Although their origins are “exotic”, modern-day bars slinging mai tais in Polynesian-themed settings find themselves firmly in the mainstream. Whether you are sipping a Singapore Sling at a luau night on a palm-fringed beach or kicking back with a pina colada at a downtown bar next to a replica moai, the inspiration for your night of escapist longing has the same root: the tiki culture.
So, what is “tiki” and how does one define the “tiki culture”? What does it have to offer beyond rum-based drinks and patterned aloha shirts that are relegated to thrift stores post-vacation?
Tiki - more than just a culture
In Maori mythology, the term “Tiki” refers to the first man created by Tāne — the god of forests and of birds. Meanwhile, the modern tiki culture itself traces its roots to the US, where after the end of the Prohibition era, Don the Beachcomber restaurant and bar was established in 1933.
The brainchild of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a globe-trotter who explored the South Pacific before changing his name to Donn Beach, the establishment with its lively cocktail lounge proved popular and is still serving customers today.
The original menu, inspired by the tropical flavors the founder encountered on his travels, was a mix of Guangdong food, rum-based cocktails and other exotic fare. To give his restaurant a Polynesian look and feel, Donn decorated it with tiki torches, rattan furniture, tropical blooms and patterned fabrics in vibrant hues.
All that set the standard for the tiki-themed establishments that followed. Both in the US and abroad.
The Tiki bar check-list
Those with a keen eye would have spotted plenty of tiki-influenced bars in Vietnam: the funky Tiki bar in Phu Quoc, Wanderlust Coffee and Cocktail bar in Da Dang and Tiki-Tonga bar in Nha Trang, just to name a few. So, what are some of the must-haves of a bona fide tiki bar?
- A water feature is an absolute must. Back in the day, tiki bars would normally feature a bridge over a stream or something similar at the entrance. Nowadays, you can get away with an oceanfront or riverbank setting, a mini pond or even a classic sunset-on-the-beach painting on the wall (which is pretty common for urban tiki bars).
- Cozy, mysterious atmosphere evoking a sense of wilderness that is usually achieved with warm amber light from hanging lamps wrapped in fishing nets.
- Ferns, flowers and lush greenery in every corner, plus private booths with wing-back armchairs or boho tents for groups to have a bit of privacy.
- “Flotsam and Jetsam”, or found objects collected on the beach such as snorkeling masks, glass bottles, boat steering wheels, paddles.
- Totem poles and masks carved with the faces of gods and guardians from the South Pacific islanders’ cultures.
- Colorful floral shirts with eye-popping patterns that bar staff are supposed to wear.
- Ceramic tiki mugs made exclusively for tiki cocktails.
Tiki cocktails and the rum spirit
Zombie, Scorpion’s Bowl, Shark’s Bite, Voodoo I Do, Mai Tai and Singapore Sling are some of the names commonly found on a tiki cocktail menu. To some, they sound strange, but mostly people find them hilarious and engaging.
Unlike other classic cocktails that are made mostly by stirring and mixing, tiki concoctions require a fair amount of grinding to get to the essence of fruits like kiwi, guava, passion fruit, mango, banana, or even coffee beans.
Beside those signature ingredients, rum is definitely the “spirit” (no pun intended) of these cocktails. Rum has been associated with oceans and islands ever since its invention. The Royal Navy, pirates and indigenous people have always shown their loyalty to the fiery and fragrant liquor.
India, the US, the UK, and especially South American countries and nations of the Caribbean are known for their rum distillation traditions as this is where the best sugar cane, rum’s main component, can be found.
Flor de Caña - the volcanic gem
Among a sea of rum brands that typically go into tiki cocktails, Flor de Caña stands out for its signature strong flavor profile that complements the other tropical elements of these drinks. Introduced to the Vietnamese market back in 2017, Flor de Caña has since become the go-to brand for the local cocktail lovers.
Born right next to the active San Cristobal volcano, Flor de Caña rum is defined by the natural beauty of Nicaragua: volcanic soil, volcanic water and volcanic climate. These three elements help bring out this high-end rum’s distinctive aroma and spicy and rich taste.
It’s been 140 years since Alfredo Francisco Pellas Canessa, the father of Flor de Caña, distilled the first bottle of rum at the base of an active volcano. Even in those early days when environmental preservation wasn’t exactly top of mind for budding entrepreneurs, the brand chose to adopt a sustainable business model that is still applied today:
- Raw materials (sugar cane) are sustainably sourced
- CO2 from fermentation is recycled in its entirety
- Distillation process is 100% powered by renewable energy
- Rum is naturally aged without sugar.
On top of that, Flor de Caña has always been an active contributor to the community thanks to its sustainability initiatives such as the annual tree-planting campaign, free healthcare and free schooling for its employees and their families.
Adapted by L A M.