10 Modern Day Bartenders Who Are Revolutionizing Tiki
Even if you don’t have a closet full of Hawaiian shirts or a bar full of rum, you probably have noticed that tiki is all the rage in the bar world. What you probably didn’t realize is that not all tiki bars, or tiki drinks, are the same. There are bars and bartenders responsible for elevating tiki cocktails to a new level, bringing a subculture of cocktails once considered kitch to the level of craft mixology. Here, ten bartenders who are currently revolutionizing tiki cocktails.
Anu and Chris Elford
Navy Strength, Seattle
Navy Strength, Anu and Chris Elford’s new tiki bar in Seattle, Washington, is one of the best new bars in the country. The second bar in the last 16 months from the husband and wife duo—their first joint bar was the beer-focused No Anchor Bar—was Seattle’s first “modern” tiki bar. “Tiki [as a whole] is fascinating,” says Chris. “It makes people happy as hell, and when done right it’s more than just tasty. It’s like the soul food of drinks.”
At Navy Strength, the menu is divided into three distinctly different sections: “tropical,” which features ur-tiki drinks from the early 1900s, “tiki,” which features renditions of Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber’s staples, and “travel,” which focuses on the flavors and traditional ingredients of a different country every six months, proving that tiki drinks aren’t limited to Polynesia.
For their first travel menu, the Elfords explored the flavors of India, Anu’s home country. Drinks included a variation on the Swizzle made with cashew nut and kokum, a dried fruit from the mangosteen family that was sourced from the farm where Anu’s father grew up. There was also a chai-spiced Old Fashioned and a variation on a Tom Collins with garam masala and coconut soda instead of seltzer. “I think it would be arrogant and flat out incorrect of me to say any particular drinks I’m working on are going to change anyone’s life,” says Chris. “But I can tell you about my favorite drink on our current Philippines travel menu: the Butuan City Soundtrack. It's a blend of bourbon, calamansi [which is like a really funky lime from Southeast Asia], mango, pandan leaf and toasty rice, which is made from the rice left over in the bottom of the rice cooker. We deep fry the rice, pat it dry, and blitz it into a syrup. The whole drink is served on crushed ice, topped with [Chinese] five-spice, and then lit ablaze. It’s the only drink more popular than our Mai Tai, and the one word I’d use to describe it is craveable.”
The Upstairs Bar, Philadelphia
The Franklin Room (formerly known as the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.) was one of the first speakeasies in Philadelphia and a modern-day destination for high-end craft cocktails. In 2017, after a rebrand, Jason Elliot, the incoming bar manager, decided to convert the upstairs section into a tiki lounge. To help him with the new venture, Elliot tapped bartender and tikiphile Brian Maxwell. Known as The Upstairs Bar, this new venture is the city’s first official craft tiki bar. A stark contrast to the bar below, The Upstairs Bar is the antithesis of Prohibition style: It’s brightly colored, vivacious and fun. “Cocktail bars I had been working in for years were too pretentious,” says Maxwell. “They all had ‘house rules’ and weren’t actually very much fun—for me or the people drinking there. [For The Upstairs Bar] we wanted to create an atmosphere that was relaxed, not pretentious and most of all fun.”
The menu, created by Maxwell and fellow bartender Ian Adamczyk (formerly of Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash), is a mix of classic tiki cocktails elevated with Maxwell’s own whimsical charms and original concoctions. While their first menu was a litmus test for how Philadelphians would respond to a full fledged tiki bar, they cranked the tiki up to 11 for their second menu. Delightfully whimsical, the menu was presented as a children's coloring book—complete with crayons. “We wanted people to get out of their comfort zone and let loose,” says Maxwell. One drink, the Legends of the Hidden Temple (inspired by the Nickelodeon show), is a four-person punch served in a large smoking skull. Made with hibiscus-infused rum, homemade orgeat and a local falernum from Philly, the drink is meant to be shared and enjoyed as a group experience. “I've always loved the idea of escapism,” he says. “Growing up, themed bars and restaurants were always my favorite. One of the things I try to bring to the table is that sense of theater.”
Now that Philadelphians have had a taste of tiki, Maxwell and his crew of tikinaughts plan to get even crazier with their next menu. Expect more dry ice, more smoke, more theatrics and more deliciousness. “The sky is the limit,” he says.
