Tiki culture has, up until quite recently, completely bemused me. The underground clubs and parties decked out in coconut shells and grass skirts seemed to promote an overwrought nostalgia, an incredibly kitschy style of decor, and cocktails that were anything but restrained. Well, my mind has been completely changed.
If you, like me, are somewhat clueless about the enduring appeal of tropical drinks and tiki masks, get the inside scoop on the world of tiki from Matt "Kuku Ahu" Thatcher, founder of a local tiki society and a wicked good mixologist. I have just three words for you: "Tahitian Treat reduction."
Matt working the bar at Fraternal Order of Moai events.
I live in Columbus, Ohio, where there used to be a famous palace of tiki culture: The Kahiki restaurant, a completely over-the-top Polynesian theme restaurant that many people in Columbus grew up with. It was a place for special occasion meals and really far-out drinks. It closed down a few years ago, a real tragedy for tikiphiles. In response, some local tiki-lovers formed a club called The Fraternal Order of Moai. They hold luaus, do charity work, and celebrate tiki culture.
Matt is one of the founders of the Fraternal Order of Moai, and also a seriously intense tiki mixologist. He created several fantastic tiki drinks for an article I recently wrote on a new tiki restaurant opening soon in Columbus, Grass Skirt. We shot a whole array of jewel-hued rum drinks, each of which really exploded my notions of the sickly-sweet, too-fruity tiki cocktail.
These were balanced and fascinating — Matt's Mai Tai is the classic, packing a wallop of alcohol and not a drop of pineapple juice. His Navy Grog (top photo, on the left) has lime and grapefruit juice, rum (of course), and a hint of Fernet Branca. My favorite, Pele's Curse, (top photo, on the right) was a dizzyingly good concoction of rum infused with pineapple and peppercorns, fresh-squeezed lime juice, vanilla rum, and a Tahitian Treat syrup reduction. Topped with bacon-wrapped water chestnuts it was delicious kitsch with a true mixologist flair.
Get Matt's Tiki Drink Recipes You can get these recipes at Columbus Crave and read a little more about tiki culture.
These were not the tiki drinks I was familiar with — they were amazing, and left me craving more. I talked a little more with Matt to see what drew him to tiki drinks.
Why did you get into tiki drinks?
As a younger man, I spent a good deal of time working in restaurant kitchens in various roles from line cook to sous chef. It was just work, of course, but I began to cultivate a palate nonetheless. It opened up my mind not only to food possibilities, but also the world of drink. My relationship with spirits went through a wine phase, a beer phase, and so on, similar I am sure to what most people experience. After leaving the restaurant industry, my desire to cook waned, but not my desire to enjoy a good drink.
At one point in time I was very much interested in classic cocktails, and in particular the Martini and its cousin the Manhattan, and had begun mixing them at home. I had always had an interest in tiki as far back as childhood due to the Kahiki. When the Kahiki closed, it was a huge loss. Around that same time my wife and I been on a trip to the Virgin Islands and I had been drinking rum. All of this created a "perfect storm" of sorts and I went from Manhattans to Mai Tais all at once.
I haven't a single regret. Tropical drinks are fascinating. The ingredients are often exotic, the history is unique and decidedly American, the colors are marvelous, the flavors can be very evocative; it is escapism in a glass.
And the trappings that go along with it all! Wildly printed aloha shirts and ladies in colorful vintage dresses... the dark mystery of the grimacing tiki idols. Rum and drums and fire! It's a hell of a good time!
Matt's bar setup at our photo shoot.
Besides the classic Mai Tai, what tiki drink would you like to have in your hand right now, and why?
A Navy Grog. That's almost always my first choice. I spent years chasing down that cocktail in an attempt to replicate the one from the Kahiki. People tell me mine is spot on, but I think it is merely close enough. It has the right combination of being sweet and sour, but also has such fantastic bitter and also spicy angles to it that really hits home with me. I could (and often have) drink these all night. The Trader Vic Mai Tai is a very close second.
Now if it means I get to be in the time and location where the drink was served, that's a different story!
• A Painkiller at the Beach Bar on St. John USVI with my toes in the sand.
• Zombies at a circa 1950's Don the Beachcomber.
• Daiquiris with Hemingway in the Keys.
• 5 years old with a Shirley Temple in my hand in a booth at the Kahiki..
Like I said, they are evocative drinks that can really send you places, or sometimes in a bittersweet fashion... make you wish you could be somewhere else.
Besides the drinks, is there something about tiki culture that drew you in? What do you think tiki culture offers people?
I'd say the music, the lights, the immersive almost Disney-esque atmosphere... it just envelopes you like a fog. It has this quality to it that just leaves people addicted. It was a hugely successful trend in its heyday, lasting some 30 years. Now it is back, and no less appealing to today's generations seeking a convenient and colorful escape from the mundane.
I stay interested because of the people though. Honestly, there are some terrific people involved in the "tiki scene" if there is a such a thing. A sincere desire to live aloha can be found there if you take the time to seek it out. If you do find it though, it is hard to go back to that cubicle afterward. You'll be counting the hours until you can meet up with your ohana dressed in a loud outfit and thirsty for something with rum and lime in it.
Thanks so much, Matt!
(Images: Jodi Miller for Columbus Crave; The Fraternal Order of Moai; Faith Durand)