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Food & Drink

Tiki Tourism: Just Add Rum

New Orleans is the literal birthplace of tiki, and “Rum Row” – the stretch of Decatur Street with three tiki bars – is the ultimate spot for a tiki tourism trek.

Tiki head lamp at Tiki Tolteca. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)

Noted tiki writer, historian, and cocktail creator Jeff “Beachbum” Berry uses the term “Rum Row” to refer to the short stretch of the French Quarter along which three tiki bars operate. Berry’s bar, Latitude 29, is the third bar in the area that celebrates the culture of tropical drinks and what Berry calls “the paradigm of rum, sugar, and lime.”

Tiki is in the city’s DNA: go out, partake, and celebrate.

The first, Tiki Tolteca, opened in June 2013 in Felipe’s event space on the corner of N. Peters Street and Bienville Street. Nathan Dalton, the former manager of the upstairs tiki den, remembers that after a tiki-themed dinner put on by Felipe’s, the owner approached him and said he wanted Dalton to open a tiki bar.

Tiki Wall
The wall behind Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s bar at Latitude 29. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)

“We got some tiki idols and stuff, but it kind of reminded you of somebody’s attic. We didn’t put a sign outside, we didn’t do any marketing, so it was very hidden,” Dalton says. “Which we thought was kind of cool, but then we figured out, when you’re that hidden, nobody knows about you, so it was kind of slow.”

Tolteca menu
The drink menu at Tiki Tolteca features hand-drawn illustrations. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)

In June of 2014, Dalton oversaw a complete renovation of the upstairs area, which opened just before Tales of the Cocktail rolled into town. The bar looks like it’s made of bamboo, and giant tiki heads, rattan furniture, dark wood, and brightly colored patterns fill the rest of the space. Tiki Tolteca’s menu is a pleasure to read, with hand-drawn illustrations of each drink, just like the Polynesian restaurants of an almost-forgotten era.

But everything old is new again. Especially tiki culture.

Reinventing Tiki

Berry describes the tiki-fied Chinese and Polynesian restaurants of his youth, in the 1960s, as an all-enveloping, “total adult Disney movie set,” which captured him completely by the age of eight.

New Orleans is the literal birthplace of tiki – Don the Beachcomber, the father of tiki culture in America, was born here in 1907.

“When I was old enough to drink, these were the places I sought out, in the eighties, and that’s when they were all disappearing,” he says. “That’s when I figured out, if I wanted to drink these drinks, I had to figure out how to make them.”

cane and table
A “proto-tiki” concoction at Cane and Table. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

And so began a life of tiki. Berry, through his books, classes, general tiki evangelicalism, and now a tiki palace of his own, is the modern tiki guru, and the man most associated with the culture’s resurgence and popularity, especially in New Orleans.

Nick Detrich, the owner of Cane and Table on Decatur Street, describes his tropical drink approach as “proto-tiki.”

“What we do is focus on the era of tropical drinking culture that predates 1934, which is when Don the Beachcomber started his bar. We’re going for an Ernest Hemingway, early-20th-century Cuba, coastal colonial flavor, when rum really had its birth.”

Cane and Table also opened up during the summer of 2013, when Detrich was inspired by Berry’s books and work, but says, “there was already a good conversation happening around tiki, but not about the era before. There wasn’t a place that focused on this style and culture of drinking.”

We’re going for an Ernest Hemingway, coastal colonial flavor, when rum really had its birth.

It’s a good time, he says. “A lot of bartenders gravitate toward tiki. They’re having a lot of fun making the drinks and interacting with the customers. It’s not buttoned up, and it’s an experience that people crave and come back for.”

Berry’s Latitude 29 opened in late 2014 amidst great fanfare, with classic tiki drinks, creative takes on the style, perfectly executed Polynesian bar food, and an interior design featuring South Pacific pieces of art and furniture that Berry himself had been collecting over the years.

Tiki head lamp at Tiki Tolteca. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)
Tiki head lamp at Tiki Tolteca. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)

The bar, just around the corner from Tiki Tolteca and attached to the Bienville House hotel, ties Tolteca and Cane and Table together to provide the ultimate tiki tourism experience.

“If you do Rum Row – the stations of the cross along Decatur – you’re going to have a thematic consistency with tropical rum drinks,” Berry says, “but they’re all being done differently by people with different palates and different approaches to cocktails.”

Tiki Tolteca, Berry says, takes more of almost an agave approach, “just spinning it off in that new direction.” At Cane and Table, Berry notes that Detrich “is taking a really contemporary craft cocktail ethos to tiki drinks and putting a spin on them, like an emphasis on bitter liqueurs.” Of his own bar, Berry notes, “we’re leaning a little more heavily on the classic.”

Dalton says that Tiki Tolteca’s approach to tiki is definitely skewed to the Latin American side of the tropics, using pisco and cachaca, as well as tequila and mezcal. The unofficial signature cocktail is the “A Huevo,” based on an ancient Peruvian potion said to help with fertility.

tiki tolteca
The bar at Tiki Tolteca skews Latin with spirits like pisco and mezcal. (Photo courtesy Tiki Tolteca on Facebook)

“The base of the drink is something called leche de monja, nun’s milk. You take [raw] eggs and submerge them in lime juice for two weeks. The lime juice’s acidity eats the shell off the eggs, and you’re left with just the raw egg inside the membrane. So you take all that and put it in the blender with pisco and sugar. Then we tiki it up a little bit, add falernum and passionfruit, ginger beer, all homemade, everything we use here. And we serve it with a flower called jambu, from the Amazon jungle,” he says.

“When you eat it, it does really crazy things to your mouth. It starts to go numb, then it starts to tingle, like a million Pop Rocks. People come up and say, ‘I’m told I have to have the flower drink.’ Then we sell one, the whole room sees it, and everyone buys it.”