Bootlegger Tiki, Palm Springs
Located in the same space that once housed the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant and bar, Bootlegger Tiki is upholding Don’s tiki traditions while bringing them into the modern age. As head bartender, Chad Austin has created a bar program that manages to be fun, accessible and forward-thinking all at once. Though he accidentally “stumbled into tiki,” Austin has become one of the leading voices in the modern tiki cocktail scene. “I had been behind a bar for about eight years when Bootlegger Tiki opened,” he says. “There was not much in Palm Springs that was pushing the envelope at that time. You were either working in a dive or a stuffy steakhouse shaking Martinis or pouring sour mix. I was looking for something where I had a chance to be creative and challenge my ideas on what bartending can be.”
Using Bootlegger Tiki as his opportunity to do something different, Austin delved deep into the history and tradition of tiki. “Knowing your history allows you to be able to pay homage to the forefathers without repeating their history,” he says. “There are a lot of purists and elitists in the [tiki] community that believe it’s not authentic unless you are using the same exact ingredients that were used by Don [the Beachcomber] or [Trader] Vic. But I feel that if Don had the ingredients we have readily available to us today back then, he would have been using a lot more of them. And I 100 percent believe that if Don had a centrifuge then he would have used it.” Drinks like the Gangsters Paradise teeter between the classic tiki formula and modernist cocktails made with ingredients like amari, tartaric acid and salt.
Even more modern and forward thinking than the ingredients he uses is Austin’s decision to share his menu with other tiki bartenders from around the world. Titled “Tiki Around The World,” this ever rotating section of his menu is devoted to featuring cocktails from bartenders that he feels are pushing the boundaries of what tiki cocktails can be. On the current menu there are cocktails from bartenders from all over the United States, including Houston, Tacoma, Pittsburgh and San Diego, and as far abroad as Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and London. “We do this for two reasons,” says Austin. “One, to keep us on our toes to make sure we are always on the cutting edge with new spirits and flavor profiles. The second is the guests. We want to keep them excited, asking questions and daring themselves to try new things.”
Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths
Trash Tiki, Toronto
Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths didn’t start out as tiki bartenders. The duo doesn’t even have a tiki bar of their own. But they have cemented themselves in tiki history with Trash Tiki, their traveling pop-up program that aims to spark conversation and inspiration by creating anti-waste tiki cocktails. “We were interested in tiki as a category—but mainly it was a great platform for our message,” the duo told Supercall over email. “Tiki drinks are known for being lavish and over-the-top, and by virtue of that can have a lot of single-use ingredients like plastic garnishes that look great but often don't serve any other purpose.”
For their Trash Tiki tour, Ramage and Griffiths traveled to bars around the world to show bartenders how they can make delicious drinks while becoming more efficient and environmentally friendly. “Getting second and third uses out of ingredients is the next stage,” they say. “[It’s] about using different varieties of local produce to get more interesting flavors and complexities out of drinks instead of simply using fresh juice, rum and syrup combinations.”
While the Trash Tiki tour initially sparked some controversy amongst the tiki community, the duo have seen more and more tiki bars warming up to their methods. “Tiki [cocktails] are deeply rooted in the classics and their history, and for that reason, when we first started, we had a lot of tiki-traditionalists who said we weren't really 'tiki,’” they say. “Over the course of this tour though, we've seen a lot of bars, tiki or otherwise, that have taken on our recipes and started incorporating them into their menus, which is amazing.” At Bootlegger Tiki, Austin (featured above) adopted the duo’s citrus stock recipe and is featuring Ramage and Griffiths’ Coconut Helmet on his current Around the World menu. The recipe for the citrus stock incorporates used citrus hulls (limes, lemons, grapefruits or oranges) with granular acids (like citric acid or tartaric acid) and water. “We've found that the biggest challenge facing bars is citrus,” the Trash Tiki duo say. “It's a commodity that is expected in any bar and the backbone of almost every drinks—in tiki especially. Through using one of our recipes for citrus stock, we have shown how using it with a blend of fresh juice, you can actually reduce your consumption by half, and save some money along the way.”
