So... Why Tiki?
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
I'm not the kinda guy the goes around writing manifestos but I feel like I should probably offer some explanation for all of this effort.
I suppose most of you here already know me, have worked with me, or (God forbid) are kin of some sort. You are the ones that are probably not too surprised that I'm doing this. I've a reputation for finding ways to legitimize bad habits. For anyone else, I assume you got here because some part of Polynesian Pop has caught your attention as well. Personally, Tiki Culture resides at a nexus of many things that I have long enjoyed. It's like a black hole around which many of my pursuits revolved. Escapism, mid-century Americana, tropical locales, rum, travel, entertaining, bands with vibraphones... I'll stop. It's a long list.
However, before we get to deep into the why perhaps I should outline the what...
When I use terms like Polynesian Pop or Tiki what am I talking about? While many people will reach a definition that is broader than my own, I tend to think of Tiki as beginning with Don Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) opening his first restaurant in Hollywood in 1933 and ending sometime in the 1970's when the punch line became a punch line. By then the standard drinks were syrupy sweet, artificially flavored (and colored) abominations that bore little resemblance to their forefathers save their names. It's at this time that American escapism was transformed from a seaplane to Polynesia for exotica and a rum rhapsody to a sailboat to the Keys with Jimmy Buffett and a Margarita. Don't get me wrong, I have great affinity for that particular brand of escapism as well. In fact, there was a time when my dream job was to be the marimba player in the Coral Reefer Band (I've still got chops if you're reading this Jimmy) it's just that it's not Tiki.
The roughly 40 years that Tiki owned are typically divided into eras or style as defined by Sven Kirsten in his books Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop. They are (in sequential order) Tropical or Pre-Tiki, Beachcomber Style, Trader Style, and High Tiki. Each is associated with the ascension of a new torchbearer determined to outdo the last. But I digress. The point is that I'm most interested in that 1933-73 timeline. It's pre-airline deregulation when travel was prohibitively expense for most Americans. At the time, nothing about the Tiki buildings, the bars, the drinks or the escapism was ironic or kitsch in any way. As each era launched, it built upon the best of the last, each consistently trying to surpass the expectations of anyone that darkened their door. Which brings me back to the why.
Above all, I love it when expectations are exceeded. To me, that is the defining characteristic of art. There were millions of houses built in the the USA in the 20th century. However, while we rarely know who designed most of them we know of every one created by Frank Lloyd Wright. They weren't bigger, they weren't the most expensive, and in many cases they were less livable, but they were, on every level, more than they had to be. That's what makes Polynesian Pop art to me. Everything about it is over the top while still being connected to the natural world in a way that the 20th century saw most of the western world abandon. To put it simply, why go to a bar full of all of the same stuff supplied by Sysco to every other bar in town to drink a Rum & Coke when you can go to a room so incongruous with the outside world that it induces a disorienting feeling of escapism while you drink a concoction that requires a dozen ingredients, technical proficiency and a ridiculous amount of garnishes?!
...I know where I want to hang.
So, why now? Haven't others documented all of this sufficiently? The reasons here go back to my first quest to save an older art back when I was in college in the southern Appalachian mountains. While there, a friend (and bonafide local of Carter County, TN) introduced me to moonshine. Now it wasn't like I'd never heard or even tried 'shine. I grew up watching Burt Reynolds in Gator and plenty of it filtered through a college that I attended in Western North Carolina, but this was different. It wasn't just white lightening designed to blow your head off or an unaged cheaper version of rye whisky that came out of Kentucky or middle Tennessee. This was corn liquor infused with whatever fruit was in season via a thumper keg and then bottled together. I never gave it to a single person that didn't enjoy it and the flavors were out of this world. The old guy that made it had a cabin surrounded by a garden and gnarled fruit trees that somehow survived the cold winters up in those mountains. It was farm to glass 20 years before I ever heard the term. As soon as I saw the end of my college career in sight I started trying to learn how to make it. Alas, I was not a bonafide Carter Countian. I couldn't even get a meeting with the maker. He actually told my friend he'd never sell him anymore if he ever showed up with me in tow. So, I set about trying to get my friend to learn. No good. His son seemed to be the only guy he would share techniques with and his son was more interested in cooking meth. Today, that Carter County shine is only a memory.
When I first learned about Tiki that feeling of loss came flooding back. While I don't have to do the detective work thanks to Tiki Revivalists like Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, Sven Kirsten, Otto von Stroheim and Martin Crate; I do have the ability to help insure that the keys to the kingdom are as well distributed as possible. It may seem crazy given the proliferation of materials in the past decade but many of these books were only released in limited runs and are already difficult to find (or are crazy expensive on Ebay and Amazon's second hand market). Despite their work(s) there are still plenty of towns where getting a good Tiki drink means getting out of town. If you are in that boat, hit the recipes and become the Tiki bar you want to see!
Lastly we live in an era where it seems to be perfectly acceptable to live in the fashion of any previous era. I assume this will continue, and as such new converts to Polynesian Pop will need resources that may be long out of print. Hopefully some will find what they're looking for here. But in the meantime, let's make a drink...