Historians say tiki drinks have cycled in and out of popularity since the 1930s. Now, some craft cocktailers are embracing the unpretentious fun of tropical concoctions.
On the surface, the tiki and so-called mixology movements seem to be on opposite ends of the cocktail continuum. If we judge them by their caricatures, tiki is like an irreverently tacky little brother trying to get you sloshed on artificially sweetened rum bombs. Conversely, the classic cocktail revival got a rap for being stuffy and elitist. Ten years ago asking your resident mustachioed “mixologist” for a Zombie was as sinful as shaking a Manhattan.
“At the beginning of the craft-cocktail renaissance, nobody wanted to touch tiki with a 10-foot pole,” said tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “They all thought of it as being syrupy, crappy drinks.”
But increasingly, craft cocktailers are loosening their ties and trading tinctures for umbrella garnishes. From San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove to New York’s fabled PKny or Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, some accomplished bartenders have moved from faux speakeasies to tropical-themed bars, applying their martini-honed skill set to rum punches.
On Tuesday, one of the Twin Cities’ most respected drink-mixing minds, Nick Kosevich, is unveiling a new tiki bar at Eat Street Social. While originally planned for the patio, the Torpedo Bar is instead taking over the side room off the main dining area, where Kosevich and his cocktailing crew will offer interpretations of traditional tiki drinks, a daily grog, an adult snow-cone menu as well as some Polynesian fare. One of the drinks Kosevich is proudest of is the Corn Tiki — a Midwestern take on a classic Painkiller, which substitutes sweet-corn milk and spiced apple cider for coconut, cream, pineapple and orange juice.
While temperately embracing elements of tiki decor — check the thatched-roof bar, 8-foot marlin and variety of tiki mugs — Kosevich says the Torpedo Bar is all about the cocktails. “We’re not opening up a kitschy tiki bar,” he said. “That’s not what this is. We’re taking these cocktails very seriously and we are making sure that the drinks we’re putting through that bar are the best tiki drinks anyone’s had — that’s our goal.”
It’s just as well, since one would be hard-pressed to outdo Psycho Suzi’s — the unparalleled northeast Minneapolis tiki palace — in the kitsch department (though owner Leslie Bock’s next Ferris-wheel-erecting project might do the trick). Kosevich, who crafted the cocktail menu with his Bittercube bitters partner Ira Koplowitz and Eat Street Social manager/bartender Marco Zappia, instead focused on making as many scratch-made ingredients as possible. Count a spiced rum using 20 different botanicals, an allspice dram, cherry liqueur, orgeat and falernum among some of the in-house ingredients in their toolbox.
So, why now are the tiki and craft-cocktail worlds colliding? Pip Hanson, cocktailer in chief at Marvel Bar — which tiptoed into tiki this summer during its Sunday improv nights and with its frozen “Blender Bar” menu — said it’s a predictable reaction to the “temple-of-the-cocktail bars” like New York’s Pegu Club and PDT. “Everything got a little bit precious, and that’s fine,” Hanson said. “Tiki is just a totally unpretentious thing. It’s a return to having fun with your drinks. A lot of people would argue it’s high time that happened again.”
Berry, who Imbibe Magazine dubbed one of the most influential cocktail personalities of the past century, said tiki represents a new frontier for many skilled bartenders. Where three-ingredient, pre-Prohibition cocktails are like a haiku, he says astutely balancing a dozen ingredients in a tiki drink is like composing an “epic poem.”
The author and cocktail creator has spent more than a decade researching tiki culture and deciphering coded recipes written by tiki godfather Donn Beach (a k a Don the Beachcomber) for several books. “Really, tiki was the first craft-cocktail movement after Prohibition,” Berry said, crediting Beach and rival Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron for pioneering tiki in the 1930s and 1940s. “They were doing farm-to-glass, culinary cocktails 70 years before those terms even existed. They were using fresh herbs and spices, and ingredients more familiar to the kitchen than to the bar.”
After 40 years of Mai Tais and luau motifs, Berry said, tiki died in the disco era. By 1970, images of the Vietnam War killed the idea of a Polynesian paradise, and cocktails in general lost their cachet, as the younger generation viewed them as their parents’ drinks. Berry said the bars left standing were cost-cutters that used low-quality ingredients, tainting tiki for decades to come.
The tiki aesthetic regained some cool in the ’90s as an “underground, alternative,” lifestyle trend, Berry said. After the cocktail revival of the early aughts, the quality of the drinks started improving.
Jimmy Buffett be damned, tiki is easing its way into the contemporary craft-cocktail scene like a vacationer into a beach chair. If it provides a more accessible avenue for people to enjoy well-made drinks, what’s not to like?
“It’s impossible to be pretentious, egomaniacal and all those things that people hate about quote-unquote mixologists if you’re making a drink in a scorpion bowl,” Berry said. “You just can’t be that guy.”
New in Uptown
Brace yourself, Uptown. You’re about to get Borough’d. Borough/Parlour co-owner Brent Frederick said the team behind the North Loop restaurant and cocktail bar is opening a new joint in Uptown. The French-industrial-themed Coup D’état is slated to open this fall in the Walkway building at the former Cowboy Slim’s site. Frederick said Coup D’état will offer contemporary American fare with “a Mediterranean twist.” Parlour’s chief elixir mixer, Jesse Held, will design the cocktail menu.
Rooftop dance party
In what we’re hoping becomes a holiday weekend tradition, Union is throwing a second Skylight Rooftop Party after a strong turnout for an inaugural July 3 bash. Sunday’s dance party-on-high features L.A.-based Plastic Plates and others behind the decks. The nu-disco DJ has remixed the likes of Adele, Katy Perry, Mark Ronson and fellow Australians the Presets, and last year dropped his debut EP on hip French label Kitsune.
8 p.m., Sun., $5, 21-plus, 731 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-455-6690, www.skylightmpls.com.
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.