Lost Lake, Chicago
Known for his epic beard and amazing tiki libations, Paul McGee is the godfather of modern tiki in Chicago. In less than a decade, he has helmed two of Chicago’s greatest tiki bars: Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake. His first exploration into tiki started eight years ago at a neighborhood bar called The Whistler. There, McGee was part of a monthly cocktail focused book club. “We thought it might be fun (and funny) to have a totally non-serious edition of the book club and choose a tiki book,” says McGee. “We got online and ordered Sippin’ Safari by Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry. Once the book arrived, it didn’t take long for Jeff to school us good. Real good. The recipes featured in Sippin’ Safari were definitely fun—but there wasn’t anything funny about them. Instead of silly tropical drinks what we found were painstakingly decoded recipes featuring some very complex mixology. It was by way of Jeff’s writing and research that I first met and fell in love with the traditions of classic tiki cocktails—especially those of Don the Beachcomber.”
Lost Lake—McGee’s second, smaller bar that he opened with his wife after leaving Three Dots and a Dash—is inspired by both Beachbum Berry and Don the Beachcomber. Inside, the bar has “that glamorous tropical escapist vibe of the late 1930s,” says McGee. “With bamboo and lauhala (the leaves of the hala tree) alongside Martinique-esque wallpaper and a neon script sign.” The cocktails are all original creations—albeit heavily influenced by Don the Beachcomber's original recipes.
But what really separates McGee and Lost Lake from the others is their monthly charitable pop-up, Shift-Ease. After an electrical fire broke out in the kitchen at Lost Lake in 2016 the bar and restaurant were closed temporarily (thankfully, no one on staff was hurt). During that time, the surrounding bar community hosted the bartenders of Lost Lake for a series of local pop-ups, which became known as Shift-Ease. The cocktails served at each of these pop-ups were inspired by the drinks that the Lost Lake staff would serve each other when they closed the bar—which they called “shifties” amongst themselves (think Daiquiris, Corn ‘N’ Oils and Rum Negronis). After Lost Lake reopened, McGee began to host Shift-Ease parties at the bar, turning the event into a charitable party for the community. “We’re using the [Shift-Ease] party platform to support local organizations working for progressive racial, economic, and gender justice,” says McGee. For the first instalment, they invited the firefighters that extinguished the blaze to drink with them, and donated $1 of every Daiquiri sold to Ignite the Spirit—the Chicago fire department's charity. They also donated $5 for every Corn N’ Oil sold to Embarc, a Chicago nonprofit that provides assistance for low-income high school students.
Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco
One could say that Martin Cate is the OG of the West Coast tiki scene. “I had been immersed in the tiki scene for many years before entering the hospitality industry,” says Cate. “I came to this [industry] already passionate about not just the drinks, but also the aesthetic of the movement. I was inspired by the art, the music, the design, the sculptures—all the aspects that fully define tiki style. My passion was to create venues where the mixology is only one part of the art of tiki.”
At Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Cate has spent the past decade undoing the negative perceptions of tiki cocktails and culture amongst the non-tikiphile sect. His goal is to educate people on the fact that these cocktails are not the overly saccharine, brightly hued, artificial monstrosities that so many associate with the term tiki. “My first project, Forbidden Island [in Alameda, California], was the first new bar to fully re-integrate the arts and crafts of tiki bar design while applying the ethos of the craft cocktail movement to vintage exotic cocktails,” he says. “We were able to expand upon this at Smuggler’s Cove [in San Francisco] with a program that looked at the larger world of rum as well, while still making great exotic cocktails in a transportive setting. With both venues, we were on the front lines of undoing negative perceptions about exotic cocktails. With access to vintage recipes and a passion for fresh ingredients and thoughtfully chosen rums, we did a lot to change hearts and minds about the exotic cocktail.”
In 2016 Cate, along with his wife Rebecca Cate, released Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. One of the first great, original tiki tomes since the 1940s, the book’s arrival coincided with a newfound appreciation for tiki worldwide, which not only boosted sales, but also helped spread Cate’s gospel. “The book helped put our philosophy into practice,” says Cate. “By really focusing on the styles of rum, how to use them, and to quantify the historic drink palates, we encourage new tiki bartenders to keep the framework of the exotic cocktail while discovering new ways to incorporate modern ingredients.”
