tiki drink mango
Image: Ryan McVay

IF MAGAZINES, news media, and bartenders wearing tweed knickers have yet to make you aware, we are in the middle of a glorious craft cocktail renaissance. Ten years ago, fresh juice reappeared behind bars, the first indicator that quality had become trendy once more. Later came artful miniature drinks in vintage crystal cups and hotly debated articles about the first appearance of the martini in print. With all the attention to detail, we’ve lost sight of something important: Drinking is supposed to be fun.

But a silent torchlight vigil has run parallel to the serious cocktail movement, a silly congregation that honors hibiscus-print shirts as much as quality drinks. Call it the tiki revival and know that it is a sleeping volcano about to spew new life onto the increasingly austere craft-cocktail scene.

The origin of tiki drinks can be traced to the late ’30s, when Earnest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, an ex-bootlegger, and Victor Jules Bergeron, a sandwich-shop jockey, opened competing bars in Southern California, both decorated with bits of thatch and Polynesian bric-a-brac. They became known, respectively, as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. In 1940, the first Trader Vic’s franchise opened right here in Seattle, at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel Downtown. Around that same time Vic invented the mai tai, the cocktail that would become tiki’s calling card. Variations are endless, but Vic’s classic mai tai is a sweet yet balanced mix of rum, lime juice, curacao, simple syrup, and orgeat. Over the next 25 years, Don and Vic owned more than 75 restaurants between them and kicked off a trend that spawned innumerable copycat eateries worldwide.

Originally, the tiki movement centered on tropical juices, exotic rums, and a hodgepodge of other consumable booty plundered from the South Seas. The point was to transport you without traveling: Tiki was about escape. Over time, however, a bottom line ethos meant corners were cut. Canned juices replaced fresh, mixes replaced housemade syrups, quality rums were all but forgotten.

Today, Polynesian-inspired drinks destinations like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, El Cobre in New York City, and Thatch in Portland are bringing quality ingredients back to the tiki realm. Seattle has yet to attract a bar on par, but you’ll find devoted disciples mixing drinks at Tini Bigs, Naga Cocktail Bar, Moshi Moshi, and Rob Roy, all happy to help you navigate the hard-to-crack code of tiki terms. Meantime, check out the glossary below.