Cocktail of the Month


As Washington – and much of the United
States – thaws out from one of the biggest
cold spells in recent memory, I
have been relishing my new tropical home on

the tranquil island of Bali. Enjoying an average
daily temperature of 85 degrees and a 10-minute
commute to the beach, just looking at the cold
weather on CNN sends shivers down my spine.
But if you can’t move to Polynesia, one of
the best ways to bring the beach to you is with a
tropical umbrella drink. While a hot toddy may
warm your soul, nothing quite says sunshine and
happiness like a tiki bar.

The original tiki bar was Don the
Beachcomber, created by Ernest Gantt in 1933
in Los Angeles. (Author Wayne Curtis tells the
story in “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of
the New World in Ten Cocktails”). Gantt, who
had spent much of his youth rambling about the
tropics, rented a small bar and decorated it with
items he’d gathered in the South Pacific, along
with driftwood, nets and parts of wrecked boats
scavenged from the beach.

Gantt stocked his bar with inexpensive rums,
available in abundance after Prohibition, and
invented an array of faux-tropical drinks using
fruit juices and exotic liqueurs. His bar became
incredibly fashionable, attracting celebrities and
prompting Gantt to legally rename himself Donn
Beach.

The other iconic tiki bar was Trader Vic’s,
founded in 1934 in Oakland, Calif., by Victor
Jules Bergeron, Jr. Originally called Hinky
Dinks, Bergeron’s small bar and restaurant
soon morphed into a Polynesian-themed spot
with tropical drinks. It was renamed Trader
Vic’s at the suggestion of Bergeron’s wife, who
thought it would fit because her husband was
always involved in some type of deal or trade.
According to Curtis, Bergeron admits he swiped
the tiki concept from Gantt.

Both bars expanded to multiple locations,
sparking a nationwide craze that spawned dozens
of imitators, all rushing to replicate each
other’s colorful tipples.

Gantt was a talented mixologist who crafted
complex drinks with lengthy ingredient lists,
including multiple rums, homemade syrups and
fresh fruit. But as more tiki-themed bars opened
and Trader Vic’s turned to franchising, the
intricate cocktails became watered-down and
simplified.

Perhaps the most duplicated tipple is the
quintessential tiki drink: the mai tai. Both Gantt
and Bergeron claimed to have invented it, but
their recipes vary wildly. The name is derived
from “Maita’i,” the Tahitian word for “good.”
Though it later fell out of fashion, the mai
tai was one of the most popular cocktails in the
1950s and ’60s. It featured prominently in Elvis
Presley’s chartbuster movie “Blue Hawaii.”
In their heyday, tiki bars were popular places
to celebrate a big occasion. Trader Vic’s at the
Washington Hilton was a hot spot for power
lunches. It was a favorite of Richard Nixon, who
had a fondness for mai tais.

According to Curtis, a mai tai was the first
thing requested by Patty Hearst, the Symbionese
Liberation Army kidnap-victim turned conspirator,
when she was released on bail in 1976.
Eventually the tiki bubble burst. With
scores of cheap imitators and poor locations,
the Polynesian fad began to lose its luster. None
of the original Don the Beachcombers are still
in existence and Trader Vic’s has only a few
remaining outposts. Perhaps the trend’s last
stand came in 1989, when the ever-brash Donald
Trump closed the venerable Trader Vic’s in New
York’s Plaza Hotel, calling it “tacky.”

Tiki crawled back into the spotlight over the
last decade and a half as retro-hipsters embraced
its kitschiness. Its comeback has continued with
the recent cocktail renaissance. Modern mixologists
have begun to uncover some of the original
tropical recipes with their multi-layered rum
profiles, fresh juices and handcrafted syrups.
The craft tiki cocktail movement arrived in
full force at the Georgetown waterfront in 2009
with mixologist Jon Arroyo’s extensive list of
authentic cocktails at Farmers Fishers Bakers.
Imbibers can sample homemade mai tais based
on the recipes of both Bergeron and Gantt.
Another option is Hogo, a Caribbean-themed
rum bar on 7th Street, NW, featuring highend
island cocktails. The man behind Hogo,
launched just over a year ago, is Tom Brown,
a partner in Washington’s craft cocktail palace
The Passenger.

So when the January frost is nipping at your
nose, remember the words that Donn Beach
would tell his customers: “If you can’t get to
paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai
1 1/2 oz. Myers’s Rum
1 oz. Cuban rum (use a medium-bodied rum such as
Appleton or Barbancourt)
3/4 oz. lime juice
1 oz. grapefruit juice
1/4 oz. falernum syrup
1/2 oz. Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Dash of Pernod

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai
2 oz. aged Jamaican rum
.5 oz. orgeat syrup
.5 oz. orange curacao
.25 oz. rock candy syrup
Juice from one fresh lime

For both drinks: Shake everything with ice and
strain into a double old-fashioned glass full of
crushed ice. Garnish with pineapple spear, lime
shell and a sprig of fresh mint.

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