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First cocktail umbrella

Let’s face it, the cocktail umbrella is just a toothpick with a fancy wardrobe and a swagger.

Historically, they’ve tended to grace the top of brightly coloured rum-based cocktails, usually jostling for position amongst wedges of pineapple, fancy straws and orchid garnishes. But who first added them to their drink? And why?

They will be eternally associated with Tiki culture, a craze that started in 1930s America (just after Prohibition ended in 1933) but has undergone something of a revival today – although possibly in a more ironic way. Tiki was essentially seen as an escape from reality for a society coming out of the Great Depression – it painted an alluring picture of an idealised land, full of sunshine and hula dancing, somewhere in the South Pacific, the best bits of Hawaii, Polynesia and the outlying Pacific islands blended together.

There were a couple of important and influential bars that brought the Tiki trend to life in the era. Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, which boasted exotic cocktails, rattan furniture and garlands of flowers (although the restaurant served Cantonese food curiously). The other was Trader Vic’s, now a chain, which opened in California in 1936 (the owner, Victor Bergeron, had lost his leg to tuberculosis as a child – but believed in the power of marketing and story so much, he told everyone he’d lost it from a shark attack in the Pacific!). But despite the décor and the beach vibe, no one was putting miniature umbrellas in any of the rum punches they served.

It is widely reported that it wasn’t until 1959 that the first known cocktail was decorated with a miniature umbrella. A bartender called Harry K Yee, working at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in Honolulu, began adding them to some of his more colourful creations. It is said he did it in response to people asking for drinks that were typically ‘Hawaiian’ – but with none to choose from, he invented his own. Using two types of golden rum as his base ingredient, he added lemon and lime juice, sugar and peach-infused brandy. He called this delicious-sounding (but lethal!) cocktail the Tapa Punch. Of course, the natural garnish was the Tiki-inspired cocktail umbrella, which would have decorated the bar area but never been used as a garnish. He had inadvertently started a world-wide revolution!

The time and place seem plausible. A long-time base for the US military, Hawaii had officially become a state of the United States on 21st August 1959, so it’s natural it would have started attracting plane-loads of tourists keen to try the local food and drink. And the Hilton Waikiki is the perfect place as an origin story – the hotel’s concept revolved around giving its guests the complete Hawaiian experience without leaving the resort.

There is one fly in the ointment though, although Yee of course might not have been aware of it. In 1955, a House Beautiful magazine article wrote about “pretty paper parasols useful for garnishing salads, for children’s parties, floral arrangements and decorating drinks” – which sounds a long way from tropical cocktails.

The irony is, the real origins of cocktail umbrellas almost certainly began in China about 1000 years beforehand – they are, after all, little miniature versions of the traditional Chinese parasols made of coloured, lacquered rice paper. The scaled-down versions were apparently a staple of Chinese restaurants from the 1950s, used as decorations for important celebrations – which then presumably spilled out into the general population.

In fact, it is said that in the early versions you can find bits of Chinese newspaper inside every umbrella – each was fashioned out of paper with cardboard ribs, which had a piece of folded newspaper under the collar to act as a spacer, written in Cantonese or Mandarin.

Despite some rather dubious claims, cocktail umbrellas are purely decorative. They serve no other purpose than to make your drink look more fun, colourful and kitsch – they scream ‘tropical’ without adding flavour, going out of date or costing a lot. For the record, cocktail umbrellas do not stop ice melting faster by protecting them from the sun or prevent the alcohol evaporating. Nor were they invented to get more women into bars.

The umbrellas are still around today, if not quite as popular. After the initial highs of the trend in the 50s and 60s came the lows of an audience who had grown more sophisticated. From around the 1970s, any sweet, colourful, overly decorated tropical drink was known in bartending circles as an ‘umbrella drink’ – not meant as a term of endearment!

But wherever you see a cocktail umbrella now, however few and far between, make sure you celebrate its backstory by raising a Tiki-inspired cocktail in its honour.


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