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6 Things You Didn’t Know About Tiki Umbrellas

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Cocktail umbrellas have the power to instantly bring a smile to your face. The tiki invention is a whimsical distraction that rivals the best Polynesian garnishes—it’s like the cherry on top of an oversized rum cocktail. But like tiki lore itself, these tiny parasols come with a deep history and a bit of mystery, too. While none of this info will deliver earth-shattering knowledge, it will provide a few fun facts to drop on your drinking companions as you spin your umbrellas fancifully between your fingers. Here, six things you didn’t know about cocktail umbrellas.

They Evoke Chinese Parasols

Decorated (full-sized) parasols have been used in Chinese society for about two thousand years. But during the 20th-century cultural exchange between the East and West facilitated by WWII, those umbrellas shrunk to fit neatly in a tiki mug. Granted, it’s difficult to draw a direct line from first century accessories to 20th century garnishes, but somewhat fittingly, modern wholesale East Asian restaurant distributors like Dynasty still source their tiny parasols from China.

They May Have Been Invented in Hawaii...

Harry Yee of the Hilton Waikiki, the same tropical genius who gave the world the Blue Hawaii, is one prime suspect for tiki umbrella inventor. Jeff Beachbum Berry, a nouveau tiki legend in his own right, gives credit to Yee. He told Bon Appetit that Yee originally garnished drinks with sugar cane sticks, but he soon grew infuriated with guests leaving the chewed-up remnants in the bar’s ashtrays. Yee first tried swapping in orchids, but in 1959, he switched to umbrellas, which Berry suggests the restaurant already stocked as toothpicks and decoration.

...Or Possibly in Los Angeles

But cocktail authority Dale DeGroff disagrees, citing that tiki founder Donn Beach is the umbrella inventor, along with the vast majority of tiki traditions that were later adopted by competitor Trader Vic Bergeron. Bergeron’s son confirms this timeline, pointing out that Trader Vic bought umbrella garnishes from Beach back in the ‘30s, and both men likely began using them in drinks not long after.

Or Both

Beach also spent time in Waikiki after the war, where he could have encountered Yee and traded cocktail ideas from the mainland. Considering all the boozy espionage that took place between Beach and Vic, there’s just no telling where some tiki-nventions actually originated, umbrella included.

There’s a Secret Message in Every Umbrella

Anyone who’s played with a paper umbrella for a few seconds only to break the garnish immediately knows the craftsmanship is pretty cheap. What you might not realize is that the factory-made garnish actually holds a secret. According to Travel and Leisure, Chinese production companies looking to cut costs often use bits of old newspaper as stuffing material for inside the cap. Rip off the top, and you’ll find your own little scroll of rolled up newsprint—though you’ll need to know Chinese to read it.

They Don’t Do Much to Shade Your Drink

Beach umbrellas may keep you safe from unrelenting sunshine while lounging on the sand, but the tiny umbrella in your drink doesn’t quite work as well. Unfortunately, your drink doesn’t stay any colder or your ice any more solid from the miniscule shade. Air temperature will have a much greater effect on the ice in your drink than anything else, so stop trying to engineer a cooler drink with dinky garnishes, and just enjoy the frivolous umbrella for the tiny bit of ridiculous joy that it is.

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