The Tiki phenomenon

I had the great misfortune to reach legal drinking age just as the tiki drink phenomenon was turning into a parody of itself. Formerly terrific drinks like the Zombie, the Scorpion and the Rum Runner were now available only in Chinese restaurants and they all tasted exactly alike, being made by then out of nothing but fruit juice and rum.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a drink made with fruit juice and rum – I make them all the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and sometimes keep making them until the first snowfall. But the tropical drinks that arose during the heyday of the tiki phenomenon were far better and far more complex.

The tiki era was launched in 1934 when a guy named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt – fortunately, he later began calling himself Donn Beach – opened a small, Polynesian-type bar in a hotel lobby in Hollywood, California. He called the place Don’s Beachcomber Café.

The inspiration behind the Café lay in a trip Donn made to Jamaica, where he had a memorable encounter with a Jamaican Rum Punch. Back in Hollywood, Donn was bartending at the Hollywood Hotel and his girlfriend, Sunny Sund, was waitressing at the Tick Tock Tearoom, also in the hotel. Donn and Sunny married, borrowed some money and opened Don’s Beachcomber Café – more usually called Don The Beachcomber.

Over the years Donn invented many of the classic tiki drinks we know today, including the Zombie and the Navy Grog – and he claimed to have invented many others. In any event, Donn made the drinks, Sunny ran the business and the rest was history. Eventually there were sixteen locations of Don The Beachcomber – it was the first national chain of themed restaurants In America

Alas, Donn and Sunny eventually fell out, got divorced, and began opening competitive Don The Beachcomber restaurants, even using the same name. The business declined and all the sites closed.

But, this being capitalist America, all was not lost. One day a fellow named Vic Bergeron stopped by Don The Beachcomber and was captivated. Of course, Bergeron wasn’t the only one who’d been captivated – according to TOCSC there were by then more than 150 bars trying to replicate Donn’s success.

Recognizing that his drink recipes were the key to his brand, Donn had “encrypted” them, 1930s style. His bartenders were instructed to make his drinks by using unlabeled bottles marked with numbers – so they couldn’t steal the recipes and set up their own tiki bars. As a result, most of Donn’s competitors were serving inferior copies of what he called his “rhum rhapsodies.”

But Bergeron wasn’t interested in opening an inferior clone of Don The Beachcomber. Instead, he betook himself to the Caribbean – it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it – and steeped himself in the art of making fine Caribbean rum cocktails.

Bergeron returned to California and opened a small place he called Hinky Dink’s. The place quickly became so popular, especially with Hollywood stars, that Bergeron expanded the place and changed its name to what would soon become the iconic tiki bar and restaurant, Trader Vic’s.

While Donn Beach and Sunny Sund were fighting, Trader Vic’s exploded, far surpassing Don The Beachcomber in number of locations, quality of food (pupu platters), and, according to some, even the quality of the tiki drinks. At its peak there were twenty-five Trader Vic’s in operation.

Bergeron claimed to have invented the Fog Cutter and the Scorpion Bowl, among other drinks. The former is made with rum, brandy, gin, lemon juice, orange juice, and orgeat syrup, with cream sherry floating on top. It is usually served in a ceramic mug. Because of its powerful alcohol content the Fog Cutter is often referred to as the “Long Island Iced Tea” of tiki drinks.

By the way, on the subject of strong tiki drinks the all-time champion is the Zombie, invented by Donn Beach. It has three kinds of rum, various other spirits, and is often served in a large glass. Having had some unfortunate experience of Zombie customers zombie-ing out, Donn imposed a two-drink maximum limit per customer – a custom that continues to be honored by many tiki bars to this day, ninety years later.

The Scorpion Bowl is a communal tiki drink served in a large ceramic bowl that is usually decorated with hula-girls. You drink it with your date through long straws, leaving behind no designated driver. The drink is made with rum, brandy, orgeat syrup and orange and lemon juice (i.e., it’s very similar to the Fog Cutter).

Bergeron’s greatest success, though, was the Mai Tai, as delicious a cocktail as has ever reached the lips of man or woman. Donn Beach also claimed to have invented the Mai Tai and the controversy has never been settled. But Bergeron’s origin story is more charming.

According to the Trader Vic’s website, in 1944 Bergeron believed he needed to add a new tiki drink to his cocktail list. He mixed a bunch of things together, fiddled with it, and finally came up with something that tasted very good. But Bergeron wasn’t sure about the mixture and he didn’t add it to his cocktail menu right away.

One day a lady friend was visiting Trader Vic’s from Tahiti, so Bergeron asked if she would taste his new creation. After one sip the lady said, in Tahitian, “Mai Tai – Roa Ae!” meaning “Out of this World – The Best!” And thereupon was born the Mai Tai. Ironically, Bergeron learned later that in Tahitian “Mai Tai” is actually pronounced “Mai Tay.” We’ve all been pronouncing it wrong for eighty years.

Next up: The Oxford Companion, Part 4

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