The State of Tiki in 2020

Many magazines will tout Tiki as being one of the top trends of the cocktail movement. Drinks with transportive neon hues piled high with cheap paper umbrellas and ostentatious garnishes; bars that dole out ‘island-inspired’ orgies of barbecued foods sprinkled with pineapples and mangos, served by cheery bartenders in Aloha shirts and servers with flowers tucked behind their ears.

False Idol Tiki Bar San Diego
Image of False Idol San Diego for SoCal Pulse by Zack Benson

This notion of a tropical, transportive drinking atmosphere is all well and good. Still, over the last few decades, a serious issue has arisen with how bars are executing the concept of Tiki. 

Before we jump into that, let’s look into Tiki’s origins. The movement can largely be credited to Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach—two Californian men found their ways to the tropics (separately) and fell in love with Polynesian beach bar culture.

After a rum-fueled trip to Hawaii, Donn came back to the U.S. and opened up Don the Beachcomber in 1930, an island rum shack smack dab in the middle of Hollywood. 

Donn Beach the father of tiki bar culture
Image of Donn Beach from Diffords Guide

Bergeron went to Havana and returned with his new moniker Trader Vic (the name felt like he was an island rum trafficker, he declared!). He subsequently opened up his tropical spot in Oakland. 

Trader Vic
Image of (Trader) Vic Bergeron from Diffords Guide

From these tentpoles, the Tiki movement took off. Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were filled with celebrities and the see-and-be-seen crowd, sipping Mai Tais and Pina Coladas in lushly designed rooms. (Because of the era, Tiki still holds close ties with Midcentury Modern aesthetics, with sleek teak furniture with pops of teal.)

Tiki Bar Don Beachcomber
Image of Don Beachcomber from tellwut.com

Both Don and Vic had good intentions: to bring island culture to a society that might not know it. But their menus were emblazoned with topless island women (‘happy natives’), palm-filled beaches, and emblems of rum-fueled nights out. The authentic Polynesian culture was missing, conjured purely into an appropriated ghost of historical culture. 

Here’s the thing…

Tiki is heavily rooted in indigenous culture, with iconography, tradition, imagery, and foodways that are all pillars of the movement. When people’ cute-ify’ Tiki with blissful beach scenes and kitschy decorations, they dishonor the people who the movement honors. 

This kitschy take on Tiki is turning the culture of the pacific islanders into our vacation. Their gods are rendered into kooky cocktail mugs. Their native ingredients? Dosed to saccharine levels and served with a canopy of kitschy garnish.

It’s naive, and patronizing at it’s best.  

Defenders of the movement quote C.W. Gross: “Though tiki culture and Polynesian Pop has pulled substantial influence from traditional Polynesian culture, it was never intended in any sense to represent it. Rather, tiki-style was a reflection of the American experience of the South Pacific.”

It’s a loving homage to a culture, they swear, but it sounds much like a press statement—this culture is not theirs, and most of the time, Tiki feels like theft, like a caricature. 

The movement’s contemporary couriers are Martin Cate from Smuggler’s Cove, Jeff Berry (alternatively known as Beachbum Berry) of New Orleans’ Latitude, and Shannon Mustipher. 

Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 New Orleans Tiki Bar
Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 New Orleans

Cate has become a bannerman for under-the-radar rums, turning Smuggler’s Cove into arguably the most lauded rum destination in the world, spotlighting small producers for an underrated category. Berry has published a full series of books under the Tiki category. These gents are all pushing to have the category move out of the kitschscape and towards a sophisticated drinking culture paying respect to Pacific Island culture. Mustipher has published a Tiki compendium, honoring the heritage of ingredients. 

Smugglers Cove San Francisco Tiki Bar
Smugglers Cove San Francisco

But the lesser-successful fans of the movement are turning it into a colonial mirage, transforming the Islander culture into our nostalgic drinking fantasies. 

Woke 2020 has been ripe for pointing out racist tenors in our cultural lexicon. Actors with hidden nefarious pasts, sports teams with appropriated names; the list goes on.

But Tiki has only been called out in the spirits industry’s direct circles

Can you do Tiki respectfully?

It’s a tough feel to navigate. Much of Polynesian history is tied to American colonialism and militarism. Pacific Islanders are still bitter about this, and rightfully so as the effects of colonialism have found much of their culture subdued and, in some cases, erased. 

Samoan bartender Sam Jimenez covered this in a Facebook post on the discussion. “Look, the history of colonialism in the Pacific is long. Our islands were stolen from us. Many of our ancestors died fighting for them. Some of the ones who didn’t die were then forced into indentured servitude. Propaganda was used against our people to demean us and turn us against one another. Propaganda was used to create an image of ‘foreign savage.’ Propaganda was used to over sexualize our women. This is a part of our history. The military relationship with our islands has killed thousands and left some without homes. And yet, there they are, utilizing aspects of our culture to benefit financially from. THAT IS COLONIALISM.”

So how do you move forward with Tiki? 

Chicago’s Lost Lake, Toronto’s Miss Things, and San Juan’s Jungle Bird have all removed Tiki from their branding out of respect for the cultures. 

First off, let’s stop using the word Tiki. Many consider Tiki a generic moniker for ‘island culture,’ but Tiki comes from the word for the first man in Māori mythology. The word directly references him, and Maori ancestors and religious figures.

Using Tiki has a blanket term for tropical isn’t correct—each island has its flavors, cultures, and symbolism. Grouping all these together under the general tiki umbrella is a verbal melting pot, throwing dozens of nuanced, rich cultures under one umbrella.

Secondly, consider where you are purchasing your items. Are you buying mugs from traditional Maori makers? Or are you buying them in bulk off Amazon? Tapa cloth, a traditional ceremonial Hawai’ian cloth, has enormous cultural significance. Are you using it to wipe up spills?

Thirdly, trash the notion of escapism. While Hawai’i maybe your favorite vacation spot, consider that while the Tiki movement was being lauded as the hot new cocktail trend, islanders were dying at the hand of U.S. nuclear bomb testing. There are ways to conjure escapist atmospheres without relegating an entire culture to becoming your daydream. 

Finally, if you’re adamant about representing the Tiki movement, become a vessel of knowledge for Polynesian history. Educate your guests on the history of the movement, and why each drink is significant. (Here are some great articles to read: “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” “How to Hide an Empire,” “One Mai Tai, Hold the Colonialism.“)

Tiki was started as a movement of appreciation for a culture a far flight from ours. If you’re going to fly your flag under its banner, make sure you’re paying homage the right way. 

Kate Dingwall
Kate Dingwallhttps://www.kate-dingwall.com/
Kate Dingwall is a writer and editor, primarily covering the spirits and travel world. Her work has appeared in Forbes.com, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com, MAXIM Magazine, DuJour Magazine, Eater, VinePair, Culture Trip, Canada's 100 Best Restaurants, and a number of other publications, online and print. Outside of writing, she is a sommelier and an avid martini drinker.
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