Tiki Tipples

Polynesian culture, epitomized by intricately carved wooden tiki statues, may have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, but the tiki cocktail phenomenon originated in golden sun-drenched California during the 1930s.Donn Beach, an entrepreneur of note who changed his name to suit that of his Polynesian-themed restaurant, Don the Beachcomber, was the first to come up with the idea of making cocktails that blended exotically flavored fruit syrups, biting rums and fresh fruit juices. These divine drinks became known as Rhum Rhapsodies, the tiki cocktail craze soon caught on in a big way with the Hollywood set, and Don the Beachcomber and many other copy-cat restaurant/bars flourished for more than thirty years.

The tiki cocktail trend was by no means just a Californian concept, however, and the public’s love of tiki drinks soon spread across the country and, eventually, across the world. Many new tiki cocktails were added to an ever-growing list, including the banana daiquiri, the barbacoa cocktail and the tiki bandit. Arguably the most well known of all tiki cocktails is the mai tai, which mixes lime juice with curacao and rum and which is usually presented to its purchaser garnished with fresh fruit. Its history is not without controversy, though, as a protracted disagreement raged between Donn Beach and rival tiki-creator, Victor Bergeron, as to who exactly brought the mai tai into being. Other popular mixes include concoctions with imaginative names like The Night Marcher, where the secret ingredient is Cholula Mexican hot sauce, The Wisdom of Pele, which mixes no less than four different types of rum, and, last but by no means least, the original Zombie, made famous by Donn Beach himself and comprised of, among other things, white grapefruit juice, falernum, grenadine and cinnamon syrup.

A custom that grew up alongside the public’s love of tiki cocktails, was the love of tiki mugs. Originally, most, if not all, tiki cocktails were served in special glazed ceramic mugs shaped to represent the original wooden tiki statues that lingered in far-away Polynesia, and the lucky imbiber could expect to keep his mug after he had finished his drink. Tiki mugs went from being a major part of the tiki craze in the 1930s through early 1960s to languishing in relative obscurity in junk shops all over the country from the late 1960s through the 1980s to becoming highly sought after collectors’ items in the 1990s. There are also many different types of collectible tiki mug, and the more colorful among them include the volcano bowl, the scorpion bowl and the head hunter mug.

During the later part of the tiki craze, cocktails were no longer confined to a strictly-Polynesian theme, and Asian-themed ‘tails with their Fu Manchu tiki mugs also became popular. These days, tiki cocktails can be found on the menu of most upscale restaurants and cocktail bars as the days of decadence that characterized the mid-twentieth century seem to be returning, at least as far as exotic drinks are concerned.

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