Victor Bergeron (later known as Trader Vic) was a fan of Don the Beachcomber from the beginning—so much so that he even admitted to swiping a few ideas from the Los Angeles hotspot to use in his own Oakland bar, Hinky Dink’s.
“I felt I could do it better,” Bergeron once said.
In 1937, Bergeron transformed Hinky Dink’s from a modest bar into the tiki den known as Trader Vic’s, a moniker that came from Bergeron’s habit of exchanging drinks and food for flotsam and jetsam that guests brought in, which he used to decorate the bar.
Bergeron’s most famous credited creation is the Mai Tai, a blend of two rums, lime juice, orange curaçao and orgeat. He allegedly came up with the famous recipe in 1944, but there’s a rumor that it was one of the drink’s he lifted from Don the Beachcomber. Bergeron always insisted otherwise, though. “I originated the Mai Tai,” he once said in an interview with The New York Times. “Anybody who says I didn't create this drink is a stinker.”
Bergeron is also credited with creating tiki classics like the Fog Cutter and El Diablo, and he is responsible for one of the main tiki tomes, Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink. It was the first in a series of tiki-centric recipe books he went on to author. Throughout the rest of his life, Bergeron continued to expand his popular tiki haven into a multi-million dollar chain with 25 locations around the world. In 1951, he even followed his hero, friend and rival, Donn Beach, to Hawaii, where he opened a Trader Vic’s in Honolulu.
Not only did he cement himself in the tiki hall of fame with his signature drinks and successful restaurant chain, but, to top it all off, Bergeron was a legendary storyteller. His most famous dinner party anecdote involved his wooden leg. (He lost his leg as a child due to tuberculosis.) He would often tell tales about how he lost his leg to a shark and would even drive a knife into it to get reactions out of guests. That’s hardcore tiki.
Since his death in 1984—just a few weeks before Trader Vic’s 50th anniversary—Bergeron’s mini tropical empire has lived on with 15 locations around the world, including in Oman, Seychelles, Saudi Arabia and Japan. The man who began as a tiki imitator managed to take Beach’s original concept to a global level, bringing colorful cocktails and pu-pu platters to anyone with a taste for the tropics.
Thanks to both Beach and Bergeron, tiki became more than just a cocktail trend. Those two men made it a lifestyle. The next time you find yourself holding a Mai Tai, be sure to raise your tiki mug to the two original tiki masters.