In the good old days, when Sinatra was King and jazz was the official music of cool, everyone hip to the swingin
scene had a bar, in one form or another, in their abode. Some kept it simple: a silver tray on a sideboard, stocked with cut-glass bottles of rye, Scotch, gin and vodka, a spritz bottle, and an ice bucket. Others were more elaborate, dedicating large furnishing to their spirits. Some went as far as to incorporate their liquor cabinet into their televisions, hi-fi’s, or globes, or had them built into the wall. But the quintessential (and ultimate) expression of the rat pack lifestyle was the in-home Tiki Bar.
(To the left is a photo of my lovely wife, Colleen, behind our Tiki Bar on the Lanai. It started out as a mint condition 1970’s brown leatherette corner bar (We’re 90% sure it was used on the set of Edward Scissorhands). At night it’s lit up with electric tiki torches and black light. It really comes alive at night, as all Tiki bars should.)
These days, its rare to find a bar in someone’s home, as the entertaining has been moved from the home to the local bar or nightclub scene. But there are some of us left who still enjoy making cocktails ourselves, and sharing them with friends. How far you want to take the experience is dependent on the taste of the individual, but I think we can all agree on one thing: To do it right, you need a well stocked and nicely set up bar.
This article is for those of you who have a little space in your home specially selected to devote to cocktail hour. I’ll show you how to make your Tiki dreams come true, without shelling out an arm and a leg.
There are essentially three ways to own your own Tiki bar:
1. Buy a pre-made or custom made bar and have it installed.
2. Build your own, either starting with a plain bar, or building it from scratch.
3. Buy a commercial Tiki Bar and run the business.
Since the third option is out for most people, we’ll talk about the first two.
There are a lot of nice Tiki bars on the market these days. You just have to search “tiki bar” and you’ll get literally dozens of hits on where to buy. The prices range from around $150 (that’s the cheapest I found for something decent) to well over $5000 for a large, outdoor job. If you’ve got the lettuce to throw down on one of these babies, by all means do so, and get your Tiki lifestyle swingin as soon as you can. You can start with something inexpensive and add to it as time goes by. Just make sure you’ve got the dimensions right, so it fits in your space, and don’t forget to add in the cost of shipping (Most of these will need to be crated and can add a signifcant slice of dough to your final cost.)
I found some really nice ones at http://store.palmhuts.com , some great masks and other accessories at http://www.tikimaster.com/category/004.bamboo_tiki_masks/, and a range of inexpensive to nice quality bars at http://www.tikibars.com/ and http://www.tikikev.com/. The only problem with these setups is that you will see the $200 one and like it, but you’ll like the $400 one more. Then you’ll see the $600 one, and want that. Soon you’ve got a mortgage payment going towards your bar. Chances are if you’re reading this, that’s not something you want to do. Which brings us to…
Option Two: Build it yourself Tiki Bars
Ok, so you’ve decided that $500 clams is too much to blow on bar, even if you know you’ll use it every day. Well that’s fine; you don’t have to drop a load of nickles to have a really nice Tiki bar, and that’s the magic of Tiki. After all, the islanders who invented them didn’t have two dimes to rub together, did they? So you’re going to build your own. Fantabulous, jackson!
First thing you have to decide is where you’re going to put it. If you have a small apartment or condo, you’re almost certainly going to have it inside. Pick a nice corner of your main entertaining space (for most of you that will be the living room, for some of you the bedroom), and dedicate it to the bar. When I say dedicate it, I mean the corner of your world will be all things Tiki – floor to ceiling. If your total decor is tropical, no sweat. If the rest of your pad is Ikea-Modern, you’re going to have to find a way to make it blend. Believe me, your Tiki bar will soon become the focal point of your room, so make it count.
If you’ve got a house, you may want to put your bar outside, on the deck, on the screened porch, patio, Florida room, lanai, or just out in the back yard. I live in Fort Lauderdale, so my Tiki Bar is on the lanai…in fact, my entire lanai has been turned into my Tiki bar. (It’s part of a screened enclosure that also has the pool, very common in this part of South Florida). Just remember if your bar is going to be outside, it needs to be able to handle the elements. Bamboo is tough, but it can get bleached by the sun over time. So can rattan. And thatching will eventually dry up, so be ready to do some yearly maintenance.
