Cocktail of the Month

Mai Tai
Mai Tai

As Washington – and much of the United States – thaws out from one of the biggest cold spells in recent memory, I have been relishing my new tropical home on the tranquil island of Bali. Enjoying an average daily temperature of 85 degrees and a 10-minute commute to the beach, just looking at the cold weather on CNN sends shivers down my spine. But if you can’t move to Polynesia, one of the best ways to bring the beach to you is with a tropical umbrella drink. While a hot toddy may warm your soul, nothing quite says sunshine and happiness like a tiki bar.

The original tiki bar was Don the Beachcomber, created by Ernest Gantt in 1933 in Los Angeles. (Author Wayne Curtis tells the story in “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails”). Gantt, who had spent much of his youth rambling about the tropics, rented a small bar and decorated it with items he’d gathered in the South Pacific, along with driftwood, nets and parts of wrecked boats scavenged from the beach.

Gantt stocked his bar with inexpensive rums, available in abundance after Prohibition, and invented an array of faux-tropical drinks using fruit juices and exotic liqueurs. His bar became incredibly fashionable, attracting celebrities and prompting Gantt to legally rename himself Donn Beach.

The other iconic tiki bar was Trader Vic’s, founded in 1934 in Oakland, Calif., by Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. Originally called Hinky Dinks, Bergeron’s small bar and restaurant soon morphed into a Polynesian-themed spot with tropical drinks. It was renamed Trader Vic’s at the suggestion of Bergeron’s wife, who thought it would fit because her husband was always involved in some type of deal or trade. According to Curtis, Bergeron admits he swiped the tiki concept from Gantt.

Both bars expanded to multiple locations, sparking a nationwide craze that spawned dozens of imitators, all rushing to replicate each other’s colorful tipples.

Gantt was a talented mixologist who crafted complex drinks with lengthy ingredient lists, including multiple rums, homemade syrups and fresh fruit. But as more tiki-themed bars opened and Trader Vic’s turned to franchising, the intricate cocktails became watered-down and simplified.

Perhaps the most duplicated tipple is the quintessential tiki drink: the mai tai. Both Gantt and Bergeron claimed to have invented it, but their recipes vary wildly. The name is derived from “Maita’i,” the Tahitian word for “good.” Though it later fell out of fashion, the mai tai was one of the most popular cocktails in the 1950s and ’60s. It featured prominently in Elvis Presley’s chartbuster movie “Blue Hawaii.” In their heyday, tiki bars were popular places to celebrate a big occasion. Trader Vic’s at the Washington Hilton was a hot spot for power lunches. It was a favorite of Richard Nixon, who had a fondness for mai tais.

According to Curtis, a mai tai was the first thing requested by Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnap-victim turned conspirator, when she was released on bail in 1976. Eventually the tiki bubble burst. With scores of cheap imitators and poor locations, the Polynesian fad began to lose its luster. None of the original Don the Beachcombers are still in existence and Trader Vic’s has only a few remaining outposts. Perhaps the trend’s last stand came in 1989, when the ever-brash Donald Trump closed the venerable Trader Vic’s in New York’s Plaza Hotel, calling it “tacky.”

Tiki crawled back into the spotlight over the last decade and a half as retro-hipsters embraced its kitschiness. Its comeback has continued with the recent cocktail renaissance. Modern mixologists have begun to uncover some of the original tropical recipes with their multi-layered rum profiles, fresh juices and handcrafted syrups. The craft tiki cocktail movement arrived in full force at the Georgetown waterfront in 2009 with mixologist Jon Arroyo’s extensive list of authentic cocktails at Farmers Fishers Bakers. Imbibers can sample homemade mai tais based on the recipes of both Bergeron and Gantt. Another option is Hogo, a Caribbean-themed rum bar on 7th Street, NW, featuring highend island cocktails. The man behind Hogo, launched just over a year ago, is Tom Brown, a partner in Washington’s craft cocktail palace The Passenger.

So when the January frost is nipping at your nose, remember the words that Donn Beach would tell his customers: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai 1 1/2 oz. Myers’s Rum 1 oz. Cuban rum (use a medium-bodied rum such as Appleton or Barbancourt) 3/4 oz. lime juice 1 oz. grapefruit juice 1/4 oz. falernum syrup 1/2 oz. Cointreau 2 dashes Angostura bitters Dash of Pernod

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai 2 oz. aged Jamaican rum .5 oz. orgeat syrup .5 oz. orange curacao .25 oz. rock candy syrup Juice from one fresh lime

For both drinks: Shake everything with ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass full of crushed ice. Garnish with pineapple spear, lime shell and a sprig of fresh mint.

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