the world as Trader Vic. Vic’s mai tai, a combo of aged rum, fresh lime juice, orange curaçao, and orgeat served in a double Old Fashioned glass, was a hit. Vic also innovated food-wise, ushering in fusion cuisine and serving things like real Indonesian curry at a time when people were topping a slab of ribs with pineapple rings and calling it Polynesian.

Before long, tiki caught on nationally. The escapism the bars provided appealed to an America coming out of the Depression. The trend lasted well into the ’60s, fueled by GIs coming back after World War II with nostalgia for Hawaii, where many had shipped out from; by James A. Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947; and by Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. It all added up to “the last great, creative drink phase in American culinary history,” says Berry.

So how did such a ritzy, innovative scene rooted in old Hollywood glamour turn into cheesy bars serving grenadine- and pineapple-laced blended mai tais?

For one, only a few people ever actually knew how to make the real drinks. Particularly when it came to Beach’s recipes, everything was in code. Recipes were highly guarded trade secrets, says cocktail historian and Imbibe! author David Wondrich. The drinks were also extremely labor intensive and required many expensive ingredients.

Trader Vic photograph courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Don the Beachcomber photograph courtesy of beachbumberry.com

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