It has long been understood that Tiki is not an accurate depiction of Polynesia or any other actual Pacific culture. Recently however, the idea of it being problematic and offensive has gained unprecedented prominence.
Almost every major spirit publication has tackled this issue with Tiki at some point. Project Pacifika maintains an archive of articles on this issue. It includes some well-reasoned pieces from The Los Angeles Times, and Eater along with the occasional idiotic rant.
Especially helpful are the discussions within the Tiki Space about properly approaching the problematic aspects of the subculture and charting an inclusive way forward.
Somewhat unhelpful are the people seeking to be confrontational and antagonistic rather than participants of actual conversations that the collective rum and cocktail community can use to move forward.
Some of the conversation on a way forward revolves around renaming the entire cocktail movement since it currently shares a name with the protoplast of multiple religions in the Pacific. In Maori culture, Tiki is the first man created by their primary god.
A popular idea among some is to change the name of Tiki to Tropical. The rationale for this is that although the founders of Tiki were misguided in their understanding of the Pacific, the drinks that they developed did indeed reflect mixology in the tropics since they used exotic ingredients and were based on the punches enjoyed in the Caribbean.
Calling Tiki tropical might be an improvement, but is it entirely accurate?
Almost all articles on Orgeat reference the importance of this almond syrup in Tiki. It’s essential in making drinks like the Fog Cutter, Mai Tai, or Scorpion Bowl since it lends a light nuttiness that compliments the other ingredients.
Even though Orgeat is indispensable to any respectable Tiki bar, on the island famous for Aromatic Bitters it had to be ordered by Angostura’s chief mixologist for their annual cocktail competition.
Similarly, recipes for the Suffering Bastard often call for Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, an ingredient difficult to find and rarely used in the Caribbean. Despite a long association with the island of Dominica, this brand is only known from an old sign on the wall at the Dominica Museum in Roseau.
These ingredients are not tropical, and neither are any of those drinks.
Everything about Tiki, from the core cocktails to the culture was invented in California. Even much of the inspiration, long considered to come from directly from Polynesia actually comes from movies about escapism produced in Hollywood.
In this Californian style of rum consumption, ten ingredient concoctions like The Zombie are normal. This is completely different from Caribbean rum culture where minimal drinks like Ti Punch, Corn and Oil or simply rum and coconut water is actually the norm.
While there are drinks in the agreed-upon Tiki canon that were born in the West Indies and South East Asia, they don’t represent actual Tropical drinking. The Jungle Bird, a concoction that includes Campari and Jamaican Rum was invented at the Hilton in Kuala Lamopur. The Queen’s Park Swizzle was named after the posh hotel in Port of Spain where it was invented.
Both of these are part of an artificial tourism industry designed to give foreigners a sanitized and civilized version of exotic.
To change Tiki to Tropical in a sense legitimizes the half truths about the origins of these cocktails being rooted in the culture of particular regions.
It dismisses the drinking cultures of some of the people who live in the most populated places on Earth to an American idea of what their culture is, effectively denying agency to emerging mixologists in the developing world.
Deciding that these Californian cocktails should be defined as tropical ignores the existence of a broad range of spirits also made in the tropics including the distillate of bananas, palm sugar, and more. Some of these are actually far more popular than rum. Also very popular is whisky, with South East Asia being the fastest growing market followed closely by Latin America.
Looking beyond spirits, the popularity of beer in tropical regions cannot be ignored in any discussion of what should be considered “tropical drinks”.
The Caribbean Adjunct Lager, popular in brands like Carib and Piton brings together a sweet, salty tortilla chip note with a funky and fruity hop finish.
Its popularity is even expanding northwards, as drinkers in South Florida move away from the overly hoppy India Pale Ales that defined American craft beer a few years ago. Wynwood-based brewing company Veza Sur serves this style under the name Latin Lager alongside beer cocktails inspired by the drinking traditions of Latin America.
Stout, generally seen as a cold weather beer in Northern climates is also surprisingly popular.
Africa stands as the continent that brews and consumes the largest volume of Guinness in the world, with Uganda, Namibia, and Sierra Leone representing some of the most important markets. The first Guinness Brewery beyond the British Isles was in Nigeria.
While also popular in the West Indies, Guinness also has to compete with locally produced brands like Dragon Stout, Extra Stout, and others.
When considering the love for whisky and stout in tropical places, the Irish Pub possibly has more credibility than the Tiki Bar in calling itself Tropical!
Tiki cocktails were once known as Rhum Rhapsodies. Why not revert to that name?
Considering the origin of these drinks in the American state with the largest area of Pacific coastline, and the fact that they were based on a false idea of Pacific islands, perhaps a reference to that ocean might also be suitable.
All images used under a Creative Commons license except for screenshot via Facebook