A Drink, But Also a Lifestyle

But what exactly is tiki, and why is it so popular right here in New Orleans, right now?

Berry says that “tiki drinks were the first culinary, farm-to-glass craft cocktails in this country after Prohibition.”

Fresh juices, homemade syrups, homemade liqueurs, and even homemade bitters all help underscore Berry’s “farm-to-glass” comparison. “That’s the craft cocktail ethos, 70 years before it became a thing,” he says. “To me, these drinks can stand alongside any other category as part of the spectrum of the American cocktail.”

Tiki mugs
Tiki mugs at Latitude 29. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)

But tiki culture is more than just drinks, Berry says. “It’s so all-encompassing. Architecture, interior design, fashion, music, food, drink, decor. People who are into it, are into it to an extent that it’s our entire life.”

Dalton describes it, with a smile, as, “putting a lot of effort into have having a lot of fun. Whether it’s drinks or outfits or decorations, home bars, people spend a lot of time, and a lot of money and energy on it.”

Detrich introduces another important aspect of tiki culture: it’s transformative. “People are looking to escape with it,” he says. “Tiki has a very strong destination vibe.”

Berry agrees. “Tiki, when it’s done right, is a mini-vacation. You’re in a transportive environment, you forget the outside world. The food and the drink are thematically aligned to that. And that’s just a little two-hour – instead of having to buy a plane ticket – escape.”

Tiki tourism has been good for all three bars. Dalton notes that Tolteca’s sales jumped once Latitude 29 opened, and they’ve stayed at that level since.

Beachbum cocktail
Cocktail from Latitude 29. (Photo: Nora McGunnigle)

“It’s New Orleans,” Berry says. “We’re not looking to outdo each other. I think it’s great that you have options. We’ve got tiki tourists, flying into the city, staying at this hotel, specifically to be near this bar, and they’re thrilled that there are other places they can go to have a tiki experience. That’s what you want when you’re a tiki tourist.”

The New Orleans love of food, drink, and good times is a perfect backdrop to tiki. Plus, as Berry points out, the city is the literal birthplace of tiki – Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, later to be known as Don the Beachcomber, the father of tiki culture in America, was born here in 1907.

Rum Row and then Some: Even More Spots to Find Tiki

Tiki is in the city’s DNA: go out, partake, and celebrate.

The pisco and rum found in the city’s tiki bars has expanded the Caribbean- and Latin-influenced cocktail culture throughout the city. Check out the various riffs and context of tiki, pisco, and rum:

  • Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s Latitude 29 has proven to be a tiki powerhouse, with tiki devotees from around the world arriving to commune at the bar created by the man responsible for keeping the tiki culture from sliding into obscurity after its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s. Try the eponymous “Latitude 29” cocktail with eight-year Demerara rum, passion fruit purée, Madagascar vanilla syrup, orange, pineapple, and lemon, or classics like the “Navy Grog” (beloved by Frank Sinatra back in the day) or Don the Beachcomber’s “Nui Nui” punch.
  • Cane and Table’s “proto-tiki” vibe is based on the tropical cocktail culture that predates tiki creator Don the Beachcomber’s arrival on the scene in 1934. Owner Nick Dietrich focuses on the era when rum really had its heyday of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century, as popularized by writer Ernest Hemingway’s adventures in Cuba. Try the Cane Street Swizzle, made with rum and falernum, served in a hollowed-out pineapple.
  • Tiki Tolteca, right above Felipe’s Taqueria on N. Peters St., was the first in the city to delve into the tiki culture with rum and, surprisingly, pisco. Try one of the most popular drinks, the A Huevo, made with eggs, pisco, falernum, passionfruit, ginger beer, and the jambu flower — which, when eaten, will provide a sour, Pop Rocks sensation in the mouth.
  • When Nathan Dalton left Tiki Tolteca in late 2015, he did so to run the pisco-focused bar program at the bar at one of the CBD’s newest boutique hotels, The Catahoula Hotel. There, Dalton has been showcasing the versatility of the spirit, both with classic cocktails as well as creative spins, like with the “Coolest Kid In School,” which arrives as a Capri Sun-esque juice pouch in a lunch bag with goldfish crackers and a note from mom.
  • On the rum side of things, check out the tiny, Cuban-style rum bar called El Libre that another Catahoula Hotel bartender (Bazil Zerinsky) started last year. Tucked in the former Meltdown Popsicle space on Dumaine Street, El Libre brings the classic Cuban rum cocktails like the mojito, Hemingway daiquiri, and the El Presidente.
  • All rum lovers need to check out the Black Duck Bar in the newly renovated Palace Restaurant. With 130 rums, the Black Duck serves as the home for the New Orleans Rum Society and puts out tiki drinks like the classic Mai Tai, as well as original concoctions like the pirate-y sounding “Drunken Marauder,” with Rougaroux Sugarshine Rum, Myers’s Dark Rum, orange, pineapple, orgeat, and Angostura Bitters.
  • Speaking of Rougaroux rum, it’s important to consider where to find this major source ingredient of Latin and Caribbean cocktail culture. Rougaroux is distilled by Donner-Peltier Distillers, based in Thibodaux. They make Sugarshine light/clear rum as well as Full Moon Dark Rum, aged in white oak. It’s found at most grocery stores and liquor shops.
  • Celebration Distillation’s Old New Orleans Rum has been part of the city’s rum culture for twenty years (if you’re a rum lover, seek out ONOR’s 20th anniversary rum!). They make a clear Crystal Rum, a three-year oak barrel-aged Amber Rum, and a Cajun Spice Rum, infused with cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. The distillery is right in the city and runs three tours a day, with an shuttle option that picks you up a half hour before the tour at the French Market.

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