Vintage Cocktails: Tiki Drinks

Big Bamboo, served in vintage tall glasses.
Big Bamboo, served in vintage tall glasses.
Brittanie Shey

Say "tiki drink" to someone unfamiliar with the cocktail style, and they'll often imagine a frozen daiquiri with an umbrella served at some bar where Jimmy Buffett is on repeat and all the patrons wear Tommy Bahama.

But the truth is that long before the artisan cocktail trend ever hit Texas, a group of Polynesian Pop aficionados were searching out rums of different origins, demanding fresh-squeezed juices in every drink, and collecting mugs and schwag from long-demolished restaurants and hotel bars specializing in the escapist trend known as "tiki."

In the next week, two separate tiki events are taking place in town, offering you a chance to taste a bit of American pop cultural history. Saturday night at 7 p.m., Boheme on Taft and Fairview in The Montrose will be offering tiki drinks, rum punch and playing Exotica music and surf rock on their back patio. And Tuesday, Anvil Bar and Refuge (1424 Westheimer) will offer a full tiki menu in what may become a regular weekly event.

The Mai Kai in undeveloped Ft. Launderdale, Fla., 1956. It now sits off a major highway.
The Mai Kai in undeveloped Ft. Launderdale, Fla., 1956. It now sits off a major highway.
Courtesy Mai Kai

Tiki culture really took hold in the 1950s and '60s as soldiers were returning from WWII's Pacific front. Following the hardship of war, the nation was enthralled with the romantic escapism painted in portraits like James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and at restaurants like Don the Beachcomber.

All of these influences combined into a highly stylistic hodge-podgey image of a fantasy place, often blending Pacific culture with Oriental cuisine -- whatever middle America deemed "exotic" -- to create what is sometimes now referred to as Polynesian Pop (to distinguish it from authentic Polynesian culture). And Polynesian Pop thrived, in Houston and beyond, with restaurants feuding over who was the first to invent such-and-such cocktail.

Vintage Cocktails: Tiki Drinks

Alas, the trend died with the late-'70s/early-'80s generation, who deemed it a quaint relic of their parents' past. Restaurants like the Trader Vic's in Houston's old Shamrock Hilton Hotel and Ren Clark's Polynesian Village in Ft. Worth were shuttered or demolished.

Then came the '90s, and with it a love of kitsch and nostalgia. Sven Kirsten, a tiki enthusiast, published The Book of Tiki, an encyclopedia of all things tiki that became the bible for the new Polynesian Pop revolution. Tiki Central, an online bulletin board, launched in 2000, and members have been trading drink recipes, tiki spottings and other tales in the decade since. One member of Tiki Central, Dennis Haberkern, recently talked to Dallas Observer food critic Hanna Raskin about his search for tiki relics in Dallas.


Leading the revival of tiki drinks is Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry, a mixologist who since the late '90s, has been publishing cocktail recipe books featuring exquisitely researched details on the origins of famous tiki drinks like the Mai Tai and the Zombie. His latest book, Beach Bum Berry Remixed, even includes secret recipes handwritten on scraps of paper. If that doesn't get your Treasure Island fantasies going, we don't know what will.

Today's drink comes from that very book, and originated at Ft. Lauderdale's Mai Kai, the oldest still-operating Polynesian restaurant and floor revue in America. The restaurant has been open since 1956. The drink dates from around 1960. Read more about the Big Bamboo and the Mai Kai here.

Big Bamboo

  • 1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice*
  • 1/2 oz orange juice
  • 1/2 oz grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 oz passion fruit syrup
  • 1/2 oz dark Jamaican run
  • 1 oz gold Cuban rum (we used Cruzan Rum from the Virgin Islands since Cuban rum is embargoed)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 4 oz (1/2 cup) crushed ice

Put everything in a blender and blend at high speed for exactly 5 seconds. Pour into a bamboo mug or tall glass.

*Part of the pleasure of a tiki drink is the delight of fresh-squeezed juice. If you don't have time to juice all the fruits, you should try never to skimp on fresh-squeezed lime. The squeezing process releases oils from the rind, which gives the juice a slight bitter aftertaste and leads to more flavor complexity in the final cocktail.

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