Tiki culture: Stemming from post-prohibition 1930s America, and first taking root in Hollywood with the opening of Don The Beachcomber, its rum- and fruit-heavy cocktails began to fall out of favor in the 70s, and into the 90s. The drinks were seen as overly sweet, cheap, and bad. But once again, Tiki menus are everywhere. Alameda makes a hell of a Mai Tai and has a shelf filled with ceramic Tiki mugs, same for Butter & Scotch; and just last night, Diner threw its own Tiki Monday party.
Over at Featherweight, they’ve had a whole year of Tiki. Bartender Guillermo Bravo–also of NoMad–runs the program and, each month for the last year, has worked with a guest bartender to create new Tiki recipes that riff on different themes. Tonight’s theme is Blue Hawaii, that deliciously terrible surf movie from the 60s. In advance of Featherweight’s twelfth and final Tiki event (deep sadness), I sat with Bravo and guest bartender, Juno’s Jordan Schwartz, at Extra Fancy to talk about a year of Tiki menus, why Tiki culture is really hot right now, and why you should make it your business to show up for Featherweight’s Blue Hawaii final Tiki night, and reap the boozy, frozen fruits of their labor.
Tiki culture has been having a revival for a little while now. Why is that do you think?
Bravo: I think it’s because every bar you go to kind of has its classic cocktails, but it’s time to have fun again. Tiki drinks: That’s what I want to drink right now. At NoMad, a rummy, juicy, peachy drink is the one I have on the menu now. And rum is happening, too. It’s the closest to bourbon, and it’s an easy spirit to have spirit-forward in a cocktail. There is a whole world of people who just want something, I don’t know, juicier.
Schwartz: Now that people have been doing good classic cocktails for like ten or fifteen years again, it’s just a natural progression for things to get more casual. And I think it’s really exciting that both of those things can kind of collide, so you have people who have been making really good cocktails for a decade, and also applying everything they’ve learned in that time to Tiki cocktails. So not only is it getting more relaxed, but it’s also still really good cocktails.
But at the same time, these drinks are juicy without being too saccharine-forward, too sweet?
Schwartz: Yeah, I think that’s the cool thing, too: when you look at some of these variations–whether for classics like a Manhattan or classics like a piña colada–the specs that you’re reading might not necessarily be for today’s palate, and it’s fun to kind of look back on those and tinker with them and find what’s really working with what we’re drinking now.
When you talk about the past fifteen years of making great cocktails, you mean basically since Milk & Honey?
Schwartz: Totally, yeah, absolutely.
Bravo: We both kind of believe in that culture greatly. The beginning of a lot of our specs were fashioned after that school, and it works and it’s a very solid school. With that background, you can make Tiki cocktails. And those places have versions of Tiki cocktails, too.
How did you come to start Tiki Tuesdays at Featherweight?
Bravo: It was just something that me and Jonny (De Piper, the owner) wanted to do, but I felt like I needed guest bartenders, because I wanted to work with other people who have the same kind of interests–but also show them what we do at Featherweight. It was kind of like a mutual “you learn from me, I learn from you.” I also force myself every month to learn more and more about this stuff. Because I could just sit at my shift at Featherweight and make a drink or two every time. But this forces me to make ten new drinks every month.
And this is your final one?
Bravo: Yeah, I have projects I can’t really talk about that will keep me pretty busy. I wanted to do a year and it’s not like there aren’t other people I want to work with, but for the time being I want Featherweight to go back to normal.
Schwartz: When you’re putting together a menu every single month, not only is that creating ten original cocktails, but it’s making all those syrups and figuring out the logistics of who’s doing what that night, and putting it together.
Bravo: Yeah, I don’t usually go more than one or two days without having to think about Tiki. Which I love, but I have to think about it every day, and when I try to get people together for planning, we’re all so busy that we might only be able to have two or three R&D sessions, and it’s always a different theme.
How did you get Jordan on board?
Bravo: He showed interest very early on. He’s a friend and somebody I wanted to work with. It’s always been friends for the most part.
Schwartz: One of the things I wanted to do coming in is kind of representing Juno, and weaving in and out of the menu the sherry blend we’re making there. Three or four of the cocktails on Tuesday will have it. Which is fun because sherry and Tiki don’t necessarily always go hand in hand. But the flavors work really well together. There is a deep sweetness to it, and a richness and nuttiness, and raisin and chocolate that pairs well with all of the flavors we’re working with.
And how did you choose Blue Hawaii Tiki night?
Bravo: I kept thinking about classic Hollywood and Tiki, and then I realized that’s Blue Hawaii. It’s the 60s and it’s tropical drinks.
Schwartz: When (Guillermo) was like Blue Hawaii, I said absolutely, that’s obviously our theme. I went home and fucking rented it on iTunes. Gotta do research for names of cocktails and garnishes, and outfits. Most of the names draw inspiration from Blue Hawaii. But, yeah, that movie is absolutely garbage. It has I think 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But the album is good–I don’t know, I love it.
Bravo: It’s supposed to be fun.
Yeah, that’s the whole point, like you were saying–you need something you can laugh at.
Schwartz: Yeah totally.
So what will you do for the rest of your day?
Schwartz: I need to go shopping for a Hawaiian shirt.
Featherweight: 135 Graham Avenue, Williamsburg