Postwar Tiki

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Donn Beach crafting a cocktail

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The bar at Don the Beachcomber

1940 to 1970

    After World War II, American mixology met a crossroads. The American economy soared to new heights. The average American had a large amount of spending money and was parched. However, American mixology was still in a temporary Dark Age. Some small areas in America, however, revitalized old cocktail traditions. In the late 1930s, Donn Beach opened his Donn the Beachcomber Bar in Hollywood. It was decorated all over with relics of the Caribbean and island Pacific. He had previously sailed these areas and learned their cocktail cultures while younger (Donn was a showman, so take everything related to him with a grain of salt). During the Great Depression, this little corner of Hollywood provided a vacation of sorts. One could escape into another world. It was also the home to the best cocktails one could find. Before Prohibition, American bartenders escaped in numbers to the Caribbean. The cocktail culture there preserved American mixology and its good practices. The feel of the bar was unique and it attracted celebrities. One didn’t need to dress up and there wasn’t a band. Instead, it encapsulated adventure and mystique. Trader Vic opened a similar bar in Oakland having toured the Caribbean’s cocktail culture and visited Donn’s bar. By the time World War II was over, Vic expanded across the United States and Donn Beach was close behind. Americans loved the Tiki bar. Going there was a fun event where showmen like Vic and Donn provided good cocktails along with a desirable atmosphere. Exotica music became popular across the US as Tiki culture spread.

    This would not last, however, as the US entered the Jet Age and the late 1960s. By that time, if Americans wanted to go on a Caribbean or Pacific vacation they would simply do so. The atmosphere around tiki changed completely. Instead of being young and avant-garde, it quickly became seen as tacky and kitsch. Young Americans saw tiki as something that their parents liked while they reminisced about movie stars from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Tiki became “washed up” as young Americans explored new ideas in the Cold War. By the late 1970s, tiki had gone from a global enterprise to almost closing altogether. Donn the Beachcomber closed and Trader Vic’s barely survived into today. Unfortunately, as tiki went out the door, so did its preservation of good mixology.




Drink: Mai Tai

    This drink was invented by Trader Vic himself with inspiration from the good mixology of Caribbean beverages. Donn Beach contests that he actually invented the drink, although historical sources point towards Vic. This goes to show how important showmanship was for tiki. The Mai Tai was very popular and is emblematic of tiki itself: a unique concoction that "borrows" from foreign ideas to monetize a uniquely American experience.

In a shaker, add 2oz aged rum

Add 0.75oz curaçao (an orange liqueur from the Caribbean)

1oz lime juice

0.5oz orgeat (an almond syrup used in numerous tiki drinks)

Add ice and shake

Strain into glass

Fill with crushed or pebbled ice

Garnish with lime and mint

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Mai Tai

Postwar Tiki