Let’s assume for this project, your Tiki Bar will be inside, or at least on a covered area outside. Let’s also assume that you don’t want it to be too big, and want to spend as little money as possible. With these parameters in mind, here’s how to build your own tiki bar!
Starting with an existing bar:
The absolute easiest way to do this is to start with an existing bar. Maybe, like I have, you’ve found a decent corner bar at a yard sale cheap. Maybe you’ve found one at a thrift shop or used furniture gallery. Or you have even bought one new from Home Depot, Target, or some other store. Whatever the case, now all you have to do is turn it into a Tiki Bar. Start by gathering pix of other Tiki bars from the web. Again, an image search will give you dozens of results. Pick out a few you like the best and go for the overall “look”. Mostly you’ll be adding bamboo posts, rattan backdrops, and thatching, plus some trinkets and decorations like masks and signs.
Looking at your bar head on, you’re going to want to trim it out in Bamboo. I’ve found Pier One Imports to have a decent selection of bamboo sticks in different sizes. You can also find it at some garden centers and landscaping businesses. On line, most companies want to sell bamboo in bulk, but ebay seems to have the best prices on small quantities of poles (http://stores.ebay.com/Pole-Providers has some great deals).In most cases, you’ll need one for each end of your bar, maybe two for the middle, and if you want to have poles going to the ceiling, you’ll need a couple for that. 2″ to 3″ diameter poles make the best for these “main” poles. Smaller diameter (1″) are great for trimming things out. Know ahead of time that bamboo is TOUGH STUFF. You’ll need an electric saw to cut through it, and will need to sand the ends down with 120 grit sandpaper to get rid of splinters after the cut. Also, you will absolutely need to drill holes through it first before attempting to screw it into anything. Putting a screw directly into bamboo will only split it.
The front and sides of your bar can either be covered with bamboo fence (you can buy it at Home Depot, about $25 for an 8’x16′ section then cut to fit), rattan mat (find it at Pier One or on line), or the easiest way…with a thatch table skirt (found at most party stores like Party City, around $8). The thatching is easy to work with, easy to cut and cheap. You can staple it to the front of your bar and let it hang, and VIOLA! Instant Tiki Bar!
Rattan matting makes a nice cover for you bar’s countertop. Cheap way to buy this is to go to Pier One or a department store like Target and look for the window shades. They usually have several styles of tropical-style window shades in different sizes, usually starting at around $5.00 and almost never more than $50. Measure the size you need for your bar, buy the size closest but just a little more than what you need. Most of these cut easily with scissors to any size or shape. You can glue it to your bar top with contact cement, and trim out the edges with coarse rope…the natural looking stuff…just use small nails to nail the rope into place around the edges of your matting. About a 7/16″ diameter natural brown rope looks best. You can even coil the rope around your bamboo poles for an Island-y effect. A couple of coats of polyurethane will help protect the matting from spills. I have a woven rattan placemat on the center of my bar, too. It’s easier to clean than the bar surface.
That same matting can be used as a wall covering in the corner behind your bar. If you’re planning to have shelves on the wall, get the holes drilled for the hardware first, then put up the rattan mat. Contact cement and finishing nails will keep it upon the wall. Slice small “X” shapes with a razor where the holes are for the shelves before screwing in the hardware.
There are several nice Tiki Bar signs for sale all over the place. Ebay has an abundance of light-up and wood signs for under $30 shipped. Sites like http://www.webetiki.com/ also have a great selection for good prices. A search for “tiki bar sign” brings up a lot of choices.
Once you have your basic bamboo and rattan trim and your Tiki Bar is Open sign up, you’re ready to start adding some little touches. Party City and Spencers Gifts, during different times of the year, have Tiki shot glasses, beer mugs, drinking games, ice buckets, clocks, shakers and more. Party City (and most party stores) has an entire section dedicated to Tiki Party stuff, including printed napkins, swizzle sticks and barware (tiki-masked stemmed martini glasses are my favorite!) All this stuff is made of plastic, looks great, and is very inexpensive. It’s kitchy and fun, which is what having a Tiki bar is all about. Hang some masks on your poles, put a few silk tropical flowers around, and you’ve got yourself a Tiki bar. If you’re looking for something a little less kitchy and a little more retro, you can find lots of kookie kool Tiki stuff on Ebay, some of it from the 50’s, at a decent price.
