Food History

Nordic-Tiki Cocktails: Not as Crazy as You'd Think

February 25, 2016

On August 7, 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five other Scandinavians smashed their raft, The Kon-Tiki, into a reef just off the shore of an island in Polynesia. Remarkably, Thor and the whole crew made it safely to shore and the trip—a 4000-mile raft journey from South America powered only by drifting—was proclaimed successful. (Heyerdahl was trying to prove that it was possible that Polynesia had been populated by South Americans who had drifted there. He showed it was possible. But, his theory is generally considered incorrect based on other evidence.)

This literal smashing of Scandinavians into a corner of Polynesia was on my mind last week as I watched star bartenders Jon Olson and Adam Gorski (who have recently started a company called TruePenny serve up a special Scandinavian-Tiki menu at our distillery in northern Minnesota.

The event's Scandi-Tiki menu.

Remarkably, it wasn’t the first time I’d tried Scandinavian-Tiki. The first place I had come across Northern-inflected Tiki was at a pop-up Tiki bar inside the Twin Cities restaurant Eat Street Social, which opens unpredictably to serve expertly executed and dangerously drinkable Nordic-Tiki drinks.

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The idea was instantly interesting to me, and I made note of it each subsequent time I stumbled across a mention of a Nordic-Tiki pop-up or cocktail in Minnesota (plus a couple in Norway and Denmark!). It’s just a handful, but added to the event we recently hosted ourselves, I’ve noticed enough drinks and mentions that I’m starting to think of it as a sort-of micro-trend.

The Gitchee Gumee: Boreal Spruce Gin, coconut milkjam, juniper, pineapple, and lime.

Nordic or Scandinavian-Tiki sounds like incongruous fusion: Can you think of anything less tropical than Scandinavia? (The difference between Scandinavian versus Nordic is, in principle, the question of whether Finnish influence is included—Finns are Nordic but not Scandinavian—however in practice, at least in the Tiki-fusion realm, I think there’s no difference.)

Maybe it’s just because Tiki has seen a resurgence in popularity over a similar time frame as the growth of interest in Nordic cuisine. But, I think there’s more to it: The hot-cold duo feels less incongruous if you understand the escapist fantasy roots of Tiki cocktail culture.

The genesis of Tiki cocktails as we know them—fruity, boozy, dolled up with coconuts, parasols, and flaming limes—can be traced back to the 1930s and a gentleman named Ernest Gantt. Gantt, who became known as Don Beachcomber, opened the world’s first Tiki bar in 1934, serving tropical, supposedly Polynesian-inspired cocktails and food.

In post-prohibition L.A., his establishment “Don the Beachcomber” was an instant and enormous hit. It grew into a chain and spawned many knock-offs and one significant rival, the equally excellent Tiki chain Trader Vic’s (founded by “Trader” Vic Bergeron around the same time). Tiki became a sensation.

Though Tiki décor and apparel drew on American conceptions of Polynesian culture, the cocktails (and the food, too, actually) were not Polynesian at all. In his book Potions of the Caribbean, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, one of the foremost current disciples of Tiki, explains how both Don Beachcomber and Trader Vic actually drew on traditional cocktails, punches, and ingredients from the Caribbean, but cloaked them in Polynesian garb because it seemed far more exotic to Americans who were hungry for a sense of escape to a land faraway.

So, while we think of tropical-fruited, flower-garnished Tiki drinks as something to drink while sitting on a white sand beach in a tropical paradise, their actual purpose was to help you pretend you were in such a place when you definitely weren’t. And who, I ask you, is in more need than a tropical escapist fantasy than we who live in the minus forty-degree, snowed-in, icy lake-dotted frozen north?

But we can’t quite leave it there. As anyone who has ever listened to Garrison Keiler’s tales from Lake Wobegon knows, we Nordic types also believe in suffering. We think being cold and slightly miserable are slightly good for you, and we are secretly proud of the humble ingredients and culture we have.

We couldn’t let tropical drinks be just tropical drinks—we had to inflect them with a little cold stoicism, thus Nordic-Tiki: It takes the flavors of the tropics and layers them with flavors of the tundra, coaxing them into harmony. To Tiki’s pineapple, falernum, rum, and orgeat, we add dill and beets, hazelnuts, aquavit, and rhubarb. In a way, it’s a more earnest expression of Tiki’s promise of escaping while staying home. And Minnesotans are ever earnest.

The Off Course, Gone Missing: Øvrevann Aquavit, dill falernum, honey, cardamom, and lime.

Because the Scandinavian-Tiki inspired drinks I’ve tried have actually been quite wonderful, I think it’s a micro-trend worth knowing about—and maybe even exploring at home.

Like regular Tiki (as if there’s ever been anything regular about a drink scene that includes monkey head-shaped mugs!), Nordic-Tiki is more of an attitude than a new set of rules or principles for drink making. But, based on my observations and drinks I’ve tried, here are some things to consider if you do want to give a little tropical-tundra fusion a test drive:

  • While Tiki drinks usually rely on rum, more northern-leaning spirits like aquavit, gin (juniper berries are a classic part of Nordic cooking and gin is juniper flavored), and apple brandy are also totally happy to make nice with tropical flavors like pineapple, lime, passion fruit, and even coconut.
  • Orgeat, an almond syrup, is a Tiki staple, and what do you know?! Almonds are used in Scandinavian baking all the time— an easy overlap! To get even more Nordic, you could make your own orgeat with other northern nuts like hazelnuts and walnuts (the simplest way to do this is make a nut milk and then mix it with an equal volume of sugar and a spoonful or two of brandy to make your syrup).
  • Tiki drinks also nearly always incorporate a spice element, especially nutmeg, allspice or cloves, and cinnamon. Add some cardamom to those, and suddenly you have the set of spices that are typically used across Scandinavia for baking and mulling wine.
  • Tiki drinks tend to layer in fruit juices, syrups, or liqueurs. Tropical fruits make drinks taste Tiki, but you can combine those fruits with syrups or juices made from more typically northern fruits like lingonberries, currants, rhubarb, apples, or pears.
  • Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, whatever you make just garnish, garnish, garnish! Because, I’m pretty sure the colorful garnishes are really what make you feel like you’re on vacation.
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I like to say I'm a lazy iron chef (I just cook with what I have around), renegade nutritionist, food policy wonk, and inveterate butter and cream enthusiast! My husband and I own a craft distillery in Northern Minnesota called Vikre Distillery (, where I claimed the title, "arbiter of taste." I also have a doctorate in food policy, for which I studied the changes in diet and health of new immigrants after they come to the United States. I myself am a Norwegian-American dual citizen. So I have a lot of Scandinavian pride, which especially shines through in my cooking on special holidays. Beyond loving all facets of food, I'm a Renaissance woman (translation: bad at focusing), dabbling in a variety of artistic and scientific endeavors.

1 Comment

Jessica February 25, 2016
I've lived in MN my whole life and not known about this facet of cocktails! Thanks for sharing--I'll be keeping an eye on Eat Street Social's facebook page for their next Tiki party!