The word ‘Tiki’ was first born from Māori mythology. There are several version of the story, but most agree that ‘Tiki’ was the first man on Earth— The story of Tiki, is arguably the Māori equivalent to Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden.
However, what fascinated people about Tiki culture the most was the Polynesian carvings. These were said to represent deified ancestors or mark important sites of worship. Today, the word “Tiki” has come to represent the culture and period itself, including the creative style of the Polynesian people.
Tiki decor and Polynesian artifacts became famous in the 1930s. It all started with at man called Ernest Gantt. Gantt was born in 1907 in Texas, but found himself travelling along the Caribbean and South Pacific in his early years, where his true passion for tiki was first ignited.
He came back on to US soil with a head dizzy with tropical notions, and suitcases brimming with souvenirs. He wanted to share the Caribbean way of life back home. He opened the first Tiki-themed bar in Los Angeles known as Don the Beachcomber. It was here that Ernest got his nickname, after the bar itself.
Throughout the years, Don harbored a passion for Caribbean rum like no other, despite the fact it was the least expensive spirit, and had somewhat of a bad reputation! But Don saw rums full potential. Mixing rum with flavored syrups and fresh fruit juices, Don reinvented the cocktail industry as we then knew it.
A few years after Don the Beachcomber opened, Victor Bergeron opened the bar known as Trader Vic in Oakland, California, after visiting Don’s place. This sparked a rivalry like no other!
Both were fiercely competitive about creating the best tiki cocktails. It was Victor Bergeron that originally created the infamous Mai Tai. But Don fired back with the deadly Zombie. It is said that both hid their recipes with great secrecy. Don is said to have used coded systems to protect the true ingredients from tiki-spies!
Despite the fact Don was sent to serve his country in world war II, Don the Beachcomber flourished under his wife’s management. After the war it had expanded into a chain of sixteen locations. It was in this period that Tiki culture – including the art, style and that laid-back attitude – boomed into what we know it as today.
After the war, the American economy thrived, meaning more people were travelling further on their holidays. The South Pacific was a very popular spot at the time, and this ignited the American fascination with the tropics. It was tiki bars like Don’s and Vic’s that helped the American people to get their fix back home. Tiki bars were a way for Americans to experience a time away from their working lives through the week.