Building your own Tiki bar from scratch:
If you’re not lucky enough to have a bar to begin with, or want something more custom, and assuming you have some basic idea about how to build with wood, the best way to go about it is to start with 2″x4″s. Frame out your bar with those, including shelf brackets. If possible, anchor the bar to the floor and/or walls for stability. Then you can cover the frame with any of the above-mentioned mediums. A trick my father taught me is to use a grinder or drill with a 6″ sanding disc to “notch” the 2×4’s at 1″ intervals on all corners, to give a rough-hewn effect, then use a propane torch from about 3″ away to “burn” the wood just enough to darken the grain, giving it an old fashioned look. (Works best with pine, experiment with it before you take the torch to your finished product). Disclaimer: Please don’t burn down your house doing this, and don’t blame me if you do. You can then either nail plywood to the 2×4’s and cover with rattan, bamboo mat, etc. or use the bamboo fencing for a “see through” look. (Shows off your bottles on the inside shelf). For the bar top, I’d suggest either plywood with rattan covering, or if you want to get fancy, you can tile it with rustic-style tiles (a lot more work, of course). You could even use vinyl floor tiles, if you can find some that look good; they’re cheap and easy to work with, and resist spills. 3″ bamboo poles can be used for the rail, and for a foot rail too.
There’s nothing worse than a kool Tiki bar with cheesey, modern looking or plain wood bar stools. If you’ve got a few bucks to spend, get some decent stools. Again, Pier One always has a nice selection of wicker stools that will look nice. I think I paid $11 each for mine a few years ago. If you’re on a budget and can’t find anything cheap except basic wood bar stools, then do what you can to spruce them up…paint them dark brown, and faux paint vines running up the legs, or wrap some of that natural-look rope around them, or maybe if you’re good enough with the paint, paint the legs to look like bamboo poles. That will get you by until you can invest in new ones.
Stocking the Bar
You’ve got the bar. You’ve got the stools. You’ve got the Tiki Masks staring down at you, and the carved wood sign say “Get Freaky In The Tiki”. Now you need the booze.
Like any bar, you should have a stock of the basics. This may differ depending on what you and your friends drink. My bar is always stocked with at least one decent vodka (Grey Goose or Kettle One seems to be what my friends ask for most often), Jack, Captain, Crown, Meyers Dark Rum, Parrot Bay Coconut Rum, light rum, one cheap tequila for margaritas, one good tequila for drinking straight (Petrone Silver), one really good Bourbon (Makers Mark or Knob Creek), one average gin (I’ve had the same bottle of Bombay for 16 years), Seagram’s Seven, Canadian Club or VO (for the Rat Packers), and several nice Scotches (for me. Usually Glenlivet, Johnny Black or Chivas Regal). You’ll also want a variety of liquors and mixers, depending on your and your friends’ taste (I have a couple of flavored vodkas, Gran Marnie, Yukon Jack and Triple Sec among others). But most importantly, you’re going to want to get a drink recipe book, and experiment. Try some exotic concoctions that go with the Tiki lifestyle, such as Zombies, Grasshoppers, Banana Banshee, Blue Hawaiian, Floradora, Cosmopolitan, Stinger, Tom Collins, Polynesian Paradise, Daquari, Piña Colada, Singapore Sling, Bora Bora, Manhattans, Between the Sheets, Mai Tai, White Russian, and of course, The Martini. Since many of these require special (and often expensive) ingredients, it’s a good idea to pick 3 or 4 you really like and stock the necessary items to create them. Make sure you have the right barware to serve them in, and the proper garnish…that’s very important…including a sword to hold the garnish, and a paper umbrella to top it off 😉
A little extra…
If you don’t have one, you won’t believe how convenient and rewarding a bar fridge can be. Either built into the bar or just behind it, if space allows, the bar fridge is the cat’s ass in Tiki bar accessories. (Really nice one at http://www.beveragefactory.com) Keeps your vodka and sodas cold. Keeps your gimlet onions fresh. Keeps your cherries cool and safe. Keeps some beer cold and ready, and if you use a lot of fruit, keeps it close to the bar without going to the kitchen. I’ve seen them for as little as $150 for the 4.4 Cubic Foot models, and believe me it’s worth it. Just something to think about.
Hope this had been helpful for you kats and kittens looking to jazz up your lives. Once your Tiki bar is done, dim the lights, turn on the Martin Denny, pour yourself a Old Fashioned and relax.
It’s Cocktail hour.