The father of tiki culture is indisputable: Don the Beachcomber, who served as a bootlegger during Prohibition and opened his famed Polynesian-themed restaurant off Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1937. He is credited with inventing a number of boozy rum-based drinks, including the zombie, navy grog, and Tahitian rum punch.
When the tropical-themed restaurant Trader Vic’s opened in Oakland, Calif., in the late 1930s, a friendly tiki rivalry was born. Both Vic and Don the Beachcomber, who presciently capitalized on Americans’ new fascination with island culture in the 1940s, claim to have invented the mother of all tiki drinks, the mai tai, but regardless of who came up with the idea, both men were inspired by their journeys in the West Indies and Caribbean, where the swizzle originated. The swizzle and its attendant stick were a product of 1930s Bermuda, where icy rum drinks were served with a branch from a local bush used to stir the concoction and ensure proper dilution.
Tiki drinks generally incorporate an almond-flavored syrup called orgeat, but many old recipes also incorporated velvet falernum, which is an opaque white syrup (with or without alcohol) with cloves, lime, vanilla, and allspice flavors. Fee Brothers makes a non-alcoholic version, and John D. Taylor’s, from Barbados, is 22 proof.