…Or “Is This A Dead Parrot I See Before Me?”
Ladies and Gentlemen, given the recent “Tiki is Dead!” comment headlining a BarLifeUK article on the new LCC bar and then Dan ‘Bitters & Twisted’ Priseman’s reprise: “Tiki’s dead? I don’t think so!” I couldn’t help but offer up my two cents, because I think the UK Tiki scene is vibrant and growing. I view the drinks industry from the eye of the consumer and I’m looking for quality inclusivity for all, not elitist exclusivity.
If you’re interested enough in that statement to have made it this far, then please allow me to expand into what I see Tiki as being, why I think it’s actually on the up rather than dying, but why those who love and cherish it need to be wary and look after it!
A predilection for rum means that you’re more likely than most to encounter Tiki culture. Yes you read that right: it’s a culture and way of life for some! Rum could be a snobby affair if that’s what floats your boat – dry reviews and obsessive collectors, just like you get with whisky (*) but for the most part it’s fun! Rum equals fun and good times – it’s a party drink. Tiki these days is actually a multi-faceted entity and ever since it’s conception way back in 1934 in Don’s Beachcomber Café – the art of good Tiki has been to transport the participant to another place and time, to help them throw off the stresses of everyday life and enjoy themselves. It’s all about amazing drinks – predominantly rum based - but it’s more than that: it’s a way of life, a stage on which your escapist dreams can be played out, it’s a brotherhood of friends and it’s a lot of fun! And you’ll either get it or you won’t – it’s not for everyone.
Arguably the world’s leading authority on all things Tiki is Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, a lovely chap who has taught us a lot about the amazing Tiki phenomena that firstly conquered America and then swept round the world! I’m not sure that there are enough superlatives that could be lavished upon Earnest Raymond Beaumont Gantt AKA Don the Beachcomber AKA Donn Beach and his counterpart Victor ‘Trade Vic’ Bergeron. Donn’s genius was to start proceedings with his finely crafted Rum Rhapsodies and Trader Vic (whom was no less a genius), raised the game to another level with a chain of worldwide restaurants that spawned a multitude of imitators and innovators.
Listening to Beachbum Berry speak on the subject (as I’m pleased to say we have now on several occasions), it’s become obvious that some of the drinks created are amazingly complex works of art: cleverly blending layers of bold and subtle flavours together to orchestrate a truly great ‘rhapsody’ for the palate! The over-the-top decor of the venue coupled with the food, music and the way in which the staff were dressed all created the stage in which the visitor could realise their suspension of willing disbelief and truly escape the grind - if only for a few hours - to a tropical paradise where good food and a fabulous drink or two were as complicated as life got. It wasn’t just a success – it was massive – hundreds of South Seas themed restaurants appeared over the next forty years.
Tiki may have started in America during the years following the Great Depression and Prohibition, but it seemed to get a regular boosts such as GI’s returning home from service in the Pacific during WW2, bringing tales of tropical islands and swaying palms all of which helped to perpetuate the dream. To quote Beachbum Berry: “In the ‘50s, the Eisenhower era’s stifling middle class conformity and paranoid Cold War culture made the lure of the Primitive even more strongly felt: In the dark, mysterious, pagan womb of the Tiki bar, Organization Man could escape the spectre of the atomic bomb and the 30-year mortgage.”(**) Today’s socio-economic situation could perhaps be as grim and the need for a little escapism just as relevant – hands up all you out there that are tightening your belts, giving up luxuries and foregoing holidays taken for granted before?
So then, if it was so massive, why isn’t Tiki everywhere now? Well, it became a victim of its own success – with widespread cheap imitation devaluing the experience which in turn allowed other drinks styles in and forced the great and the good to look for something new – to be seen to stand apart from the dross thus ensuring they weren’t tarnished by it.
The drinks scene these days is run by people born in the 1980’s. Even an old boy like me (born in the early 70’s) didn’t directly experience the Tiki heyday and so it’s difficult to relate to something you don’t even know about! What started the modern day Tiki revival? Probably someone was looking for an edge – something to set their bar aside from all the others. To me the reason isn’t important and anyway it happened before TheFloatingRumShack.com launched - it's here now and we hope it's here to stay.
