Ernest Gantt, better known as “Donn Beach,” brought warmth and sunshine to an otherwise 1930s depressed America with the opening of his Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles, thus defining the tiki bar movement. Though the vibrant rum-based cocktail trend lost its lackluster after some 50 years, there has been a resurgence in recent years, with bars like Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans, Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago and Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York City becoming modern-day pioneers.
At Danny Meyer’s southern-inspired Porchlight bar in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, head bartender Nick Bennett has revamped his cocktail list, which includes the Low Country Mai Tai. The elevated take on the classic is comprised of Virgil Kaine Rye, Black Strap rum, Absinthe, lime juice and maple-pecan Orgeat.
Further downtown at Slowly Shirley, bartender Garret Richard is taking tiki to the next level by bringing the golden age of Exotica music to the modern age with a monthly Exotica night, featuring live burlesque and tiki music. The festive new drink menu includes the Pacific Ocean Blue (pictured in the lead image) with rum, vodka, Galliano liqueur, curaçao, pineapple, lime cordial, lemon, coconut mix and demerara syrup, and the Improved Coconut Cocktail, featuring coconut oil-washed whisky, coconut tea syrup and orange bitters.
Los Angeles newcomer Lono, from Umbrella Hospitality Group, debuted on Hollywood Boulevard last month. General manager and beverage director Mike Lay serves up standard Mai Tais and Painkillers, as well as inventive takes like the Hubba Hubba with Avuá Caçhaca Amburana infused with coconut, banana, pineapple and topped with banana gelato, and the Ping Island with Bombay Sapphire East, lemon, yuzu, kaffir leaf, long pepper and lemongrass.
Jonathan Buckley brings Polynesian drinks and bites to Charleston with the recent opening of South Seas Tiki Lounge. Cocktails—often served in kitschy ceramic mugs—are by bar manager Jeremiah Schenzel. Look for “Vintage” cocktails like the Jet Pilot, which boasts three types of rum, Falernum, cinnamon, grapefruit, lime, Pernod and aromatic bitters, and “Modern” libations like rum-heavy Between the Sheets, with passion fruit liqueur, lemon, lime and berry cider.
Thanks to the many talented bartenders across the country riding the tiki wave—and the public affectionately eating it up—the movement doesn’t seem to have a clear end in sight, making this quite the tribute to Donn Beach.