I don’t really like many things that can be described as kitsch, but for some reason I love home tiki bars. This goes beyond rum being my favorite spirit. Maybe my affinity has to do with the fact that I’m a born-and-raised Floridian who no longer lives in a warm place, and sipping an ornate tropical cocktail allows me to pretend I still do. Or perhaps I just appreciate the amount of work it takes to turn a basement or shed into a transportive environment. In any case, I spend a lot of time lurking the r/Tiki subreddit and fantasizing about building my own version of paradise at home.
Many people feel the same way—despite their decidedly retro character, tiki bars only seem to be increasing in popularity, with thriving scenes in Los Angeles, New York, and everywhere in between. That said, newer proprietors are increasingly cognizant of problematic elements in tiki's past, such as racist imagery and a colonial romanticism of native cultures, and are leaning away from those tropes and toward a more general "tropical" vibe of relaxation and escapism. "It’s not about thatch and bamboo or dancing girls. It’s about the level of craft and hospitality, the attention to detail,” author, beverage director, and tiki authority Shannon Mustipher recently told the New York Times. "[Tiki] is a “deeply considered, well-executed, high production value cocktail experience.”
This is an evolving conversation, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s generally a good idea to consider the history of the South Pacific when beginning to collect tropical decorations and wares, and it's certainly worth doing the research to make sure your personal oasis is welcoming and respectful to all. (Here’s a good primer.)
Although purists hew to a mid-century California aesthetic, Chockie Tom, co-founder of the New York-based pop-up Doom Tiki, says the subculture is highly adaptable. Her version borrows a lot from the world of heavy metal; yours can revolve around whatever makes you forget about your problems. Given that there are only a couple of weeks left before the weather gets nice-ish, and that I’m currently in need of an indoor project, I’ve started trying to figure out what that looks like—so I consulted Tom and Martin Cate, the proprietor of world-famous San Francisco bar Smuggler’s Cove, for their suggestions. While this is by no means a comprehensive list of things to have on hand for all of your tiki needs, it’s a good start for those looking to up their home bar game or to start making more complicated cocktails in general.
Choose your mugs wisely
Tom said the number one rule in building your bar is “don’t be an asshole.” That’s to say, go with the mugs that look like pineapples or sharks rather than any racial caricatures (this should be a "duh") or Easter Island heads—the drink inside will still taste great. These rocket-shaped tumblers, to us, are perfect, because they not only capture a bit of the mid-century aesthetic, but also its sense of space-age optimism.
Consult a cocktail bible
While Smuggler’s Cove by Martin and Rebecca Cate (available on Bookshop and Amazon) is considered a pseudo-religious text in the tiki world, Shannon Mustipher's book Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails is quickly becoming a classic as well. With dozens of original recipes, gorgeous photography, and helpful tips about ambiance, it’s no wonder that Shannon’s book has been endorsed by practically anyone who's ever squeezed a lime.
Keep on rollin,' and not in the Limp Bizkit sense of the word
Now that you’ve got those bottles, you’re gonna need a place to show them off. This rattan bar cart gets the job done while still being able to blend into your living room during off-hours.
A citrus squeezer that’s not a lemon (dad jokes are a part of tiki)
Speaking of which, fresh citrus is absolutely imperative for making a good tiki drink. This Breville juicer’s expensive, but extracts way more liquid than a typical reamer or hand press, with way less effort. As Cate explained to me, it’s also restaurant-quality, which means it can withstand a lot of abuse.
If you're strictly adhering to mid-century aesthetics, Verve Culture's countertop juicer fits the bill and is currently on sale:
The secret ingredient
This citrusy, spicy liqueur adds tons of complexity to any drink and is a critical ingredient in hundreds of cocktails. John D. Taylor’s is considered the original and therefore a staple of any serious tiki bar. According to Tom, it’s also an example of what’s known as “thoughtful tropical”—its producer is part of a collective of locally owned and managed distilleries helping to codify the rules around rum production in Barbados.
Speaking of velvet....
When it comes to kitsch, black velvet paintings are gospel, combining the retro appeal of pop art with a charmingly creepy roadside-motel vibe. This fuzzy painting of a waterfall makes me calm for some reason. It would also look great behind your new tiki bar.
Invest in the incredible hulk of ice crushers
Having an ice crusher on hand is what separates the boys from the Señor Frogs. Seriously, I’ve done the whole put-ice-in-a-Ziplock-and-hit-it-with-a-hammer thing, and while it’s provided decent tension relief during the pandemic, the whole point of tiki is supposed to be relaxation. This is what pros use when they want to get that perfectly uniform fast-food ice.
Get one of those soda shop drink mixer things
Flash blenders like Hamilton Beach look like they belong at a malt shop in the 50s, but they’re actually perfect for tiki drinks because they can dilute thick syrups such as orgeat and chill a cocktail in seconds. They’ll also leave crushed ice intact, so you can pour the entire contents of the mixer straight into a glass when you’re done.
Oh yeah, and you’re gonna need rum
I knew a guy in college who decorated his apartment with empty handles of Sailor Jerry’s, and I’m dedicating this recommendation to him, whenever he is now. I hope he has since picked up a Jamaican pot-still rum like Doctor Bird. It’s an incredible sipper on its own—more depth of flavor than most high-end whiskeys, dollar for dollar—and will make an amazing, funky Mai Tai. (If you’re still at the stage of your tiki journey where you think rum is supposed to taste like something from Cinnabon, you will be practicing that drink a lot.)
Take it outside
If you're basement-free and/or your partner won't stand for a tropical bar setup in your shared living space, you can always turn a garage or patio into your outdoor oasis. This one is on sale, and is a great way to irresponsibly blow your next paycheck.
Fuck it, just buy an entire vintage tiki bar from the 60s
If some absolute maniac buys this, I will fly to their house and give them a high five.
Excuse us while we hammer a thousand painkillers. Cheers!
The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.