Micro trend: Modern tiki - the reinvention of a retro cocktail experience with opportunities for premium rum

The often kitsch and over-the-top cocktail trend has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, but is starting to come back, only this time, in a more grown-up, sophisticated form.


Once ubiquitous, the tiki trend is characterized by its excessive Polynesian-inspired decor, not to mention cocktails like the Zombie, Mai Tai and Fog Cutter, often dominated by rum and fruit.

Starting out in the US in the 1930s, not long after Prohibition ended, and during the Great Depression, it’s no surprise that tiki’s early success is attributed to the escapism it offered. Tiki’s boom lasted for decades, until around the 1970s, when a number of factors led to its decline: increased prosperity resulted in a diminished need for escapism, and sour mix and other premixes rose to dominance. It then made a fleeting return in the 90s, but was no doubt dismissed by the cocktail renaissance that soon followed.

The recent revival of tiki seems to have more substance to it, rooted in better-quality ingredients, and informed by a more mature approach to cocktails in general – both of which are key trends driving the US on-premise, as highlighted in the IWSR’s US Bartender Strategic Study. “Modern tiki offers a retro classic cocktail experience that engages consumers. In cities such as San Francisco, bartenders are experimenting with methods of creating fun, tropical drinks through the use of fresh fruit and tinctures,” notes Brandy Rand, IWSR’s COO for the Americas.

There are a number of factors not only driving this recent sophistication and evolution of tiki, but helping to bring it back into the mainstream in general.

Within the context of cocktail trends, tiki makes sense as a response to the cocktail renaissance of the past 20 years, which has often focused on historical accuracy, elegant stirred-down drinks, and an overall seriousness when it comes to the use of ingredients – not to mention the rediscovery of lost cocktail tomes from the past.

Historically, tiki has been, to some extent, an antidote to high-brow connoisseurship – re-injecting a sense of fun and irreverence into cocktail bars with its outlandish vessels and even more outrageous garnishes. The bartenders dress less formally, and the bars are generally more light-hearted.

Modern tiki bars are the beneficiaries of everything that’s preceded them in the cocktail world, and there’s now a greater focus on quality and fresh ingredients, as well as balance in cocktails – not to mention mixologists’ appetite for uncovering long-forgotten recipes, while creating fresh new drinks.

One significant difference between the present day and tiki’s former heyday lies within tiki’s spirit of choice: rum.

This is a category that has seen significant transformation in recent years: a variety of innovative new products are being launched, while the category is seeing more premium entrants to the market, providing greater access to quality sipping rums than ever before. Today’s bars have access to far more rums from around the world, and in greater variety, than the pioneers of tiki could have imagined.

“In many global markets, rum’s growth lies within premiumisation,” advises Chris Budzik, Senior Analyst at the IWSR. In the US, for example, although ‘super-premium and-above’ rum offerings only accounted for 0.8% of rum volumes in 2018, they accounted for 4.4% of total value for the category that year. “Vast opportunity lies within increasing the 0.8% share. Strong growth from established super-premium brands, as well as innovative offerings such as English Harbour Rum’s barrel-aged line, are leading the way in the US,” notes Budzik.

This is reflected in contemporary tiki bars, which are putting this spirit front and centre – using it liberally in cocktails, but amassing vast collections and offering a showcase for these rums too. This attention to detail is helping to give tiki a legitimacy that it hasn’t had before.


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