Of Mai Tais and Madmen
It's likely that my love of Tiki bars was instilled at an early age-- somewhere between my mother's fond recollections of having cocktails at Trader Vic's in San Francisco and our accommodations at The Polynesian Resort on a family trip to Disney World. There was also the Brady Bunch 3-part Hawaii episode complete with a bad-luck tiki and the big, brass-driven beat of the Hawaii Five-0 theme song so popular in my youth.
Tiki's heyday hit somewhere around the end of World War II, with troops returning from places in the Pacific theater like Tonga, Fiji, and Hawaii where they were exposed to the tropical flavors of the Polynesian culture. Don Beach of Don the Beachcomber and Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic's were the godfathers of Tiki and it is still unclear which of the two created the iconic Mai Tai. I've had my share of Mai Tais over the years, but without question the BEST I've ever tasted was the one I had at Monkeypod in Maui. Yes, context is key, with the Pacific at your flip-flopped feet and the palm trees swaying in the breeze, but it's also the Old Lahaina Rum, the mac-nut oregeat, and the signature honey-lilkoi foam (this is where molecular gastronomy appeals to me most). To try to describe the ethereal, sweet, egg-white whipped gilding of the lilkoi goes beyond words and must be experienced with a pineapple slice and a straight--outta-the-surf vibe. I will return-- to Maui, to Monkeypod, and to the Hawaiian born and bred Mai Tai.
Lucky for me, and all my friends out there who love cocktails made with exotic ingredients like orgeat and falernum, the Tiki Culture is not dead. Just ask the Millenials. If you need proof that it is still alive and kicking check out this year's Coachella pop up Tiki Bar, or the myriad secret Tiki Bars scattered across cities in the United States.
There's just something about the Disney-like "Pirates of the Caribbean" meets "Madmen" elegance and mystique of it all. A feeling of treasure maps and pirate booty and secret assignations and booze. Finding yourself in an "underground" hideaway filled with nautical objects and a hint of scalawaggery in the air, where sweet and sour concoctions are served in coconut shells with tropical umbrellas and you can practically feel the tradewinds blowing on your neck.