In Landlocked Dallas, Tiki Cocktail Culture is on the Rise
Ravinder Singh, beverage director at Rapscallion, has a reputation as one of the city's best bartenders when it comes to tiki. When Singh unveils Rapscallion's new cocktail menu next month, the monstrous drink list will have more than 40 tiki cocktails.
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For a long time, tiki cocktails felt like a Dallas bartender secret, an off-menu playground where bar talent quietly experimented with flavor profiles that don't get a ton of play in a landlocked city 300 miles from the nearest beach.
If you knew what to ask for (and whom to ask) you could probably wrangle a low-key swizzle, but as tiki saw a resurgence in markets across the country, Dallas didn't seem to take the bait.
"It's not something that really exists here other than, for a lack of a better word, pop-up culture," says Brian McCullough, co-founder of the Standard Pour. "You don't really look at Dallas as a place for tiki culture."
This year, that's started to change. Bars that used to play with tiki nights started giving them firm spots on their weekly calendars, like Small Brewpub's Tiki Tuesday or Lounge Here's Tiki Thursday. Tiki drink specials found permanent places on restaurant menus, and bars like Jettison have added creative interpretations of the classics to their summer menus. A tiki-themed nightclub opened on Ross Avenue, giving tiki the Uptown treatment by offering $2,000 bottle service accented by coconut shots.
Small Brewpub's Tiki Tuesdays, featuring drinks like the Iconoclast (pictured), have long been a weekly haunt for Dallas tiki fans. Small is one of the most inexpensive craft cocktail bars in town, which means their tiki cocktails will only set you back $8-$10.
And this week, bartenders from Texas and beyond will descend on the city for the first Dallas Tiki Week, a five-day industry workshop with falernum labs, mai tai mix-offs and public events that will send tiki fans around the city for swizzle contests and cocktail samplings. Organized by McCullough and the Dallas chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild, Dallas Tiki Week will bring major brands to town for workshops, tastings and industry parties, but it also relies heavily on local talent to create a program that McCullough hopes will spread the tiki gospel to the farthest reaches of the North Texas cocktail scene.
For the uninitiated, the tiki bar, first introduced to the U.S. in the 1930s with the iconic Los Angeles bar Don the Beachcomber, is an American construct that riffs on Polynesian flavors and aesthetics. With an emphasis on laid-back, beachy vibes and fruity drinks often made with rum, tiki bars became especially popular in the U.S. after World War II, when returning service members brought home stories of the South Pacific and a rising U.S. middle class fell in love with tropical locales, seeking out those flavors and experiences in American tiki culture. Tiki went out of style eventually but saw a resurgence in the '90s and again with the rise of craft cocktail culture.
Summer is a notoriously dead season in the bar industry. But tiki, with its beachy flavor profiles and workability in refreshing, large-format group cocktails, could help bars bring in summer crowds while giving bartenders chances to play during the slow season.
"It's the start of the summer — it's the week of the summer solstice — so it just seemed like a fun time to let our hair down," McCullough says.
Ravinder Singh — beverage director at Rapscallion, the Lower Greenville bar and restaurant at the forefront of Dallas tiki — will lead one of the events, a Monday night grog workshop.
"We always had an interest in tiki, and then an article came out way before we were actually ready to do it," Singh says. Rapscallion opened with a focus on "grain, cane and agave," he says, but the crowds came in search of tiki, "so I ran down to Houston and talked to guys at Lei Low and got a crash course in tiki," he says.
What started as a weekly tiki night has altered the course of Rapscallion's bar program.
It started with Tiki Sunday, meant to liven up a typically slow day on Lower Greenville. Then it was moved to Tuesday, but people started asking about the cocktails everyday.
"Tiki is kind of inherently Instagrammable and social media-friendly, so that kinda led me to twist to our regular cocktail menu a little bit, too," Singh says. Now, Rapscallion is known just as much for its entertaining garnishes and cocktails like "Have You Seen My Keys?" as it is for its elevated Southern fare. But behind the whimsy is some serious work.
"We make our own gum syrup and house-made falernum and orgeat and all that, but we try to keep it super approachable, so a lot of that stuff just happens behind the scenes," he says.
Next month, Singh will unveil Rapscallion's most ambitious tiki project to date: a new drink menu with more than 40 tiki cocktails, including multiple daiquiris and nearly a dozen swizzles.
"I question my own sanity sometimes," Singh says with a laugh.
Houndstooth Coffee's Jettison is known for its creativity with sherry and mezcal, and the West Dallas cocktail enclave plays with both on their summer tiki offerings. Try the Escorpion (pictured), a mezcal play on the classic tiki scorpion, or the Sherry Colada, a sherry-filled riff on the piña colada.
Rapscallion will still serve classic cocktails and its nontiki signature drink menu, but this menu revamp signals a serious dedication to a cocktail subgenre that isn't known for being so serious.
"Everybody loves a fun cocktail, and drinking is a social thing — it should always be fun," Singh says. "If you take yourself too seriously and get caught up in the 'this is how things should be done' kind of thing, it kinda takes the fun out of it.
"Tiki really helps with that," he says. "It’s a challenge, but a fun challenge."
Dallas Tiki Week's Deep Ellum Bermuda Bar Crawl
Starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, get lost in the Deep Ellum "Bermuda Triangle" at a tiki pub crawl that will take you from Black Swan to Armoury D.E. to High & Tight with live music, tiki art and street food. Like all Dallas Tiki Week events, it's free for USBG members. For the general public, wristbands will cost $30 and will give access to the food, music, cocktail samplings and special $5 tiki cocktails at each location on the pub crawl. Dallas Tiki Week events require those consuming alcohol to use Uber or Lyft or to have a designated driver; ride-share discount codes will be released to event attendees. Details — and a full Dallas Tiki Week schedule — at facebook.com/DallasTikiWeek.
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