Mai Tais Make a Comeback

tejal photo.jpg

Illustration by L. Nichols

It's time to order a Mai Tai, especially if the last time you did was on holiday in Hawaii. "It's very difficult to get a good cocktail in Hawaii," says Julie Reiner, a New York mixologist who grew up there. "Everyone makes their own version of the Mai Tai that's basically rum and some fruity concoction. It's not the real thing."

Reiner knows what she's talking about. She began her career managing a cocktail lounge in the West Village then known as C3 and caught the eye of legendary mixologist Dale Degroff, who approached her with the intent to write about her Blood Orange Cosmopolitan. "It seems funny now, a cosmo," she laughs, "but at the time the fact that I was using fresh lime juice and freshly squeezed blood oranges, that was a big deal!"

Reiner went on to open The Pegu Club with Audrey Saunders and Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan, a serious art deco bar near Union Square with a classic cocktail list. "When we first opened Flatiron in 2003, we were doing Tiki Sundays and changing the whole space into a Tiki bar. Phil Ward and I would put on Aloha shirts and make blended drinks and Trader Vic drinks. Unfortunately the crowd for it was, well, small so Tiki nights didn't last long."

"We've gone in such a serious direction with cocktails (stirred booze with bitters). These are fun drinks. They're outrageous!"

But at The Clover Club in Brooklyn, Reiner's other spot, a few classic Tiki swizzles and rum drinks with a fresh fruity edge, are on the menu. Maybe it's because someone orders a Mai Tai in the second episode of Mad Men (if Gossip Girl killed the Speakeasy, then Mad Men surely saved Tiki). More likely it's because Reiner applies serious technique to the cocktails and serves them sans kitsch that the rum-based fruity drinks are popular choices these days.

In Reiner's hands, the Bermuda Swizzle, a classic swizzle originally invented by the Gosling rum company, goes from marketing ploy to carefully prepared classic cocktail. Also on her bar menu: a Mai Tai made with aged rum, fresh lime, and almond syrup, with a little Corduba rum floated on top (so the last few sips aren't diluted by melted ice).

Tiki's come a long way since the quiet Trader Vic nights at Flatiron. Reiner just hired a new bartender at Flatiron, Joe Swifka, who ran a successful Tiki Monday at the now-closed Elletaria. Popular cocktail blog NY Barfly reported it had "found Joe" for Tiki enthusiasts.


Photo by Tejal Rao

Why Tiki? Why now? Reiner, whose menus focus on classic cocktails of all sorts, has a theory: "We've gone in such a serious direction with cocktails (stirred booze with bitters). These are fun drinks. They're outrageous!"

Because it was an artificially selected culture, Tiki is a kind of pastiche of Things Post-World War II Americans Liked: tropical beaches, exotic women with their tops off, colorful drinks. The list goes on.

Tiki freaks and geeks, who are thousands strong, organize conventions that, if nothing else, expose the diversity of its fan base. There are Tiki tattoo artists, nostalgic octogenerian swingers, couples looking for Voodoo Vacations on Zombie Island, serious vintage thrifters looking to time capsule their homes, and equally serious rum enthusiasts who put on their flowery shirts on the weekend and call themselves beach bums though they blog from central Ohio.

Authenticity was irrelevant in its inception but, paradoxically, there is now such a thing as authentic Tiki cocktail culture. When I first met Reiner she was teaching a Tiki class to a bunch of industry professionals wherein she filled a scorpion bowl with her version of the Zombie punch, filled the center with 150 proof liquor, borrowed a lighter from a someone in the class and casually lit it on fire.

The ceramic bowl was painted yellow and green--a gaudy vintage gem. Everyone in the room beamed as they came up to take a slurp--there's just something about a flaming punch bowl. It makes you want to tuck a pink paper parasol behind your ear and drink up.

Between Trader Vic, Don the Beachcomber, and their many copycats, Tiki evolved from pseudo-Polynesian craze to genuinely American cult, but some of Tiki's classics are lost forever. There are defunct ingredients like Akole Hau. "Akole means 'butt' in Hawaiian," says Reiner. "That always makes me laugh. The truth is, I don't know what that liquor tasted like so there's no way of replicating any of the drinks made with it. It's extinct."

Tiki cocktails however, are alive and kicking.