Martin and Rebecca Cate make for excellent guides to the history of tiki and its folklore. In their tome of tiki, Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki, the movement's history unfurls with each introduction of the larger-than-life characters who created the culture in America.
It doesn't take long to become fully absorbed in the tales of Donn Beach, considered to be the father of tiki; Trader Vic's, a Polynesian-themed lounge in California inspired by the Beachcomber that grew into a restaurant chain; and Steve Crane's celebrity-filled the Luau, a landmark bar that combined features of both the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's to create a template for subsequent Polynesian Pop design.
Like the intricate, immersive layers of decor lining the walls and ceiling of the Cates' famous San Francisco bar, also named Smuggler's Cove, the story of tiki is a long and layered one.
Tiki, a movement that spanned from the 1930s to the 1970s and is seeing a revival today, has a rich history. I didn't know about tiki's role as an escapist fantasy for so many Americans. True tiki is an experience, a respite from the everyday, a celebration of rum. At their bar, the Cates see rum as the heart of it all, and aim to "use the aesthetic of Polynesian Pop and the grandeur of the exotic cocktail to provide a framework for the further discovery of rum."
Tiki began with a growing American thirst for Hawaiian music and alluring island life at a time when most Americans weren't traveling very far. Beach traveled through the Caribbean and South Pacific, eventually landing back in California with an idea to marry the "exotic" South Pacific- and island-inspired decor with Caribbean-inspired drinks. This was the start of Polynesian Pop, which is defined as the use of South Pacific imagery or iconography "to express a desire for escape to a simpler life or a more exotic place" in an idealized form of Polynesia.
The word "tiki" comes from New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands, according to Smuggler's Cove, and depending on the culture, referred to carvings of a first man, a god, or a symbol of procreation. In America, "tiki" came to mean any Polynesian carving with a human form. The increasingly ubiquitous figures guarded restaurants, bars, hotels and homes. Tiki influenced architecture and art and became one of the most recognized images in America for decades, a shorthand for drinks, decor and a lifestyle.
After its heyday, tiki was often written off as tacky or tired. But the recipes that were part of the movement were never cloying like the syrupy, watered-down imitations of the real thing. Kitschy they are not.
Like the menu at the Smuggler's Cove bar in California, there are dozens of cocktails to peruse in this book of the same name. Each cocktail recipe notes its origin and/or source, garnish and ideal glassware. In keeping with the spirit of secrets and honoring the coded, tightly guarded recipes of Beach, a recipe for Smuggler's Rum Barrel is obscured by a "top secret" label. The drinks were the big draw at the Beachcomber, and Beach guarded the coveted recipes from rival bar owners. Drinks were mixed behind a bar wall with ingredients kept hidden in unmarked bottles. Recipes called for Dashes no. 2 or Spices no. 3.
The book covers every element of tiki — the use of drink mixers and particular models, crushed ice versus cracked ice, how to juice a pineapple, and garnishes and swizzle sticks. But if there is a focus, it is rum.
Rum is the most diverse spirit in the world, the Cates say, and is made in at least 60 countries with different yeasts and distilling techniques. That diversity makes understanding rum confusing for consumers, as it results in a wide range of flavors and aromas and rums that can be aged from one year to more than 15 years. The Cates try to guide tiki toe-dippers through the rum world with a comprehensive chapter about the right way to taste rum, its cross-continental history and its varied categories. As a reward, there's an easy recipe for infusing blended aged rum with whole spices at home.
I'm a better home bartender with this cookbook on hand, and it's one that has inspired me more than any other book I've read on cocktails. With Smuggler's Cove on the shelf, anyone has a ticket to escape to the land of tiki. And like the tiki that guarded the patrons of the first famed bars, the portrait of a solemn, solitary tiki mug on the cover of Smuggler's Cove will also watch over my home bar.
Ileana Morales Valentine can be reached at [email protected]