If you’ve sipped cocktails at all over the past couple of years then you’re well aware that tiki culture is on fire. Born as a kitschy fad in post World War II California, tiki faded into the realm of outdated cheesiness sometime during the Carter administration. Its 21st-century reincarnation is more than just a revival, though. It’s become a diaspora. Whereas they were once the provenance of coastal, beach settings and warm-weather climes, tiki bars are now sprouting up everywhere. Truly a global phenomenon, the following far flung lounges prove that you don’t need sand between your toes to enjoy a Mai Tai between your lips.
Along the sprawling arcades of Bologna, Italy, Nu Lounge Bar was an early adopter of modern tiki. This tropical-themed drinking den has been in business since 2000 and has grown into one of Europe’s most respected outposts for all things rum. Next to all those exotic bottles of booze—sourced from around the globe—are densely packed Polynesian artifacts, flamingo sculptures and bamboo matting. Then there’s the barware. A primary component of tiki, of course, is presentation—specifically, the distinctive vessels carrying the liquid. Bar manager and co-owner Daniele Dalla Pola has spent the past decade collecting a masterful assortment of mugs, many of which are shelved neatly behind the bar. It’s easy to forget where are you in an environment as transportive as this, so the Italians remind you by working the local liquor into drinks as often as they can. Montenegro, the regional amaro, is a bartender favorite. The 130 is an easy aperitif with a tropical bent, combining the floral liqueur with tonic, muddled lime and cane sugar. The Montenegro Bay is a spin on a Boulevardier, using rum in place of American whiskey.
Tiki might not immediately evoke French sentimentality, but don’t forget, not only do the French love rum, but their colonial interests in the Caribbean gave rise to a unique style of the spirit. Produced from sugar cane juice—as opposed to byproducts such as molasses—rhum agricole is perhaps the definitive spirit of the French Caribbean.
In Paris they serve up plenty of the semi-native spirit, packaged with pirate flair at Dirty Dick. Cognac-maker Alexandre Gabriel is a regular. He was so enamored with rum that he launched his own label, Plantation. His Plantation Pineapple release has become an indispensable tool of the tiki trade. To him, the proliferation of modern tiki is hardly a mystery. “In today’s hectic world, I would suggest we all need a little fantastical escape,” explains the fourth generation distiller. “Tiki has re-emerged to transport us to its magical world again. No-one leaves Dirty Dick without a big grin plastered across their face, and isn’t that truly the point of a great night out?"
Traveling the world to promote his brands, Gabriel is no longer surprised to see tiki tipples even in the coldest and dampest of destinations. “I’ve been delighted to find tropical hospitality in all four corners,” he observes. In fact, two of his favorites—Trailer Happiness and Laki Kane—provide respite from the infamous fog of London. “Places like Hula Bula in Perth, Western Australia, and Jungle Bird in Kuala Lumpur are fantastic spots and acting as tiki evangelists for their markets.”
In North America, no city is safe from the tiki explosion. Cleveland has Porco Lounge and Tiki Room; between Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago now exists as an improbable hub for island-inspired fare; The Polynesian is upping the stakes for fun and rum in midtown Manhattan.
For sheer exuberance, though, the Shameful Tiki Lounge in Canada might outshine all its American counterparts. With locations in Vancouver and Toronto, it’s slowly becoming something of a national treasure in the north. At 5 p.m. on a summer Saturday, the reed-thatched space is dense with day-drinkers, a bachelorette party sharing large bowls of flaming booze, promising Tinder dates at the bar, and Pupu platters on every table.
“As a tiki bar, we put Toronto back on the map,” claims owner Alana Nogueda of her 3-year-old hotspot in the hip Parkdale neighborhood of the city. “Most bars these days have tiki or tropical cocktails on their list, but that’s only a part of it. We offer the whole package.” It’s not an exaggeration. Order a shared volcano bowl off the menu and brace for the fanfare; smoke shoots out from behind the bar, a deep voice bellows its arrival, accompanied by a soundtrack of rain and thunder. Other large-format cocktails involve the striking of a gong, and other assorted cacophony.
Noguede isn’t the least bit surprised by tiki’s warm reception in places like her hometown. Quite the opposite; these are the locations that need it most. “During the worst months of February, you can come in and escape from what’s outside and you literally feel like you’re in a different country,” she exclaims. “It’s awesome. Every major city should have a tiki bar. And thankfully, just about every major city does at this point.”
So the next time you turn the corner in some remote corner of the globe, far beyond the reach of white sand and turquoise shore, don’t be shocked to see a tiki lounge waiting to receive you. Gabriel offers the only sound advice for such a moment: “Go in open-minded and just let the rum and island vibe wash over you.”