How to Start a Tiki Bar from Scratch

"It’s about the complete transformative experience of leaving the outside world and coming to another world where it’s dusk, it’s moody, it’s atmospheric."

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Sep 21 2017, 6:00pm

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.

I first got obsessed with tiki back in 1994. I was living and working in Washington, DC, and, at the urging of a co-worker, went to the Trader Vic's there, which is now sadly gone, in the basement of the DC Hilton. It was a November night, and it was drizzly and cold. I'd never heard of this place, but he told me, "The drinks are as big as your head. It's terrific."

So we went. It's a big, marble, very imposing grey edifice of a hotel. We went down into the basement, and there was this doorway. You couldn't imagine a more sharp contrast to the surroundings. Here was this portal, flanked by flickering torches and tikis, and you walked through it, and suddenly it was this completely different world, this highly immersive environment that smelled like gardenias and rum. I didn't know what any of it was, but I was in love with it immediately. I didn't "get" it, but I loved that, on a cold November night in Washington, DC, I could be in this warm, twilight-lit tropical oasis and forget about everything else. It was a really remarkable experience.

Interior of Smuggler's Cove. Photo by Kelly Puleio

Interior of Smuggler's Cove. Photo by Kelly Puleio

I became quietly obsessed with it and started to meet other like-minded souls, and became a part of this community of tiki-revival people getting together and sharing stories, buying artwork, going vintage decor hunting, and, of course, also trying to parse these drinks. That's really where it began, and it was a growing obsession during my former professional career. I'd be out doing sales calls on the road and taking clients out to lunch and just boring them senseless with stories of this cool new tiki mug I'd just found at a thrift store down the street before I met with them, and they'd just look at me like an idiot. So I finally came to a point where I said, "You know, I think it's time to make my passion my profession." The last company i'd worked for had gone bankrupt, so I decided to just throw it all in.

I was just a duffer, working at home, picking apart drinks, getting drinks out of Jeff "Beachbum" Barry's books or whatever books I could get my hands on, finding stuff online. I built this home tiki bar—the Novato Grotto, I called it—and would play around in it.

That's where I really fell in love with rum. How do I make a Zombie? I'd go shopping and come back kind of shell-shocked, with an empty wallet. I just wanted to make a drink tonight, and it cost me $200, and this seems terrible. I would make the drink and say, "OK, that's really good, but what makes it so good? Why did I have to buy four rums to make this drink?" Then I'd taste them all individually and say, "Wow, these are all completely different". That sent me down this rabbit hole of trying to break apart and understand this world of rum, and how it came to be.

The Novato Grotto. Photo courtesy of Martin Cate.

The Novato Grotto. Photo courtesy of Martin Cate.

When I was building this home bar, I had this dream that I was going to go work at the giant global headquarters of the Trader Vic's association, which was near my house. I talked to Trader Vic's granddaughter and she said, "The global headquarters is a little room with six of us in it, it's not a big operation." I was kind of like, "...Oh, well. OK." I thought I was better suited for a desk job at the company, but she said they did have an opening for a bartender. So I went to San Francisco's Trader Vic's and interviewed with the bar manager. I quite literally brought him a printed color photo of my home tiki bar as my resume. I just slid it across the bar, and he pondered it for a while, and he said, "I can work with this. You're hired." And that's how it began.

I met two partners and we opened this bar called Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA. I sold my shares in that, and then I opened Smuggler's Cove in 2009.

Photo by Kelly Puleio

Photo by Kelly Puleio

Rum has really suffered from a bit of an image problem for a long time. The dominant brands of rum were really inexpensive, and were largely considered to be products you only use for mixing. There weren't many things on the market that were really considered "high-end." There were so many products like flavored rums, and at the time, that issue didn't affect the bourbon or the Scotch industry. They don't make banana- or bubblegum-flavored Scotch, so there was never a down-market version of it. That was one of the big problems for rum.

I can remember the first time I tried a nice heavy rum called Sea Wynde. It tasted really, really rich and pungent, and it was in contrast with a lot of things I'd had otherwise. I'd also noticed an agricole rum, a French Martinique rum, and I didn't understand why, but they were so different. That's when I started to see that there's a bigger world out that, and started to understand as much as I could about rum.

Photo by Allison Webber

Photo by Allison Webber

But every time we take one step forward with rum, it's kind of two steps back. Every time someone comes out with a rum to elevate the category, somebody else comes out with a rum that tastes like Fruit Loops or something. It's an ongoing struggle, but I feel like it's getting better. It has every reason to be considered on par with whiskey or tequila, in terms of the craftsmanship and the age and the passion that goes into the production, and really great rums can be had for significantly less than tequilas and Scotches.

Now, that there's more and more interest in the world of exotic cocktails. You can be somewhere nice and upscale, like the NoMad or something, and drop a tiki mug and people will be like, "Oh!" At the end of the day, we're all in the same business, which is putting smiles on peoples faces, and that's one way to do it. I think people are starting to see that there's something to be said for tiki bar culture, because guests really do enjoy the drinks and the atmosphere.

Photo by Allison Webber

Photo by Allison Webber

You can't expect to build a great tiki bar or rum collection overnight. Maybe you can, if you're rich, but it certainly took me time. I wish I could say there are really good shortcuts, but there kind of aren't. Now there are good quality rums and syrups available, and the quality ones aren't cheap. You can't buy the artificial stuff, because there's no substitute. And you can't get around fresh citrus, either. It's amazing how many people will buy really good rums and then go buy the plastic lemon at the grocery store and say, "This is probably fine, right?" No, it's not! We joke about how if you can chop up an onion for dinner, you can squeeze a lime, it's not that hard.

You've gotta be ready for the nine- to 11-ingredient list. A drink like a Three Dots and a Dash does a really good job telling the story of tiki in one drink. It's got nine-odd ingredients, but it's really got a nice way of saying, "This is exactly what an exotic cocktail should be." It's got two kinds of citrus, a couple kinds of sweeteners, two baking spices, two rums, and some bitters. When you taste it, it really takes you on a journey. It's highly representative of the genre.

RECIPE: Three Dots and a Dash

The classic formula is the Planter's Punch. It has evolved, but it came to rest on this simple poem: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak—and five of spice to make it nice. That's your tiki nutshell, right there.

Photo by Allison Webber

Photo by Allison Webber

When a drink is fragrant and frothy and frosty, with crushed ice and foam on top, and it shows up in a big sifter, there's no question about the romanticism of it. That first cooling sip helps you forget a lot of problems. But beyond the drink, it's about the complete transformative experience of leaving the outside world and coming to another world where it's dusk, it's moody, it's atmospheric, the music, the decor… Everything is part of the process of getting you to that point of relaxation and escape.

We tell people, you could make the Zombie at home, but here's the shopping list. Why don't you come here instead? I've got a thatched roof and we'll do the dishes. It's great.

As told to Hilary Pollack

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.