Taking the tacky out of tiki drinks

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 9/3/2013

Mixology crowd rediscovers the tiki drink.

The Sun Had a Name, available at Eat Street Social’s new tiki bar.

On the surface, the tiki and so-called mixology movements seem to be on opposite ends of the cocktail continuum. If we judge them by their caricatures, tiki is like an irreverently tacky little brother trying to get you sloshed on artificially sweetened rum bombs. Conversely, the classic cocktail revival got a rap for being stuffy and elitist.

“At the beginning of the craft-cocktail renaissance, nobody wanted to touch tiki with a 10-foot pole,” said tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “They all thought of it as being syrupy, crappy drinks.”

But increasingly, craft cocktailers are loosening their ties and trading tinctures for umbrella garnishes. From San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove to New York’s fabled PKny, some accomplished bartenders have moved from faux speakeasies to tropical-themed bars.

On Tuesday, one of the Twin Cities’ most respected drink-mixing minds, Nick Kosevich, is unveiling a new tiki bar at Eat Street Social. While originally planned for the patio, the Torpedo Bar is instead taking over the side room off the main dining area, where Kosevich and his cocktailing crew will offer interpretations of traditional tiki drinks, a daily grog, an adult snow-cone menu as well as some Polynesian fare. One of the drinks Kosevich is proudest of is the Corn Tiki — a Midwestern take on a classic Painkiller, which substitutes sweet-corn milk and spiced apple cider for coconut, cream, pineapple and orange juice.

While temperately embracing elements of tiki decor — check the thatched-roof bar, 8-foot marlin and variety of tiki mugs — Kosevich says the Torpedo Bar is all about the cocktails.

“We’re not opening up a kitschy tiki bar,” he said. “We’re taking these cocktails very seriously.

It’s just as well, since one would be hard-pressed to outdo Psycho Suzi’s — the unparalleled northeast Minneapolis tiki palace — in the kitsch department. Kosevich, who crafted the cocktail menu with his Bittercube bitters partner Ira Koplowitz and Eat Street Social manager/bartender Marco Zappia, instead focused on making as many scratch-made ingredients as possible. Count a spiced rum using 20 different botanicals, an allspice dram, cherry liqueur, orgeat and falernum among the in-house ingredients in their toolbox.

So, why now are the tiki and craft-cocktail worlds colliding? Pip Hanson, cocktailer in chief at Marvel Bar — which tiptoed into tiki this summer during its Sunday improv nights and with its frozen “Blender Bar” menu — said it’s a predictable reaction to the “temple-of-the-cocktail bars” like New York’s Pegu Club and PDT.

“Everything got a little bit precious, and that’s fine,” Hanson said. “Tiki is just a totally unpretentious thing. It’s a return to having fun with your drinks.”

Berry, who Imbibe Magazine dubbed one of the most influential cocktail personalities of the past century, said tiki represents a new frontier for many skilled bartenders. Where three-ingredient, pre-Prohibition cocktails are like a haiku, he says astutely balancing a dozen ingredients in a tiki drink is like composing an “epic poem.”

The author and cocktail creator has spent more than a decade researching tiki culture and deciphering coded recipes written by tiki godfather Donn Beach (a k a Don the Beachcomber) for several books.

“Really, tiki was the first craft-cocktail movement after Prohibition,” Berry said, crediting Beach and rival Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron for pioneering tiki in the 1930s and 1940s. “They were doing farm-to-glass, culinary cocktails 70 years before those terms even existed.”

After 40 years of Mai Tais and luau motifs, Berry said, tiki died in the disco era. By 1970, images of the Vietnam War killed the idea of a Polynesian paradise, and cocktails in general lost their cachet, as the younger generation viewed them as their parents’ drinks. Berry said the bars left standing were cost-cutters that used low-quality ingredients. The tiki aesthetic regained some cool in the ’90s as an “underground, alternative,” lifestyle trend, Berry said. After the cocktail revival of the early aughts, the quality of the drinks started improving.

“It’s impossible to be pretentious, egomaniacal and all those things that people hate about quote-unquote mixologists if you’re making a drink in a scorpion bowl,” Berry said. “You just can’t be that guy.”