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Talking Tiki cocktails during summer

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A Tiki drink at Spoonbar in Healdsburg. (Courtesy photo)
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Hey dreamers, it’s summer!

That time of year when vacation plans swirl — and, as happened recently in my living room, when the subject of Tiki bars and Tiki cocktails comes up while reminiscing with visiting friends.

The next thing I knew, we were in the back of a cab heading to Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel. I hadn’t been there in ages, and it was exactly as I remembered: dark, kitschy and, thanks to the chlorinated pool in the middle of the room, scented like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Yo ho ho, it was just what we were in search of on a cold Sunday afternoon.

The incongruousness of the Polynesian–themed bar in the swanky historic hotel at the top of our fair city got me wondering about Tiki bars and drinks in general. Where did they come from and why are they still so popular, especially during summer?

Up in Healdsburg, where the temps really do feel like summer, wine country native Alec Vlastnic, bar manager at Spoonbar, helped me out.

The widely accepted belief is that the Tiki cocktail genre was invented at Don the Beachcomber, the Hollywood watering hole of  24-year-old New Orleans native Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (he later changed his name to Donn Beach) who washed ashore in Southern California in the early 1930s. He set up a bar, decorated it with South Pacific knickknacks and served rum drinks with funky names. Word spread and the joint, along with the Tiki drink genre, became a sensation.

It was during the 1950s and ‘60s that the popularity of pre-mixed and pre-packaged foods invaded our homes and bars, and the sugary mixes found in tropical drinks became a thing. Luckily, times have changed. Tiki cocktails are still as popular as ever, but gone are the cloying, artificial flavors that go in them.

“These drinks were created a long time ago, but there’s always room for improvement,” said Vlastnic. “We’ve captured the essence of the originals, but have taken some liberties.”

A good Tiki cocktail, according to Vlastnic, really lets the rum shine. It should use a variety of rums, such as unaged industrial, industrial and agricole. He says traditional ingredients such as orgeat syrup used in a Mai Tai, and made from almonds, sugar, and rose water or orange flower water, should be made fresh and not bottled and preserved.

“At Spoonbar, we make all our ingredients in house,” Vlastnic said. “Grenadine is actual pomegranate juice mixed with sugar, lemon and orange flower water. And we take the time to make the coconut cream for the Painkillers.”

On tap this summer, the Spoonbar Daiquiri uses fresh, clarified strawberry juice and incorporates the traditional dark Jamaican rum and Flor de Cana but also uses kiwi shrub and kaffir lime syrup — not something you’d have likely found at Don the Beachcomber’s.

Vlastnic makes his own version of falernum, a sweet syrup for tropical drinks typically made with flavors of almond, ginger, lime and vanilla.

Vlastnic’s, however, is spiced macadamia syrup, adding an unexpected surprise, which is what summer should be all about.

“Tiki drinks lend themselves to heat,” Vlastnic said. “Rums mesh well with bright, citrusy and refreshing flavors, which are what people crave in the summer. Plus the drinks remind them of beaches and vacation.”

So if you’re like me and find yourself craving something tropical this summer, it’s good to know the heat is on up in Healdsburg and the Tiki drinks are flowing at Spoonbar. I think Donn Beach would be proud.

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