The GM of Powell's new Huli Huli Tiki Lounge & Grill talks about tiki culture and shows off his mug collection.
Like an old bottle lapping up on a beach, the tiki cocktail trend seems to drift in and out. Right now, the tide is back in. Although inspired by Polynesian themes and island life, tiki culture is a fully American concept that’s all about escapism. And despite its playful, beach-on-the-brain reputation, tiki is serious: Its cocktails—featuring multiple fresh juices, syrups, alcohols and spices—are some of the most complex, nuanced out there.
Just don’t take it too seriously, advises local tikiphile and tiki-mug collector Nate Howe, the general manager at Powell’s new Huli Huli Tiki Lounge & Grill. “Tiki is supposed to be fun and approachable,” Howe says. “I don’t want anybody to be intimidated by what we’re doing. I would like to educate people about the history, but I just want people to come in and have a good time.”
Howe believes we’re in the midst of a third tiki craze. First, you had the original tiki bars in 1930s California—Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s being the most notable. Then came a wave (think ’80s and ’90s) that was more about the kitsch and fruity drinks with umbrellas. What makes the modern tiki era different is that it comes on the heels of the craft cocktail resurgence. It’s less about sweet umbrella drinks and more about honoring the history of tiki culture and the craft behind the cocktails.
But it’s always about the mugs. Collecting tiki mugs (and even designing them) is a passion of Howe’s. At one point, the Olde Towne East resident owned about 750. (He’s since downsized.) Pictured is a small sampling of his collection.
Falernum: This liqueur, a tiki staple, is made of sugar, citrus, spices (like clove and star anise) and nuts.
Orgeat: A sweet almond syrup fundamental to a Mai Tai
Overproof Rum: Like it sounds, a rum that’s over 100 percent proof; for example Navy-strength rum, an overproof rum, is bottled at 57 percent alcohol.
Tiki Bob: The character pictured on what is considered to be the first tiki mug, originating at bygone bar Tiki Bob’s in San Francisco.
THREE FUNDAMENTAL TIKI DRINKS
“It’s the one you need to know,” Howe says, calling it the benchmark of a good tiki bar. The historic drink is believed to have been invented in the 1940s by Victor J. Bergeron, aka Trader Vic, at his iconic Trader Vic’s bar in California, using 17-year J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum. A traditional mai tai (there are many spinoffs) combines rum, lime juice, orgeat, dry Curaçao and shaved ice.
Named for how you might feel after a few, the zombie was invented by Donn Beach of Hollywood’s Don the Beachcomber. “A zombie is one of those drinks that’s open to interpretation,” Howe says. Traditionally, the boozy drink is a base rum, an overproof rum, lime, grapefruit and spiced syrup. Huli Huli’s version is a recipe that Howe has been developing for a while.
Originating in the 1970s at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, a Painkiller consists of Pusser’s Rum (which trademarked the recipe), pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut and freshly grated nutmeg. “Painkillers pay the bills,” Howe says, noting that the concoction offers crowd-pleasing flavors while being “a simple, relatively inexpensive build” for bartenders. “People think tiki, automatically their mind goes to pineapple and coconut. … It’s a really tasty drink and a hangover waiting to happen. We sell so many of them.”
WHERE TO EMBRACE YOUR INNER TIKIPHILE
Huli Huli Tiki Lounge & Grill
26 W. Olentangy St., Powell, hulihulipowell.com
Open in downtown Powell since February, Huli Huli’s bamboo-accented bar isn’t over-the-top, but it slings some legit cocktails. Don’t miss the Big Island Sliders: Spam, pineapple, Swiss cheese and wasabi mayo on mini Hawaiian rolls that have been nicely toasted on the grill. You’ll need them to soak up all that rum.
Grass Skirt Tiki Room
105 N. Grant Ave., Downtown, grassskirttiki.com
Now the OG of tiki bars in Columbus, Grass Skirt continues to keep it kitschy on Grant Avenue. The spot even has one of the Kahiki’s original fountains, “George the Monkey.”
Sacred Palm Room below Mikey’s Late Night Slice
457 N. High St., Short North, latenightslice.com
Open for less than a year, this hot pink speakeasy hidden behind a freezer door offers tropical drinks like the Saturn, Mai Tai Spritz and Hurricane.
facebook.com/614tiki and @614tiki
Local bartenders Greg Burnett and Rebecca Monday throw this roving and rollicking tiki pop-up with “one-night-only” menus.
Farther Afield … Cleveland’s Porco Lounge & Tiki Room
2527 W. 25th St., Cleveland, porcolounge.com
Open since 2013, this exotic lounge is chock-full of tiki paraphernalia and has racked up mentions on national “best tiki bar” lists.