Tommy Fiesel

Tiki Forever

Welcome to the world of Tiki, whose very nature and meaning is explored at length on every platform in which it is discussed. Trying to define it is a lost cause—what makes Tiki so special is the bones of the thing. Tiki is transportive. It’s immersive. It’s tactile and present, yet mysterious and intoxicating. Tiki is community. Tiki is an escape, and like jazz, it is a purely American form of expression.

What we call Tiki today we largely owe to two intrepid adventurers, and to grasp where it stands, we must consider Tiki’s forefathers. Ernest Gantt, who eventually changed his name to Donn Beach, opened Don’s Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1933. He had spent Prohibition bootlegging rum from the Caribbean and then sailing the South Pacific. When he returned, Donn Beach opened a bar that was decorated with the souvenirs of his travels, and brought the rum, spices, and fruits of these exotic locales to life in his cocktails. Shortly after, and much inspired by the success of Donn Beach, “Trader” Vic Bergeron transformed his own bar into a Tiki paradise in Oakland, California, and so, Trader Vic’s, another Tiki giant, was born.

These two did much to create and solidify the Tiki standards, but they kept the ingredients of their cocktails jealously guarded secrets, even from their own bartenders, who often had to pour mysterious mixes from unlabeled bottles.

Still, Tiki spread in a rabid way. All across the country people were swept away to hidden coves, sultry lagoons, and grottos fraught with danger, even if only for the evening. Special occasions were celebrated and family traditions solidified. In 1961, during the height of Tiki madness, the Kahiki Supper Club opened on East Broad Street. It was a gigantic, luxurious, and mesmerizing temple to all things exotic, where two giant Moais with flaming heads stood guard at the front door.

While many legendary bars like the Kahiki left an entry in the hallowed tome of Tiki, the bloodlines began to thin. Nearly every Tiki bar had a Zombie or Mai Tai, but the original recipes were still closely guarded secrets. And so, with the rise of disco and the overly sweetened drinks of the 1970s, Tiki, hand-in-hand with the classic cocktail, died a slow death by daiquiri.

In 1998, hero and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry published Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log, a book of recipes teased from the relatives and former employees of Tiki giants. In this way, and somewhat parallel to the revival of classic cocktails, Tiki drinks were brought back from the dead. But, unlike most classic drinks, Tiki drinks have to strike a more delicate harmony: the drinks must balance on more axes than the average drink, built on the tensions between sour, sweet, strong and weak; between exotic spices and tropical fruit. The textures vary wildly. Curious names, bizarre vessels, and romantic garnishes suggest the dangerous and exotic.

A good bartender knows, though, that even the best drink is just a tool—one to help create a memorable experience and to bring your guests joy. These days you can enjoy wonderful Tiki-style drinks, from bartenders who know their work, in cocktail bars all over the world. But, to get that truly immersive and memorable experience, you must be situated squarely in a Tiki Bar. You simply must be among the music specifically tailored to this environment, with sounds of water in the distance, with the lighting dim and decor busy with the art and idols from (seemingly) far-flung corners of the globe. You must be amongst the aromas and ephemera. Then you will be immersed, transported, and present. Only then will you have escaped.

In Columbus, we have three wonderful pillars of Tiki. The Grass Skirt is a beautiful downtown destination. This sanctuary to all things exotic checks all the boxes in presenting an urban paradise, and the patio boasts George the Monkey, a gigantic fountain that was once situated within the Kahiki. The Fraternal Order of Moai is the second pillar, and has lent the use of the fountain to the Grass Skirt. The Order is a charitable organization that aims to give back to the community while preserving tiki culture. It was formed in Columbus after the Kahiki was bulldozed in 2000, and has chapters across the country. The third pillar is the Hula Hop, the yearly parking lot party thrown by the Grass Skirt and Fraternal Order of Moai. There are bands, dancers, food and drink, as well as vendors and tiki carving demonstrations.

We believe the rebirth of Tiki is a cultural movement. It has connections, both graceful and cumbersome, to other movements. The renewal of classic cocktails and craft bartending, probably, come to mind first, and for good reason. Tiki has had the great fortune of resurfacing during a time when bartenders are honing their skills to a razor’s edge. The resurgence and elevation of rum and other cane spirits enjoys a bit of tense symbiosis with the Tiki movement, both serving, at times, to lift the other. The Ohio Rum Society continues to lift cane spirits as a category in our
fair city.

Most importantly, we see the return of Tiki not as a passing fad, but as a marker for a shift in cultural identity. Parallels can be drawn to cultural shifts in music, as well. Not only the thunderous wave of new surf rock we’ve been enjoying in recent years, but a slide towards analog music and the resurgence of vinyl.

We want things that are real. Things you can hold. We’re becoming dissatisfied pouring our lives into a four-inch screen to expel reality. We are no longer content swiping through the noise. We want texture and aroma, ambiance and flavor. We want to be transported; we want to be enveloped. We want to be washed away.