To further educate the general populace on the world of rum, Cate created the Rumbustion Society. Essentially a book club for aspiring rum nerds, the Rumbustion Society is a membership-based collective that explores different rums one glass at a time. Members are given a card to track their progress and, upon completing each level, they are given a merit badge. Other bars—including Lost Lake (above)—have followed suit and now offer similar programs. “The Rumbustion Society was my chance to offer a rum club that explored the history and styles of rum from a deeper educational standpoint and [I] sought to develop smarter consumers who would be able to make educated rum shopping decisions when visiting retailers,” says Cate. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be visited by some of the most talented distillers and blenders in the rum industry, and our members enjoy an opportunity to visit a distillery when they reach a certain level. With over 300 members—20 of whom have had over 500 different rums (and a few closing in on 1,000)—we’ve been having a pretty great time drinking a lot of rum.”
Mother of Pearl, New York
Since opening in 2015, Mother of Pearl has become one of the most unique tiki bars in the country. Not only are the airy, Instagram-ready bar’s cocktails extremely drinkable—with ornate garnishes and wild presentations (think a shark mug with blood-red Campari dripping from its jaws) —they’re also vegan.
Jane Danger, Mother of Pearl’s beverage director, created the all-vegan cocktail menu after the bar’s owner, Ravi DeRossi, decided to go vegan with the food menu. “Flipping the cocktail menu was much easier than the food menu flip,” she says. “We already didn’t use a lot of dairy products in our cocktails. But we pulled away from any leather packaging and instead of using honey, we use a cane syrup with a bit of orange blossom water.”
But going vegan isn’t the only way Danger has changed the way tiki lovers drink in NYC. She also did the unthinkable: She took the booze out of tiki cocktails. In a move that some fanatics might see as heretical, Danger has created low-ABV versions of classic tropical libations—she even offers a menu of tiki-inspired mocktails as an option for non-drinkers. Her drinks have gone on to inspire other tiki gods to make their own low-proof cocktails, including McGee who is currently working on a low-ABV tiki menu at Lost Lake. “There is a need for pacing at all bars,” says Danger. “People in New York love to drink, [and they drink] at length. We open at 3 p.m. on the weekends. I don’t expect people to be drinking an all-agricole rhum Zombie at 3:15 on a Sunday just because that’s what I happen to want.”
While Danger’s next innovative contribution to tiki remains to be seen, it’s clear whatever it is, it will make waves. “We’re always working on fun, large formats for sharing, or finding new things to light on fire,” she says. “We’ve also got some new gadgets that we’re testing out, but I don’t want to ruin the fun if it doesn’t work out.”
The Polynesian, New York
Brian Miller has worked at pretty much every notable bar in New York City—including Death and Co. and Pegu Club in their early days—but, unless you’re heavily involved in the city’s tiki scene and a frequent attendee of his Tiki Mondays pop up parties, you probably have never heard of him or his love of sarongs. But that’s all about to change.
This spring, Captain Brian Miller is opening his first official tiki bar with the Major Food Group—the restaurant group responsible for some of the city's highest profile restaurants and bars, including Carbone, ZZ’s Clam Bar and the Four Seasons relaunch. Dubbed The Polynesian, Miller’s tiki bar will be unlike anything the tiki world has ever seen. “I want to give New York City the world-class tiki bar it deserves,” Miller said in a statement. With The Polynesian, he is taking tiki out of its thatched roof hut and putting it up in a penthouse—giving us one of the first haute tiki bars.
While we’ve only seen a preview of the menu and toured the bar before it was completely finished, we were still amazed by what we saw. The bar is light, airy and vivaciously colored—and huge. There’s a turquoise-hued bartop made of hand-carved lava rock and a balcony with panoramic city views and room for 100 thirsty guests. The menu features a collection of Miller’s trademark cocktails as well as new concoctions like the Exotica Bowl, which comes served in a brandy snifter nestled inside of a giant, smoking clam shell. “I am excited about every single drink that is on my menu,” says Miller. “I cannot and will not pick my favorite child.”
Some of the drinks pay homage to departed colleagues and friends, some are dedicated to tiki icons, and there’s even one virgin cocktail, which Miller created with help from his niece. “I hope to bring our little tiki community closer together,” Miller says. “It’s all about ‘Ohana,’ which means family in the widest sense. I am not competing with other tiki bars across the world. As a good friend once told me, ‘Go forth and preach the gospel of tiki.’ And that is what I will continue to do.”