While I was in the Bay Area last week I got a little lost driving around Alameda. As I was driving, I drove past a tiki bar and thought to myself, hey wouldn’t it be fun to stop by a tiki bar while I am in California. Incidentally later in the week I was browsing cocktail blogs and came across a post that linked to the Forbidden Island tiki lounge. It turns out this was the bar I’d driven past, only a few minutes from where I was staying in Oakland. Naturally I decided to make the trip back to Forbidden Island, this time intentionally.
One of the things I really like about the tiki scene in cocktail culture is the kitsch that comes along with it. Maybe it’s because I used to live in Hawaii, but I’ve always prefered the tiki side of cocktail kitsch to the speakeasy side. It reminds me of aloha spirit and seems to encapsulate more about the comraderie of people coming together the way they used to than bartenders wearing vests and passwords at the door. Tiki bars were big following World War II precisely because the warm, tropical feel contained in them was portable to parts of the US that were frozen solid in the winters and the closest thing to a beach was found on the label of a Malibu rum bottle.
Stepping into Forbidden Island, it was immediately clear why the tiki bar once was a huge part of the American drinking scene. It was a great dive, beautifully decorated but not over the top with polish. It looked like the grass thatching over the bar and booths had been through a few storms. The bamboo framework around the booths had surely seen a lot of good action over the years. The walls were covered in worn wood paneling and the ceilings were adorned with glass ball lanterns and other nautical detritus. Above the bar, dollar bills had been pinned to the ceiling by customers using paper drink umbrellas. The bar was dimly lit with a very chill mix of 1950s beach songs and soul music playing. A tv near the front of the bar had an old Hollywood surf movie playing with the sound off. In short, it’s the sort of bar that I could see myself becoming a regular at for its atmosphere alone.
I was also impressed by the selection behind the bar. In addition to having a rum collection that was probably in the 75-100 varieties range, there was a big selection of bitters and a lot of other top-end cocktail spirits that I wouldn’t expect to find their way into a tiki lounge. Near the middle of the bar a small sign was hung that read “No Corona! Lots of Lime!”
I only stayed at Forbidden Island for two drinks. My first was a Classic Mai Tai. As far as tiki drinks goes, the Mai Tai is pretty much my favorite and is actually making its way into my regular rotation (especially since The Gibson uses homemade orgeat syrup). Unfortunately for me, it looked like Forbidden Island used Torani orgeat, a fairly bland bottled orgeat syrup. Either their pour of Torani was light or I prefer a more orgeat-y Mai Tai, but I thought the drink I had was lacking in almond flavor. That said, it was still a pretty good cocktail. It had a big sprig of fresh mint, well positioned next to the straw to add nose to each sip. It was a better Mai Tai than I’ve had almost anywhere else, but it didn’t blow me away.
My second drink was a Fog Cutter, made with gin, rum, brandy, orgeat, and a float of sherry. Interestingly, the drink was stirred with an electric milkshake shaker, something I hadn’t seen before. Again the drink was garnished with a fresh sprig of mint that gave the cocktail a great deal of depth. It was a pretty perfect example of how mint can bring out more layers to a drink.
I realized while I was here that tiki drinks really don’t do it for me. The emphasis of sweet, fruity flavors with heavy booze tones just doesn’t give me what I’m looking for in a cocktail. Or at least, it isn’t what I think of when I say I want to have a well crafted cocktail. Clearly this is a comment on my palate and what I like than anything to do with the Forbidden Island.
For me, Forbidden Island is a great example of a really fun bar that takes drinks seriously, while not being a place for perfectionism in bartending. No one is going to confuse it for Death & Company or The Gibson, but so what? It’s got a great decor, a huge rum selection, an adventurous cocktail menu of over 20 drinks, and a very chill atmosphere. Like Corridor 44 in Denver, Forbidden Island shows that you can still be an incredible bar for fine drinks while keeping away any vibes of exclusivity or pretension. Sometimes you just want a good, low-key place to have a drink without friends and don’t want to worry about the door policy. I’d certainly love to come back and spend more time exploring tiki drinks, as I don’t want to write off a major category of cocktails just yet.