Brian Miller is preaching the gospel of tiki.
Walking into the Polynesian — where Miller is partner, beverage director and bartender — is a lesson in tiki culture, from the décor and music to the Easter egg-filled illustrated menu to, of course, the libations themselves.
For the past 15 years, Miller has been cultivating an interest in tropical cocktails, from behind the bar at previous gigs like Pegu Club (where he discovered Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s “Grog Log”) and ZZ’s Clam Bar to his “Tiki Mondays” pop-ups at places like Lani Kai and Mother’s Ruin.
“I just got really interested in the cocktails because they were different flavor combinations that I had never seen before,” Miller, 48, says.
The drinks menu at the new Major Food Group bar features concoctions pulled from Miller’s repertoire and odes to his inspirations; for instance, the large-format Exotica Bowl, served in a large clamshell with dry ice, pays homage to Fort Lauderdale tiki bar Mai-Kai’s mystery drink. The illustrated menu itself also features references to tiki royalty, like Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber.
Since opening in May, the midtown west bar has drawn a mix of tourists and cocktail connoisseurs seeking tiki drinks.
“Everything’s coming up tiki these days,” Miller says, pointing to new bars like Broken Shaker and Existing Conditions with tiki-inspired drinks on the menu. “People are interested in it.”
For more tiki love, there’s this weekend’s Tiki Throw Down, a tasting festival that’s part of the New York Cocktail Expo. Miller will be among the judges as bars including Mother of Pearl and Broken Shaker face off.
Tiki curious? Miller walks us through the cocktail’s hallmarks.
Miller has a few goals with the Polynesian. One is to show that tiki drinks aren’t “syrupy sweet cocktails,” he says. “They have tremendous depth and character to them.”
The different flavors come from the blend of spirits, syrups and juices. And like with any $15 cocktail, “quality is what matters,” Miller says. “It’s about making a good cocktail first and foremost. That was part of the allure of tiki — being able to balance more than four ingredients in a cocktail.”
Another goal of Miller’s? “I want people to drink rum,” he says, with current favorites including Dos Maderas 5+5, Rum-Bar Rum from Worthy Park Estate, and “anything that comes out of Foursquare.”
Several different rums are common in classic tiki cocktails like the Zombie and Mai tai. Though the most popular cocktail at the Polynesian, the Jungle Booby, doesn’t use any rum; it features tequila and mezcal with orgeat, bitters, absinthe and tropical juices. Sherry, bourbon and gin also make appearances on the menu.
It’s all part of a current wave to “expand the bounds of what is a tiki drink,” Miller says.
You won’t find a lone orange twist on a tiki cocktail.
“The general rule with tiki is when you think you’ve garnished the drink enough, garnish it some more,” Miller says. “They should be big and loud and boisterous and fun.”
Classic garnishes include flames, parasols, and “toys” like flamingos (you’ll even find a little surf board in the Polynesian’s ode to surf legend Eddie Aikau).
“I like toys,” Miller says. “It’s like the Joker in ‘Batman’: ‘Where does he get those wonderful toys?’” (You won’t get an answer from Miller; he’s keeping those secrets to himself.)
Along with over-the-top garnishes, tiki mugs play a role. The Polynesian has several custom ceramic vessels, from skulls to pirates (the mugs have been so popular, the bar is toying with the idea of selling them). The drinks are also big on presentation, like the smoking Exotica Bowl. The reason for that is simple.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” Miller says. “I’m trying to make people happy through my drinks.”
IF YOU GO
The Tiki Throw Down is Aug. 19 from 3-7 p.m. at Melrose Ballroom | 36-08 33rd St., Melrose | tickets from $50 at eventbrite.com