Tiki culture is a lot more than expertly-crafted cocktails bartenders toil over — it's all about the theatrics. The incredibly immersive cocktail dens are like intimate movie sets, chock-full of collected artifacts that come together to tell a story. But it's not just about the way a tiki bar is decorated: Tiki mugs take the experience to the next level with their intricate and colorful designs.
Have you ever sipped on a tropical Zombie cocktail or enjoyed a citrusy Navy Grog? That sensory-loaded experience was likely completed by an intricately-designed drinking vessel known simply as a tiki mug. These functional souvenirs have spiraled into their own fandom, with legions of collectors hoping to add a dash of kitsch to their own home.
What is a tiki mug?
Crafted from ceramic, these colorful miniature works of art were first designed — and originated in — tiki bars and tropical restaurants. Often created to pair with a specific cocktail, the drinkware is typically modeled after Polynesian or nautical themes, but in recent times has expanded to depict pop culture icons like the Mandalorian fan-favorite Baby Yoda, who wasn't spared from the trend. Today, most tiki bars around the world, like Trader Vic's in San Francisco, Calif. and Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, Ill., partner with talented mug artists to design pieces exclusive to their properties. The prices on these creations range from $30 to upwards of hundreds for limited lines and vintage pieces.
Where did tiki mugs come from?
The tiki mug dates back to the ’40s and ’50s. One of the earliest pioneers of tiki culture was Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. — also known as Trader Vic. As his bar business grew, the mugs became a staple of it.
"The earliest tiki bars had a habit of decorating everything in the bar — menus were over the top, [as was] bar décor," Josh Agle, a tiki artist known professionally as Shag, tells Yahoo Life "It was just a natural extension where somebody looked at what they were drinking out of and said 'Hey, we can do better.'"
And so, the tiki mug was born.
Shag himself has designed dozens of mugs — from bar exclusives for Disney Parks to a Star Wars collection featuring Chewbacca.
"I spent the first eight years of my life in Hawaii," Shag shares. "So, I think there's a subconscious thing there because they were everywhere when I was a kid."
"I didn't rediscover them until I was in my early 20s," he continues, explaining his tiki mug renaissance was thanks to a group of friends he enjoyed visiting tiki bars with. "You paid an extra $5, and back then, you got to keep the ceramic mug."
And so, his tiki collection began. Shag's collection has since grown to several hundred, most of which are vintage, and he counts Tiki Diablo, Eekum Bookum and Crazy Al as some of his personal favorite designers. "I used to have a rule that I wouldn't pay more than $5 for a mug," says Shag. "Back in the ’90s, I passed up some really cool mugs because they were $7 — and some of those mugs I've never seen again."
How are tiki mugs designed?
These days, he's not just a hobbyist, but a designer. "For me designing a mug, it's kind of like drawing a blueprint or a character for a cartoon," Shag explains. Once his design work is finished, the art is sent off to a sculptor who will handcraft a mug based on the drawing before the final rendering is sent to production.
One of the designs he's most proud of is a mug he created for the 60th anniversary of the iconic Tonga Hut in North Hollywood. Complete with two built-in swizzle sticks, the limited release was sculpted by Eekum Bookum and resells for upwards of $300. He's currently at work on a mug for Disneyland's exclusive Club 33 that's set for release in 2023.
Disney's role in tiki culture
Tiki itself has seen a revival over the last twenty years, thanks to ambitious mixologists and entrepreneurs with an affinity for the cocktails and culture of yesteryear. For many thirsty fun seekers, they have a mouse to thank for their introduction to the tiki mug.
"Much like so many, my first introduction into the world of tiki was seeing Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room at a young age," Brandon Kleyla who goes by Trader Brandon, tells Yahoo Life. Now working on Universal Orlando Resort's Epic Universe theme park, he spent eight years with Walt Disney Imagineering. His biggest projects? Serving as a decorator and writer for their tiki bars, Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at Disneyland Resort and Trader Sam's Grog Grotto at Walt Disney World Resort.
"I honestly think tiki had its resurgence thanks to Trader Sam's," he shares. "I have had hundreds of people tell me it was Trader Sam's that got them into tiki. Granted, there were many great tiki bars that were opening around the country, but when Disney invested in tiki, in my opinion it guaranteed it wasn't going anywhere."
Both locations of Trader Sam's lean into the storytelling aspect Disney Parks are known for — even down to the mugs. The bars sell open-ended lines of mugs specific to drinks, as well as limited edition collections commemorating holidays and special events. The demand is so great that new releases often draw hundreds of guests hoping to get their hands on these limited pieces.
"With Trader Sam's, we tried to make [the mugs] a part of the story more," Trader Brandon shares. "For instance, the Nautilus bowl at Grog Grotto is made to look like it's carved from wood, as if it was carved by the islanders ... even if they don't tie into the story of the bar, they are a crucial part that people expect when they visit."
Trader Brandon, who most recently designed the Sorrow Drowner in Wilmington, N.C., had a front row seat to the early creation of Trader Sam's mug collections. "It's fascinating to think of all the pieces that go into a proper design," he says. "Story, drink size, even storage space — all of those elements need to be taken into consideration when designing."
In his personal collection, he has 200 mugs in his kitchen alone, and has even designed several of them. "I think the simplest explanation is it symbolizes your trip to that location," he says of tiki mugs' popularity. "People collect them because they're part of the journey, a crucial part of the memory you make there."
Tips for new tiki mug collectors
Want to build your own tiki mug collection? If there are tiki swap meets or meet ups near your home, Shag recommends starting there. There just may be some brand-new mug makers who are creating really cool mugs that aren't super-expensive. He also cautions: Watch out for thrift stores, as they often carry knock-offs that are not originals.
"My rule is I only get a mug if it's a tiki bar I actually visit," says Trader Brandon. "Otherwise, [my collecting would] be even worse, but that boundary allows me to keep the count under control, but also makes them special."
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