SpeakTiki brings island escapism to Edmonton with weekend pop-up

Skills: Writing

Written for VUE Weekly
July 13, 2016

In the midst of heat waves and downpours, it’s easy to forget that Edmonton is saddled with sub-zero temperatures for nearly half the year. Summer in the City of Champions is typified by brief, intense escapism, when residents forget the far-off chill of winter months and embrace the closest thing we’ll get to equatorial weather.

An up-and-coming trio of local bartenders have tapped into Edmontonians’ longing for an endless summer, and now they’re taking the city by tropical storm. This weekend, SpeakTiki will turn Denizen Hall into a Polynesian paradise when they host Sweat Tiki with nu-disco dance party SWEAT, bringing rum-infused vibes to the heart of downtown.

Founded in 2015, SpeakTiki is the trio of André Bober, Nic MacDonald, and Natasha Trowsdale, all fixtures in Edmonton’s cocktail scene. Since their inception, the self-described “atmosphere-driven cocktail pop-up group dedicated to promoting Tiki cocktail culture” has been shaking up a landscape that’s just getting a taste for craft cocktails with a distinctively island twist. It’s a business model that’s already proven its worth (as exhibited by predecessors like The Volstead Act, who are just about to open their new venue Clementine) allowing the three to introduce Edmontonians to a style of drinking that’s long laid dormant in much of the mainstream.

“Craft cocktail culture is all about taking that extra step. Tiki culture isn’t necessarily any more special than those drinks, but that’s what started it. Old Fashioneds have been around for a long time, but so has the Mai Tai. The whole idea [with tiki cocktails] is the relaxed vibe. You’re not in New York, you’re in Bora Bora,” says Bober.

It’s a formula that’s seen success with local venues. Visit any gin joint in Edmonton, and tucked away behind the coupe crystalware, you’re sure to spot a collection of tiki mugs waiting to be filled with exotic libations. But the vision behind SpeakTiki is motivated by more than an appreciation of the art of the drink. Since its rise in Western culture during the 1930s, tiki has always been about escapism—offering guests a chance to take a break from the drudgery of daily life and be whisked away to an idyllic island fantasy. While tiki bars never truly vanished from its foundational American cities, the scene has elsewhere been subject to fads and revivals over the decades. Thanks to a growing appreciation for well-made drinks, SpeakTiki believes the time is ripe for tiki culture in Edmonton.

But unlike Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York—long-standing hot spots for the subculture—Edmonton’s northern clime comes with added challenges. Tiki has always emphasized the use of fresh, local ingredients, especially fruit juices, which can be challenging-if-not-impossible in the Capital region. While this reality has proven to be the undoing of past efforts to establish a hardcore tiki scene, SpeakTiki says it’s only motivated them to get more creative and unique with their menus.

“We’re limited to oranges, lemons and limes for a lot of things, which means your creativity comes from making your syrup, and your dried products,” says Trowsdale. The trio took over Woodwork in May with a tiki-exclusive menu, featuring a plethora of classic island drinks built with exotic ingredients—yet everything was as local as possible. Rather than relying on carving fresh pineapple and coconuts behind the bar, she prepared a top-secret Piña Colada mix to keep the drinks flowing. In fact, it’s this kind of resourcefulness, coupled with a zealous dedication to guarding recipes that’s always defined the tiki movement.

“It’s important, using what you have to make good drinks and not focusing on what California has. Tiki is a culture—you don’t have to follow an exact recipe.” she adds.

With this ethos in mind, SpeakTiki is reticent to let their predecessors’ habits get the best of them. Tiki has forever been about accessibility, and they’re dedicated to breaking through the oft-intimidating aesthetic of craft cocktails to bring patrons closer to the bar, and to the bartender.

“Bartenders can try to be so perfect on everything, and I think that a lot of customers might see that as arrogance. That’s why I got into tiki—because you can still make cocktails and be really refined, but you’re tailoring it to a show and sharing that with people,” explains MacDonald. When he pours a drink, he wants showmanship to take centre stage, and for customers to watch, enjoy, and ask questions about the art of the tiki cocktail. For as much as tiki culture and tiki cocktails are intertwined, the movement has long been as much about inclusiveness as exoticism.

That’s why SpeakTiki hope to eventually open Edmonton’s first tiki bar in decades. The most recent, Tiki Tiki, closed its doors in the mid-80s and eventually became the iconic Buddy’s (now Woody’s). The Beachcomber was demolished even earlier, and now stands as a parkade on Rice Howard Way. But through passion and kitsch, Trader Nic (MacDonald), Dre the Beachcomber (Bober), and Tahiti Tash (Trowsdale) hope they can revive a long-forgotten love in the heart of downtown.

“Tiki is tailored to every age. I guarantee you, if we had a tiki bar, you’d see people of every age there. You won’t just see a certain niche. Everyone likes tiki,” says MacDonald.

“Even kids—when they can see fire and have a juice, a 6-year-old can have just as much fun as a 60-year-old,” echoes Trowsdale.

In the meantime, they’re hoping to remind bar-hoppers of the joys of donning Hawaiian-print shirts and knocking back complex cocktails with exotic ingredients and unpronounceable names. If they hit any hurdles along the way, Bober has a foolproof solution: “You can always add more rum.”