Fantasy Island Drinks

Tiki drinks are making a big comeback


Illustration Pop Winson

They may not be on the menu, but Edmonton’s cocktail bars are slinging Tiki drinks every week. Flamboyantly garnished, served in funky vessels and possibly ignited, Tiki cocktails turn heads whenever they make an appearance.

That’s all part of their appeal, explains Nic MacDonald, bartender at El Cortez and Baiju. He’s one-third of the trio behind Speak Tiki, a pop-up cocktail group that has hosted a few Tiki-themed events around town over the past year.

“It’s like when a new Ferrari or a new super awesome sports car drives by, and everyone turns their head and is like, ‘Damn I want that car,'” he says. “That’s like what a Tiki cocktail is; you’re like, ‘Wow, holy shit – that cocktail’s on fire and it has like a palm tree in it!'”

Tiki cocktails are a bit difficult to define on paper; you’ll know one when you see it. Aside from exotic garnishes and stemware, MacDonald describes them as usually (but not always) rum-based, featuring tropical flavours and citrus juices. “Basically, it’s a cocktail that you’d want to drink if you were on a tropical island sitting in the sand,” he says.

Tiki has been part of Western cocktail culture since the early 20th century. While it has remained a consistent subculture, Edmonton hasn’t seen it in the mainstream for some time; the last local Tiki bar closed in the 1980s. It is coming back, though: Aside from Speak Tiki’s pop-ups, MacDonald notes that Calgary’s Proof hosts a regular Tiki-themed night called Weekend at Ernie’s. “It’s fueled by people that are really passionate about the whole Tiki culture and that escapism from the normal cocktail culture that there is right now in Edmonton,” he says.

The real challenge with Tiki isn’t finding one on the menu, notes Natasha Trowsdale, bartender at Bar Clementine and partner in Speak Tiki – all the cocktail joints in town are well-versed in them, regardless of whether or not they feature them outright. Rather, it’s figuring out how to get those drinks to fit present-day Alberta, especially with our lack of fresh ingredients for much of the year.

“This is something that we talk about all the time, adjusting what we’re using in our cocktails to be more based around Alberta in general or where we are – not building a menu based on what you see on the coast, because we don’t have the same things,” Trowsdale explains. “Maybe being a little more creative with the syrups that you’re making and using a lot of dried fruits and stuff like that.”

There’s no denying the kitsch inherent in Tiki culture, which is something that really came out as it reached a tipping point in the mainstream.

“It was more of like kitschy, everyone would wear leis and it was almost not so much Polynesian and actual Tiki culture; it was more like Hawaiian pia colada stuff,” MacDonald says.

If a Tiki bar was to open in Edmonton anytime soon – MacDonald notes that the Speak Tiki group has been toying with the idea of starting one – it would have to be a truly modern take on the concept.

“Maybe dial down the cheesiness a tad, like not necessarily have hula dancers standing at your table or anything like that,” Trowsdale explains. “It really is based on an atmosphere. I really enjoy it myself and I know a lot of other people really do, as long as it’s done properly.”

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