Miami is a vacation destination in its own right, but on occasion, a mental trip to the Polynesian islands is what’s on the menu. Enter tiki cocktail culture.
Tiki cocktails tend to be fairly elaborate beverages concocted with several ingredients, resulting in a cocktail balanced in its sweetness, spiciness, and booziness. The most recognizable of the genre is the mai tai, made with a pot still or blended rum, orange curaçao, orgeat, demerara syrup, and fresh lime juice.
Typically rum-based drinks, tiki cocktails are attributed to Don the Beachcomber (real name Ernst Gantt), who was born in Texas but traveled the Caribbean and South Pacific and embraced the laid-back vibes of island life. Upon his return to the States, he settled in Los Angeles and opened Don the Beachcomber, considered the world’s first tiki bar, in 1934. His menu included an eclectic mix of strong but sweet cocktails that kept guests coming back to quench their thirst. The same year, another bar, Trader Vic’s, debuted in Oakland, California; it poured the same kinda of Polynesian-style drinks. After a few years, Trader Vic’s opened several other locations, and the tiki trend began in earnest.
Tiki bars have come and gone in South Florida, where the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale has served the potent potables since 1956. Now tiki culture is on the upswing in Miami and Miami Beach, where bars such as Esotico, Sweet Liberty, and the Sylvester embrace the colorful motif. The three bars, along with several others, will serve their finest creations at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown. The event, held Friday, February 21, is a lively competition among bartenders to see who will be crowned tiki king or queen.
“While tiki generally offers an escape from the monotony and less exciting parts of life, in Miami, it assists in bringing an awareness to the beauty and vibrance we have all around us,” Ben Potts, co-owner of the Sylvester, says of Miami's embrace of tiki culture. He and his team at his other establishment, Beaker & Gray, won the coveted tiki prize in the past.
Esotico in Miami’s Arts & Entertainment District embodies everything that is tiki. The bar, which announced its opening at last year's Art of Tiki event, offers a massive cocktail menu of drinks served in custom glassware designed by owner Daniele Dalla Pola. An avid fan of rum and tiki culture, Dalla Pola owned a tiki bar in Italy before traveling the world to consult and educate anyone interested in learning about the magic of tiki. From South Africa to Norway to Russia, Dalla Pola spread the gospel of tiki culture before moving to Miami, where he decided to open another tiki bar.
This time, Dalla Pola opted for a more modern tiki concept, where Instagram-worthy cocktails would be the main attraction. “I was scared to open a real tiki bar, especially with Mai Kai so close. But I knew if I made the drinks something that people would want to photograph, that would get them in the door and that would allow me the chance to teach them about the rums and how to appreciate tiki culture,” he says with confidence.
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In Dalla Pola’s eyes, Miami is the capital of the Caribbean, so why not make it the capital of rum too? “I thought it was weird that there weren’t as many tropical tiki bars in Miami. Everyone was coming here and opening spots that looked like they belonged in New York or Chicago, and I wanted to do something different. My love of tiki allowed me to create something tropical and tiki with a Miami touch.” His favorites on the cocktail menu are the Navy Grog ($16), made with Lemon Hart demerara rum, Diplomático Planas rum, Bacardi Cuatro, fresh citrus, and blue agave nectar and served with an ice cone; and Missionary’s Downfall ($17), made with Bacardi Carta Blanca rum, Alamea peach brandy, blue agave nectar, fresh pineapple, and a hint of mint.
Though Sweet Liberty offers a full range of cocktails from classic to creative, there’s always a bit of tiki influence on the menu, according to bar manager Fraser Hamilton. "The Sweet Potato Painkiller ($14) is made using Sweet Liberty Jamaican rum blend, sweet potato juice, coconut cream, orange juice, and allspice. It's unique and a customer favorite," he says.
At the Art of Tiki, expect more than just cocktails. In the past, bartenders with their eyes on the prize have competed in costume, concocted stories, and even used scorpions to garnish drinks.
Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown. 10 p.m. to midnight Friday, February 21, at Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel, 1717 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $95 via sobewff.org/tiki.