An Evening of Tiki Drinks with a Tiki Legend

Tiki culture is a state of mind, an exotic one replete with hip-shaking women in grass skirts, twanging guitars, and crashing blue surf that kisses the horizon you’re gazing out from underneath a palm tree. This state improves with a tiki drink in your hand. With a little luck, a mug with an ornate, slightly grotesque Polynesian-inspired carving holds the liquid. A flower or an umbrella sticking out the top may also be happening, which is encouraged even if you’re the kind that prefers burly drinks that kick your throat before giving your insides a warm embrace.

Without the passionate work of Sven Kirsten, the mental state that stems from tiki culture might have developed dementia. Everything about tiki – the drinks, the fashion, the paraphernalia, was headed to the island of forgotten trends before the German-born author and tiki historian literally wrote the book on the subject. His 2000 tome The Book of Tiki became the blueprint to the aesthetic’s resurrection. Eighteen years later, the movement’s exploded from niche subculture to a widely recognized expression of cool that’s easy to celebrate anyplace, anywhere – even in an office warehouse in some nondescript industrial complex.

The Orange County chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild demonstrated this at their October meeting October 22; a celebration of Kirsten’s work, the tiki culture he curated, and the joys of tiki drinks – specifically, potent potables made with Plantation Rum. When it came time to host their fete on October 22, they chose a San Clemente, CA warehouse with a boxy white exterior, surrounded by other warehouses with boxy white exteriors. If I’m being honest, I didn’t realize the shindig was going to be at a corporate park when I got the invite. Not that this mattered when I found out. By that time, I knew the host property was a place called Tiki Farm. I was in regardless of setting because of the name, which is a thoroughly justified moniker. It turns out the business specializes in creating all kinds of tiki memorabilia. A walk through the place’s compact showrooms prior to the event showcases their prowess.  I’m surrounded in each room by floor-to-ceiling displays of colorful, funky tiki mugs that would look groovy in my admittedly meager tiki collection.  The name of the business may set the relaxed tone of the evening – there is that much power in the word “tiki” – but these mugs reinforce the feeling of chill.

The evening progresses and the notion of being in a warehouse gradually disappears. The Plantation rum-based cocktails expertly made by the team from The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim help to erase the setting, but such growing ignorance of physical envelopment isn’t because the drinks are strong. All are easy-drinking and delightful. More importantly, they capture a proper sense of place. It just so happens that place is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, right around the area where the old-time cartographers would draw lurking sea creatures. It’s the state of mind needed after a long, busy day, and it’s one made possible by the event’s main draw.

More than half of the slides Sven shares in his presentation evoke a personal response, mostly gasps of air where phrases like “That’s so damn awesome!” would normally be. Other slides evoke oohs and aahs, and a few leave pause for sighs of lament (RIP Don the Beachcomber). There’s also plenty of tiki cocktail history to be seen, and Sven covers the scene’s drinkable lore from its early Hollywood roots to its Mid-Century Modern heyday. More cocktails get distributed as he talks. They were good before, but somehow, they taste better with Sven dropping knowledge.

Sven, ever the purist, shares concerns about tiki culture’s growing resurgence eventually turning into market oversaturation after the presentation wraps. Yet this isn’t something dwelled upon too much, and rightfully so. The future is seldom contemplated while clutching a tiki drink. Relaxing in the here and now, immersed in the tiki state of mind, is all that matters. We may have been in a basic office complex, but Sven’s wisdom and Plantation’s rum beverages set our minds to island time.

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