Shedding the Grass Skirts but Not the Spirit of Tiki

by Emily Bell
Megan Swann
May 2015

Recipes

Bartenders

Alex Renshaw
The Dogma Group | Chicago, IL
@AlexRenshaw

Erin Hayes
Lost Lake | Chicago, IL
@theminxologist

Jessica Lambert
The Dawson | Chicago, IL

Diane Corcoran
Three Dots and a Dash | Chicago, IL
@diane_corcoran

A woman in a coconut bra has no place in Chicago. If a coconut bra is to be worn by anyone in Chicago, it’s the frat guy, on a dare, chancing the frigidity of a Midwest winter’s night with one half of a bifurcated tropical orb on each of his nipples. Chicago is a land where the parka-ed thrive. And yet the Windy City is playing host to one of the most ambitious tiki scenes in the country. “We’re experiencing a full-on tiki revival,” says Alex Renshaw of The Dogma Group, citing the rabid success of places like Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake, not to mention a forthcoming tiki concept from the folks behind Scofflaw and Slippery Slope. “These concepts have changed our cocktail culture.”

Like most tiki enthusiasts, Renshaw is neither alone in his observation nor deluded in his diction: tiki revival, indeed. This isn’t the first time Chicago has erupted in an unseasonal spray of hibiscus blossoms. Concepts like Rock-a-Tiki and corporate colonists like Trader Vic’s have come and gone in bursts. By the time Paul McGee got to town in 2008, “Most of the big downtown tiki places had vanished.”

Formerly at the helm of Three Dots and now plying more than 275 rums at “a little tropical bamboo bar” called Lost Lake in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, McGee is a general among the small army of bartenders behind the tiki revival. “It was obvious that after enjoying 10-plus years of pre-Prohibition cocktails, people were ready to take a step into the post-Prohibition 1930s mixology of Southern California and Don the Beachcomber.”

Whether it sticks is up to the city, which continues to attract some of the top talent in the country. “We’re doing it right,” says Erin Hayes, head bartender at Lost Lake. Hayes spent her formative years drinking Volcano Bowls and Dr. Fongs at local tiki mainstays like Hala Kahiki and Chef Shangri-La. “Cocktail bars everywhere, not just tiki bars, are embracing the wave. You’d be hard pressed to find a good bar or bartender in Chicago that isn’t featuring a tiki drink.”

The interest in and popularity of the “tiki drink” has evolved the very concept of tiki—which is healthy, because tiki is laden with some serious cultural appropriation baggage. By now, as McGee puts it, “There is a real divide between people that are interested in classic tiki recipes and the tiki lifestyle at large. Each serves a purpose, and is worthy of a place in the tiki revival.”

Meanwhile, tiki recipes evolve. Renshaw does a stirred Jungle Bird variation to showcase the classic flavor with a different mouthfeel. Citric acid, part of the modern backbar, allows him to “provide tang without overtaking the flavors everyone loves so much in a good Jungle Bird,” he says.

Hayes works gin, vodka, whiskey into the cocktails at Lost Lake, as she did with her gin-based Queen’s Club Smash. “One thing you can take from tiki is the layering of flavors. There are lots of ingredients, herbal flavors, things like absinthe. You can apply that to any style of cocktail, even modifying a classic,” she says.

At The Dawson, Jessica Lambert looks at tiki through a wide angle lens. “When you look at tiki, there’s always the same components,” says Lambert. “It’s like, okay, there are going to be one or two kinds of rum, some acid, maybe some other half sours come into play, sugar.” She stretches the genre with her Dead Reckoning. Lambert not only plays with her beloved coconut cream, but she also employs a finishing quarter ounce of Laphroaig. “Workshopping, I kept thinking, ‘Where would I be drinking this cocktail?’” Cold, hard Chicago, as it turns out. But the Islay Scotch lends as much beachy salinity as warming smoke, so it’s an even split between escapism and realism.

The same goes for Diane Corcoran’s Bikinis After Dark, a Mai Tai variation that scars pineapple with a rich, bitter char. At the helm of Three Dots and a Dash, Corcoran witnessed Chicago’s obstinate tiki-ism firsthand. “We had a great winter. It was busy pretty much every single day.”

That’s the beauty of tiki in Chicago: unlike its Californian forebearers, Chicago is confronted with the oddity of its placement—a healthy reminder that tiki is very much borrowed, something to respect rather than caricature. And though the tiki movement came first to the coasts, we saw a full-on embrace in Chicago, home to an advancing, careful culture, and also some healthy self-delusion. As Corcoran put it, tiki is permission. “I’m gonna pretend I’m somewhere tropical. Even if it’s just for one drink.”