Cocktails in coconuts: Tiki culture makes a comeback

Bars and restaurants across the country are trading in their etched glass coupes for carved ceramic mugs — it's time to get reacquainted with tiki.

WASHINGTON What’s old is new again, and the retro craze du jour is tiki at least when it comes to cocktails.

Bars and restaurants across the country are trading in their etched glass coupes for carved ceramic mugs and it’s no different in the District. Dupont Circle’s Bar Charley keeps tiki drinks on tap, and Jack Rose celebrates Thursdays with tiki on the roof. In March a dedicated tiki bar, Archipelago, opened its doors on U Street.

What is tiki? Archipelago co-owner Ben Wiley explains it’s a made-up culture that pulls from Hawaiian, Caribbean and South Pacific influences. And like any good fictional script, tiki’s story was crafted in Hollywood when Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a native Texan, opened a bar called Don’s Beachcomber Cafe in the 1930s. (Gantt later changed his name to Donn Beach.)  

The bar, which served elaborate rum drinks in a tacky and tropical space, quickly rose to popularity, especially among celebrities. Wiley credits tiki’s success to the vacation sensation it invoked.

“After the craft cocktails, the pre-prohibition-style cocktails, tiki was kind of … an escapism lifestyle,” Wiley said.

“We went through a [time] with very austere, speakeasy-style drinks with two or three ingredients, tiny little coupe glasses … and this is sort of the opposite of that,” says Owen Thomson, who owns and operates Archipelago with Wiley.

In fact, most tiki drinks come with a long list of ingredients, including sweet syrups like Orgeat and Falernum. Many are topped with piles of fresh fruit.

“We’ve processed like thousands of pineapples at this point, in just the three months that we’ve been open,” Thomson said.

And while rum is the most popular tiki spirit, it isn’t the only one. On Archipelago’s menu of 15 cocktails, several incorporate mezcal, bourbon, tequila and gin. However, the most important component of any tiki cocktail is the vessel from which it’s consumed.

There are painted bowls shaped like volcanoes, mugs that resemble Hawaiian gods and colorful ceramic sippers. Some drinks are served in copper pineapples and hollowed-out coconuts. Basically, the key is kitsch, so check your ego at the [beaded bamboo] door and just embrace it.

“Once you come in here, you’ve sort of already resigned yourself to drinking out of a flamingo straw or holding a big pink goblet,” Thomson said.

“Working at many bars, I’ve had a lot of guys who were seemingly uncomfortable holding a glass with a stem for whatever reason. Nobody seems to have that many problems here. It’s like when you’re on vacation: You don’t think about it. Nobody’s here to judge you.”

While one Donn gets credit for founding tiki, many credit another Don Don Draper of “Mad Men” with its revival. However, Thomson says tiki’s resurgence is likely due to what made it popular the first go-round.

“People already come to bars to actually have some sort of human interaction. The tiki bar is even more than that. Not only are you stepping in to socialize and interact with people, but you’re stepping entirely off the street and into a different place and a different time,” he said.

“There are no TVs, you don’t need to know what’s going on in the world, kind of take a moment, step outside of the ambulances, the cars, the Metro, everything you’re hearing and just have a drink.”  

… With a pink umbrella.

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