Robb Report Vices

The New Era of Tiki

As the story goes, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt left home at the age of 19 in 1926 and set out to explore the Caribbean and South Pacific. It didn’t take long for him to grow enamored of the island culture that he encountered; so much so, in fact, that when he returned home to the United States, he legally changed his name to Donn Beach. A couple of years after he arrived in Los Angeles, Beach opened Don the Beachcomber. The Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant featured Cantonese cuisine, decor intended to replicate the ambiance of the islands that Beach had fallen in love with, and—most important—potent rum-based cocktails. “If you can’t get to paradise,” Beach told his customers, “I’ll bring it to you.”

Beach’s tiki establishment inspired Victor Bergeron to rebrand his Bay Area barbecue restaurant Hinky Dinks into an island oasis of its own, which he named Trader Vic’s. Together, Bergeron and Beach started a tiki craze that swept the nation and lasted for decades. There came a time, however, when the majority of island-themed establishments grew too kitschy and faded from popular culture. But after years of irrelevance, tiki cocktail culture is back, and it has delivered new upscale establishments with menus dedicated to vintage recipes and high-end rums.

“There just isn’t a more fascinating spirit in the world,” says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. Since it opened in 2009, Cate’s modern tiki den has intoxicated guests with a menu comprising more than 70 cocktails—some traditional Caribbean island libations, some classic concoctions from Prohibition-era Havana, and some  born from legendary tiki bars like Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, and others.

But Smuggler’s Cove also celebrates rum as a spirit to be enjoyed for its own merits, which is why the establishment offers more than 400 to choose from, including some that are exceedingly rare. For example, guests can order an 1819  Clément rum ($595 per ounce), which was found in an old château and distilled the same year that Napoléon was exiled to Saint Helena. But those wishing to try it need to act quickly; at the time this story was published only 5 ounces remain. Those who would prefer something more traditional can order a 50-year-old Appleton rum ($360 per ounce) that commemorates Jamaica’s independence, though Cate has only half a bottle left.

True to the vision of Don the Beachcomber, Paul McGee—Chicago’s beloved bearded cocktail slinger and the visionary behind the city’s new tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash—has created a cocktail menu balanced between traditional favorites and modern concoctions of his own creation. As McGee explains, those modern tiki recipes are infused with a “less is more” approach, they feature a mix of base spirits, and they result in a finished product that reflects his own preference for dry flavor profiles.

The bar’s decor also reflects McGee’s desire to breathe new life into traditional tiki ideals. Yes, tiki totems are interspersed along the walls, and yes, a thatched awning juts out over a polished bar top, but those nods to classic tiki-bar ambiance are restrained. Overall, Three Dots and a Dash may best be described as Caribbean chic. Oh, and make sure to inquire about the treasure chest—that’s where the bar’s premium spirits can be found.

Cienfuegos was born out of a desire to bring Cuba’s bold culture, cuisine, and cocktails to New York. The restaurant features small plates of Cuban-inspired fare, such as pork-belly BLTs accented with smoked-tomato jam, and crudo of hamachi served with white soy, citrus, and jalapeños; while on the beverage end of the spectrum, it offers rum classics like the Old Cuban (El Dorado 5, El Dorado 15, demerara sugar, mint, lime, and Champagne), a dozen punches that can each serve between two and 10 people (depending on the size), and tiki drinks that were created as far back as 1941 and as recently as three years ago. All in all, Cienfuegos is a highbrow establishment that doesn’t take itself too seriously—one that delivers an exceptional experience without the kitschy element that so many island-inspired bars and restaurants overdo.