The Tiki phenomenon (continued)

As I mentioned, I came of legal drinking age at a time when you could only get tiki drinks at Chinese restaurants. The pioneering Don The Beachcomber was no more and as far as I knew all the Trader Vic’s had closed, except for a few locations abroad.

While the tiki drinks in Chinese restaurants were nothing like a true tiki cocktail, there were better and worse versions. One day when I was in Bethesda on business, for example, I stumbled across a Chinese restaurant that made passable tiki drinks, even including a semi-passible Mai Tai.

A few years later I was dropping my son off at Reagan Airport on my way back to Pittsburgh from North Carolina. It occurred to me that I would be a lot happier if, instead of driving five hours home, I drove one hour to Bethesda, downed a half dozen or so tiki drinks with my Kung Pao chicken, then stumbled across the street to some fleabag hotel.

In those days I assumed that I was doomed to drink nothing but Chinese-restaurant tiki drinks for the rest of my life, but this proved to be unduly pessimistic.

One day I was in LA on business and was staying at the Beverly Hilton because it was near where my meetings would be the next day. It’s a vast place where the annual Golden Globe awards ceremony is held – and where Whitney Houston died about a decade ago.

I had had meetings that afternoon in Santa Monica, so I didn’t arrive at the Hilton until after seven p.m. I checked in and asked the desk clerk if the hotel had a restaurant. The harried clerk didn’t even look up, he just pointed. I looked where he was pointing but didn’t see a restaurant. I dropped my bag in my room and headed back down to the lobby.

When I finally found the restaurant, damned if it wasn’t a Trader Vic’s! I could hardly believe my eyes, but there it was in all its fading glory. Although it was early for the LA dinner hour – to say nothing of the Beverly Hills dinner hour – the restaurant was half-full and both the inside and outside bars (the restaurant was located poolside) were jammed.

I opened the menu and right there splashed across the top of the page was the legend, “TRADER VIC’S, HOME OF THE ORIGINAL MAI TAI!” Naturally, I ordered one and it was terrific, maybe better than terrific – nothing at all like the Chinese-restaurant versions. So naturally I ordered another, and then one with dinner and then two for dessert. I wasn’t exactly at my best at my meetings the next morning, but it was well worth it.

Then things got even better. Sometime around 2005 the cocktail renaissance in the US got around to reviving the great tiki drinks. Today, in my hometown of Pittsburgh, which isn’t usually in the vanguard of trendy things, there are at least six tiki bars.

Bizarrely, the pièce de résistance of the tiki renaissance is the resurrection of Don The Beachcomber. “Like Donn’s legendary cocktail the Zombie,” the new website says, “Don the Beachcomber raises (sic) from the dead!”

It turns out that some (slightly illiterate) company bought the rights to Don the Beachcomber and plans to open ten to fifteen of them, mostly in Florida and the Southeast. The first is scheduled to open in Madeira Beach, near St. Petersburg, very soon. See you there!

Rum floaters

One day in the mid-Aughts I was in New York on business with two colleagues. We were headed to dinner but came across a small, interesting-looking bar, so naturally we stopped in.

The place turned out to have a Latin theme so I ordered a mojito. The bartender cocked an eye at me, sized me up, and said, “Would you prefer the regular mojito, señor, or the macho mojito?”

I assumed the macho mojito was a regular mojito but bigger, sort of like condoms, but when the drink arrived it was the regular size – but with a rum floater on top.

I knew about rum floaters, of course, but had never actually had one. I’d assumed they were a gimmicky thing, like turning your beer bottle upside down in your margarita. But in fact the macho mojito was a sensation. I like a regular mojito as well as the next person, but now I was sold on the floater version.

A few weeks later, at home, I was mixing up a large batch of daiquiris (I have four grown sons so it was a large batch), when I remembered the macho mojito. Why not try a macho daiquiri?

It, too, was sensational, and so I started putting rum floaters on everything – mojitos, daiquiris, margaritas, mashed potatoes. It sounds simple but it’s terrific and I commend it to you.

But before you run out and start pouring dark rum onto everything, keep in mind that there is a trick to it. Dark rum floats because it has a specific gravity – a density – that is lighter than the other liquids in a drink. But it isn’t that much lighter. If you just pour your Meyers’s or Appleton’s or Gosling’s into the drink it will mix with everything else, so that it looks like you are drinking a Mud Fling.

What you want to do is to turn a spoon – preferably a bar spoon, one of those long, spiral-handled things – upside down near the top of the liquid and pour the dark rum gently onto the back of the spoon. It will then magically float on top and you will be in business.

Next up: The Oxford Companion, Part 5

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