We usually talk about ways to make parties simpler, but with a tiki party, that’s simply not an option. You absolutely need Hawaiian shirts, leis, tiki torches, ukulele music, pu pu platters, wacky mugs, lavish garnishes, and of course, lots and lots of rum. Otherwise, it’s just another tropical theme party. Tiki is about creating a fantasy world where all your stress and problems melt away.
“It’s an insane amount of work,” admits bartender and tiki expert Matty Durgin, “but I don’t really think you could have it done any other way.” In the end, though, all that hard work is worth it as you and your friends escape to an island paradise, if only for one night.
As they say in the tiki world, “Aloha aku no, aloha Mai no.” Durgin translates for the rest of us: “I give my love to you, you give your love to me.”
“Nostalgic escapism,” says Durgin, is one way of describing a tiki party. You want your guests to feel like they’ve just stepped off an airplane into a kitschy, campy tropical oasis, he says. Think of grass skirt-clad girls putting leis around the necks of grinning tourists in Hawaiian shirts.
It’s not easy to transform your backyard (or basement, dining room, whatever) into an alternate reality. Durgin says you have to think elaborately: “You might be roasting a pig, transforming your backyard into an island oasis, importing sand, hanging faux palms, putting 30 torches all over.”
When hosting a party of his own, Durgin says, “Typically I’ll bring a box of Hawaiian shirts, swizzle sticks, different funny straws and exotic fruits, stuff to make wacky garnishes” and an array of tiki mugs and glasses.
For Durgin, the work is well worth it: “Going the extra mile makes a difference. My guests take pictures of their drinks, they gather their garnishes, they gather their little animals and their leis, and take it all home…it’s heartwarming to be able to not only make somebody a really delicious drink but to give them a fun experience.”
Rum, rum, and lots more rum! Among the classic tiki cocktails, the Mai Tai cocktail may be one of the more mysterious recipes. It’s exact origins are up for debate, as is the recipe itself. Durgin offers his version:
(Trader Vic, 1944)
1 ounce Dark Jamaican Rum (I like Smith & Cross)
1 ounce Ambre Martinique Rhum (I like St. James Ambre)
1/2 ounce Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao
1/2 ounce Orgeat Syrup (homemade of course!)
1 ounce Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
Method: Juice 1/2 lime into jigger and fill balance with fresh lime. Reserve spent lime shell. Combine all ingredients in a clean mixing glass. Mix in a Boston shaker fill with crushed ice. Shake until chilled and pour entire contents into double Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a mint sprig & the spent lime shell.
“Pork!” exclaims Durgin when I ask about tiki food. Or, because tiki drinks are strong and heavy, “I tend to stick with even lighter fare…fish and spicy wok-style vegetables.”
Other recommendations from Durgin include: pineapple pork fried rice, pu pu platters, crab Rangoon, beef skewers and chicken wings. Back in the early days of tiki (‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s), Durgin says, “the food was always horrible, but that’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek romantic thing” today.
Tiki drinks are pretty strong, Durgin reminds us, so “a buffet of wacky, greasy Chinese food” will always do the trick.
During says, “Think Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Beachboys’ ‘Pet Sounds,’ Nora Dean, Martyn Denny, Les Baxter’s ‘Quiet Village,’ soulful, exotic blends of old jazz, jungle sounds, Polynesian instrumentals, and tropical influences. And of course the sound track would not be complete without a little Don Ho.”
Also check out The Hooch Life’s Tiki Bar Playlist for more ideas and inspiration.
More Tiki Resources
Durgin recommends the following sites for you to dig deeper into tiki culture, history, and cocktails:
(Curious about tiki? Catch Matty Durgin at Ghost Plate & Tap in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, August 25th from 4–6 p.m. He’ll talk about the history of rum, tiki legends Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, and host a rum tasting. More info here.)