This article started with the “Tiki is dead” headline. A comment made by our friend Sarah, a well known and respected bartender whom can be found in the fabulous new Navy rum inspired (and soaked) London Cocktail Club venue on Shaftesbury Avenue . Perhaps the comment was made with a twinkle in her eye… tongue-in-cheek even. Whatever the reasoning – it’s provoked a surprised reaction amongst some.
The UK has a number of well established, top quality Tiki bars in the major cities: London (Trailer Happiness, Mahiki, Kanaloa), Manchester (Hula, The Liars Club, Keko Moku) and Liverpool (Aloha), but recently, a lot more have sprung up – Lolo Lo’s are opening venues across the country – eight bars to date and so accessibility for those seeking a little bit of South Seas inspired fun is improving all the time – more importantly for me, it’s moving out of the cities and into the larger towns like Reading and Bournemouth. The Lola Lo owners, Eclectic Clubs & Bars have this to say about their brand:
“Fly free into a bounty paradise at Lola Lo, an intimate Tiki bar and club which will transport you to a tropical oasis where the party goes on and on.
At Lola Lo, we've taken a dazzling array of show stopping cocktails, champagnes and rums and mixed it with an intoxicating blend of credible club classics and contemporary beats and are serving it all in a setting that captures the pure essence of care-free South Pacific joie de vivre.”
It appears Lola Lo are following the blueprint set down by Don and Vic all those years ago and who right now knows just how big this could get? Their drinks menu has a lot of v*dka on it (a sad sign of the times I guess) – but it also has a lot of rum, so that’s cool with us!
The “Tiki is dead” theme could be read in many ways, but for me I’m experiencing a tightening in my stomach. Tiki is cool yeah? Well, can it still be cool if it goes main stream? The top Tiki venues right now are run by and employ people who are educated in all things Tiki – they lead the lifestyle and they understand that the creation of a great cocktail is very important.
If (all of a sudden) there are a large number of bartenders who start claiming to be Tiki without really understanding what it takes, are we in danger of accelerating the modern revival towards the same sticky ending that proved to be the ultimate downfall of the South Seas experience back in the 70’s? More and more bar owners wanting to get in on the act, maximising the bottom line at the expense of a quality consumer experience - we might end up with crappy bamboo displays and jugs of garishly coloured woo-woo’s for a tenner masquerading as Tiki! Remember, Tiki is more than just a cocktail – it’s the whole package.
It’s not cheap to set up a good quality Tiki bar either: take an expensive and expansive spirits selection and ensure there is a determination to use a range of fresh fruit juices and lots of differently flavoured syrups. Also note it takes longer to craft a drink (less serves per shift or more staff required) and the glassware is more ornate (and therefore more likely to walk out of the door). Oh-and don’t forget the garnishes or pyrotechnics!
Personally, I feel that right now the Tiki scene in the UK is in great shape – vibrant and getting bigger. But there is the very real situation that growing pains might start to occur. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you had to apply to the Tiki Gods for permission to open a South Seas themed bar in addition to the council for a drinks licence, but the hope is that if you’re going to do it – then you’ll do it right! Training programs for the willing neophytes and education on the subject would help to maintain and ultimately aim to raise the standard. The Tiki Gods will be pleased and human sacrifice won’t be needed!
It’s fortuitous then, that the UK’s leading lights of Tiki have been considering this eventuality as well. They recognise the need for training and are working on just such a scheme right now. And the good news is that the newly formed UK Tiki Crew (UKTC) will be looking run a course as soon as April 2012. Who are the UKTC? Well the coming weeks will reveal that in a bit more detail and you’ll be able to read all about that here at TheFloatingRumShack.com.
Don’t worry folks, the futures bright, your Mai Tai’s should all continue to taste amazing and it turns out there’s life in the old parrot yet!
(*) well probably – not being whisky drinkers ourselves we can’t substantiate that comment...
(**) Beachbum Berry Remixed – if you have a hankering to get involved, this book will give you lots of background, advice, recipes and a whole load of fun. It’s an essential read and an absolute favourite of TheFloatingRumShack.com. Get one – you won’t be disappointed. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beach-Bum-Berry-Remixed-Jeff/dp/1593621396/ref=as_li_tf_mfw?&linkCode=wey&tag=thef00-21