Texas Tiki Week Returns With an All-Star Cast and Tropical Spirit
The annual event is back with the best bits of tiki craft and history
The recent acceptance of tiki as a reclaimed art form (rather than a vacation indulgence) has long been in the making. The challenge is understandable: When most drinkers first try something called a mai tai or daiquiri, they're more likely to be on a cruise ship or at a generic hotel bar than at a thoughtful drinking establishment. Nevertheless, throughout the country, the continued modern-day success of bars like Latitude 29 in New Orleans and Hale Pele in Portland shows that the mystery and magic of tiki endure.
While casual drinkers might guess the tiki movement originated in Hawaii or Polynesia, the truth is more amusing: Hollywood, via Texas. East Texas native and former bootlegger Ernest R.B. Gantt's post-Prohibition bar Don the Beachcomber kicked off the trend in 1934, which reached San Francisco three years later when one of Don's former regulars opened Trader Vic's in 1937. (It later franchised throughout the country.) From there, the World War II generation took tiki mainstream. Tiki expert and Latitude 29 owner Jeff "Beachbum" Berry cited the combination of the returning military's time in the Pacific, Hawaii's late-Fifties statehood, and a desire for escape in the Nuclear Age as each contributing to the boom in a 2015 interview with Eater. Texas was even the site of one of the most lavish tiki bars: The Dallas Sheraton partnered with actor and tiki magnate Stephen Crane in 1960 on a massive 37th floor bar called Ports O' Call, which featured Singapore-, Saigon-, and Macao-themed rooms. As with so many trends, the mainstreaming of tiki led to both poor drinks and a pushback on the kitsch. Most tiki bars shuttered – though a few superb throwbacks remain – and tiki entered a long period of hibernation and misunderstanding.
Which brings us to Texas Tiki Week. Austin's nonprofit USBG (United States Bartenders Guild) has held the annual event since 2012 to help both cocktail enthusiasts and their working membership learn (and sample) the best bits of tiki craft and history. The week represents the largest annual fundraiser for the Austin USBG chapter, which provides local bar artisans with professional training and community service opportunities. The event's success has sparked an increase in tiki drink availability in Austin, with well-regarded bars like Drink.Well, Péché, and (the now departed) Bar Congress hosting tiki nights and seasonal tiki menus.
The 2017 Texas Tiki Week saw the organizers make a notable move toward broader reach, as Smuggler's Cove owners Martin and Rebecca Cate were tapped to lead a sold-out seminar at the Townsend. (The duo return this year for both a class and a bar takeover.) The festival also received great feedback on their first Tiki Village, an event combining cocktails, music, and vendors of tiki-themed art and products. The 2018 edition keeps both Smuggler's Cove and the village on the schedule, and adds several notable additions. Texas Tiki Week co-chair Caroline Roe says, "We wondered how could we build on the momentum of last year. We had a packed house for much of the week. We asked Martin to come back this year to do something different, and we know people like Brother [Cleve] and [Hale Pele's] BG Reynolds we can bring in who do great things with tiki."
Boston bartending legend Brother Cleve kicks off the festival with the seminar "Tiki: The Rise, the Fall, the Resurrection, the Redemption," and also plays music at the fest's opening party at the Roosevelt Room, where the Smuggler's Cove team will host a pop-up. The Cove sticks around Tuesday for a seminar on the aforementioned Stephen Crane (called "Tiki's Third Man") at the Eleanor. For those new to the festival, Texas Tiki Week organizer Andrea Jagodzinski recommends "Tiki's Third Man" and the opening-night party as great introductory events to get a taste of the fest.
The rest of the week reads like a rum-fueled island adventure: New York's legendary Employees Only (co-owned by Austin's Jason Kosmas) pops up at the Townsend on Tuesday, though the event is invitation-only – but fear not. Chicago's stalwart tiki bar Three Dots & a Dash host both a public class on tiki bar preparation and a pop-up at Palazzo Lavaca on Friday that is open to the public. There's a tiki bingo night at Nickel City on Wednesday, and free parties at Lustre Pearl East (early) and Last Straw (late) on Thursday night. The week ends with a busy run of tropical mania: In addition to Tiki Village, there's Tiki Movie Night Saturday at Weather Up, and group surf lessons and Houston's Lie Low guest bartending at Del Valle's NLand Surf Park on Sunday.
As for how to keep one's tiki dreams alive after the fest ends, Roe offers a few suggestions. "In Austin, we've got the Kemuri folks working on a new tiki bar on South Lamar. As soon as that arrives, it will be the best spot to experience tiki. So watch that space. We've not had anything quite like that since [East Riverside's] Steak Island and it's been gone for a long time. Last Straw's tiki drinks are also really good, with nice tiki garnishes – they know what they're doing. I'd describe their atmosphere as tropical, though – it's not a tiki bar! And Christopher Gaspar at Péché will do some great tiki cocktails when he's tending bar."
Texas Tiki Week takes place Mon.-Sun., Sept. 10-16, at various venues throughout Austin. Tickets are $20-75 (with select free events) and are available at www.texastikiweek.com.