Cheers! Reviving the tiki tradition with tropical drinks and midcentury style
There is so much to catch your eye: Tiki statues, tiki mugs, tiki décor of every description, and more than a dash of 1960s living room kitsch. Max’s South Seas Hideaway is the newest tiki bar in Grand Rapids and the epitome of a “tiki palace” in Michigan.
Tammy Coxen of Tammy’s Tastings sat down with co-owner Mark Sellers in a cozy little corner filled with tiki art and mid-century suburban furniture to talk to him about the two-story tiki bar and restaurant.
“I've been wanting to do a tiki bar for years. I owned some other restaurants, but I've collected and been a fan of tiki bars for years. So about five years ago, I got this idea that I was gonna do it,” Sellers said.
It opened this year.
The sheer volume of tiki iconography is astounding, but what makes it really interesting is that these are vintage pieces from the hey-days of tiki bars in America.
“In 2017, I bought a collection of tiki artifacts that had been collected over years by a guy in California. It was a large collection of vintage tiki stuff from old Trader Vic's locations, Kona Kai, Kon Tiki, Hawaiian Hut, all these old famous tiki bars that are now torn down and gone,” Sellers said, adding, “You can basically walk into a collection of stuff that nobody's seen since the 1950s/60s.”
Tammy was in tiki ecstacy.
“To me, I walked in and I was like: this is what it would’ve been like to walk into a new tiki palace back in the ‘60s,” she said.
Sellers says the whole idea of Max’s South Seas Hideaway is to forget there is an outside world while you visit, especially when there’s a Michigan winter just outside.
But, what about the tiki drinks? One of the partners in Max’s is Martin Cate who won a James Beard award for a mixology book he wrote. The bar uses his drinks. There are 45 drinks on the menu, all using fresh ingredients.
One of Grand Rapids’ respected bar tenders, Jeremy Williams, was waiting for us at the bar. He had the ingredients for the bar’s signature drink, the Max’s South Seas Swizzle.
As always, we want to feature drinks with Michigan ingredients and this one had Michigan maple syrup and New Holland Freshwater Rum, a barrel-aged amber rum.
Tammy noted there was a second rum from Plantation.
“I really thought it was fun to see you blend that with a heavier Caribbean rum to bring some of those flavors. And that's really classic tiki form,” she said.
Williams said the idea of blending the rums in the tiki bar culture is to ensure to achieve a complexity and depth of flavor.
Williams used a different mixing technique. Instead of shaking or stirring, he swizzled.
“A swizzle cocktail is a name that reflects the manner in which the drink was made rather than what goes into it itself. And we use a tool called lele to rub between our hands to move around that crushed ice really rapidly, almost like blending it in the glass so that it's just frosted to perfection,” Williams explained.
The drink was everything he had promised, nice spice elements, citrus, then those Caribbean flavors along with the hint of Michigan maple syrup.
Max’s South Seas Swizzle
1/2 oz New Holland Freshwater Run
1/2 oz Plantation Old Fashion Traditional Dark (OFTD) Overproof Rum
1/2 oz John D. Taylor’s Velve Falernum
1/2 oz maple syrup (from Michigan, of course)
3/4 oz lime juice (freshly squeezed)
sprig of mint for garnish
Partially fill tall glass with crushed ice. Add ingredients. Use a lele (tiki swizzle stick) to swizzle the drink. Or you can use a bar spoon. Insert the spoon into the ice, and roll the handle back and forth between your palms to become your own manual blender.
Add more crushed ice to fill the glass. Garnish.
Tammy Coxen and Lester Graham are the authors of Cheers to Michigan: A Celebration of Cocktail Culture and Craft Distillers from the University of Michigan Press. The book is based on the Cheers! episodes heard on Michigan Radio.