In the 1970s and 80s, tiki drinks got a bad reputation for being too sweet. But a true tiki cocktail should be balanced, complex, use good rum, and instantly transport you to a palm tree-lined beach. I should know, because I'm tiki as fuck.
During my first couple of years as a bartender, I was reading every classic cocktail book I could find. I came across Sippin' Safari, an amazing book by tiki cocktail historian Jeff Berry. Tiki culture was born in the 1930s by Don the Beachcomber as form of escapism for Americans. There were also a lot of soldiers coming back from the Pacific Islands, and they wanted to re-live some of that tropical experience. So Don the Beachcomber founded a restaurant and bar in Los Angeles, and soon every Hollywood actor was going there. Victor Bergeron saw what Don was doing and wanted in on the tiki action. Soon after, competitor Trader Vic's opened up.
Don the Beachcomber hired bartenders that happened to be from the Philippines. They weren't necessarily trained as bartenders, but they knew a lot about fruits and juices: passionfruit, coconut, pineapple. So they went to bartending school and coupled their tropical fruit knowledge with their new bar skills. These bartenders would only hire other Filipinos to work with them—even waitstaff, which started this great community. Each bartender had a black book in which the tiki cocktails they created were written in code and kept secret. There were no specific ingredients listed, only measurements, and there were codes in order to get the ingredients. These Filipino bartenders were like, "Oh, you want this drink? You're going to have to hire me as a bartender." Jeff Berry spoke to a lot of these original bartenders like Ray Buen of Tiki Ti, Mariano Licudine of Mai-Kai, and Dick Santiago of Don the Beachcomber. He got into their notebooks, broke the codes, and wrote about the history of Filipino tiki bartenders.
After reading the book I had an epiphany. My aesthetic has always been somewhere in the mid-century, 40s-to-60s culture: rockabilly, burlesque, the vintage scene. Tiki definitely has a place somewhere in there. And being Filipino, I felt proud to have a connection with the classic tiki bartenders. This is who I aspire to be, I thought. I like the whole escapism part of tiki. Working in the city can be very rough on you. Who doesn't want an umbrella in their drink? Who doesn't want to sip on a drink in a cool, crafted vessel, imagining you're by the beach, surrounded by palm trees and listening to the ocean, smelling the sea breeze and having scantily clad women coming around in grass skirts? With tiki cocktails, I can live out my Blue Hawaii Elvis movie fantasy whenever I want.
A tiki drink has so many ingredients, it violates the laws of classic cocktails. You're talking about Manhattans with three ingredients, and then you go to a Zombie, which has nine ingredients. Bartenders were even blending rums from Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Barbados and putting them all into one drink to create complexity. After Prohibition, there was an abundance of rum. That's how they incorporated multiple rums into drinks—what Don the Beachcomber called "Rum Rhapsodies."
It's a shame that in the 1970s and 80s tiki drinks got a bad reputation for being too sweet. Everyone used artificial, pre-made juices and now most folks associate tiki drinks with fake, sugary stuff. That's not what it is, though. I like to tell my patrons at Jeepney that this is a proper tiki cocktail—no saccharine-tasting crap. What I wanted to do at Jeepney was make a serious menu that's also fun. And these "original" tiki cocktails work well with Filipino food. I enjoy educating patrons on what a true Mai Tai should taste like, what a true tiki cocktail should taste like. It's not sweet—it's sour and balanced, complex and spicy, and uses good rum.
The house cocktail of Jeepney is The Barrelman, which has a Filipino and a tiki presence in one cocktail. In the Philippines, there's a souvenir called the barrel man. It's basically a guy in a barrel, and when you lift the barrel his erection pops up. There's an alternate one with a girl where her tits fly out. Filipino culture doesn't take itself too seriously. It's fun and ridiculous at the same time. So I created The Barrelman in homage to those Filipino bartenders and their contributions to tiki culture.
I was in Las Vegas for a burlesque festival once, and I went with my wife and a friend to Frankie's Tiki Room, which is an amazing bar. The design is what a tiki bar should look and feel like. We met this guy who was in town for the same event. I was buying a few tiki mugs from Frankie's and he said, "Oh, you like those mugs? I'm selling some mugs, too." So he takes me out back to his car, opens his trunk, like he was smuggling something, and he shows me all these limited-edition tiki mugs. I bought four of them from the back of a car from this guy I just met. My tiki mug collection started right then and there—I have about 200 now. I also collect tiki art, tiki statues, vintage tiki records. The best way to start my day is listening to a slide guitar and a ukulele. I go to tiki conventions across the country, and there will be a tropical bar in my future backyard. I'm tiki as fuck.
As told to Kristen Sollee. Marlo Gamora is the Creative Beverage Director at Jeepney.