Drinking Tiki: A Brief History

Pete Capella
(Photo: )

The Mai Tai, the Scorpion, the Zombie; drinks that illicit just as much visually as they do taste. They were the crown jewels of a drink movement that took pre-WWII America by storm. Enchanted by relics from tropical paradises, patrons poured into the rum slinging bars in search of the perfect Tiki drink.

The idea of Tiki Bars was introduced to the United States in 1934 by a gentleman named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, a Louisiana native who had spent time sailing through the South Pacific. Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Gantt came upon a recently vacated tailor shop on Hollywood Boulevard and opened up the Don the Beachcomber, a bar dressed in artifacts he had collected throughout his travels through the tropics. Post-prohibition, rum was relatively cheap and easy to mix. Gantt took it upon himself to invent exotic rum cocktails to complement the decor and even served Cantonese cuisine. The bar, an escape from reality, became extremely popular especially among Hollywood celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes-who was rumored to have had one too many zombies and killing a pedestrian with his car on his drive home. Gantt was so well known for his establishment that he eventually changed his name to Donn Beach.

The same year Ernest Gantt was taking over Hollywood, a young entrepreneur named Victor Bergeron borrowed $500 and opened up a small Oakland based BBQ joint called Hinky Dinks. But, two years later in 1936, after a trip to Hollywood, he bamboo’ed the walls and strung up some island paraphernalia and opened up the soon-to-be world famous Trader Vic’s. Vic was a hell of a businessman and popularity of the restaurant led to expansion and eventually Trader Vic’s all across the world. Vic and Beach kept up a friendly rivalry, each claiming to have invented the Mai Tai. 

By the late 1970’s the Tiki movement fell out of vogue, and was labeled as tacky. In recent years, beginning in the late 90’s,  bars began to focus on cocktalia and Tiki found a resurgence. Original drink recipes from Gantt and Bergeron truly balanced the tropical sweetness they are known for with a potent rum base and a variety of liqueurs and bitters. As the cocktail revolution continues, so will Tiki.

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