The concept of a “Polynesian” cocktail is somewhat of a misnomer. While most tropical drinks have names and imagery that recall Polynesia, most are actually Caribbean rum concoctions reinvented by American restaurateurs. One notable exception is the distinctive Doctor Funk, also sometimes known as Dr. Fong.
Doctor Funk was an actual person as well as a real Polynesian drink. Born in 1844 in Germany, Dr. Bernhard Funk migrated to Samoa around 1881 and was reputedly the first medical practitioner in the capital city. He became friends with Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and was the bedside doctor when Stevenson died in 1894 in Samoa.
Dr. Funk was not only a skilled doctor but also a mixologist of some note. The Doctor Funk was a notorious drink that became known throughout the region. It was mentioned by travel writer Frederick O’Brien (1869-1932) in his books White Shadows in the South Seas (1919) and Mystic Isles of the South Seas (1921). The latter calls the drink “a portion of absinthe, a dash of grenadine – a syrup of the pomegranate fruit, the juice of two limes, and half a pint of siphon water.” It was apparently served by the doctor as a “medicinal tonic.”
Dr. Funk thrived in Samoa, marrying the daughter of a chief, but health problems caused him to return to Germany, where he died in 1911. After his death, a granite stone was placed in his honor on the shore of the mysterious Lake Lanoto’o in Samoa, where Funk had built a health resort. The secluded lake still contains goldfish, illegally introduced to Samoa by Dr. Funk. For a lot more on the life and times of Bernhard Funk, check out this great research on Tiki Central by Sven Kirsten (bigbrotiki), Tom Duncan (TikiTomD), and many others.
A drink this legendary and rooted in the South Pacific was perfect fodder for Tiki bar pioneers Donn Beach (Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic). Both created Doctor Funk cocktails in the 1930s and ’40s with pretty much the same flavor profile. But over the years there became so many different versions by Beach, Bergeron and many others, it became impossible to pinpoint a definitive “original” version.
Doctor Funk also inspired variations with names such as Dr. Fong and Dr. Wong. Many of these became synonymous with the (now somewhat politically incorrect) Fu Manchu-style Tiki mug that was widely produced in the mid-century. Restaurants across the country simply invented their own drinks called Doctor Funk or Dr. Fong to go into the mug (see “bilge” at the very bottom of this review).
When The Mai-Kai opened in 1956, the menu included a Dr. Fong cocktail based on one of the Don the Beachcomber versions of Doctor Funk. This is where bartender Mariano Licudine worked for nearly 20 years, mixing the drinks that became the template for most of the original 1956-57 Mai-Kai menu.
Luckily for us, Tiki historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has over the past 15 years decade published two of Beach’s Doctor Funk recipes, which I’ve included below. In 2016, thanks to another author, guests at The Mai-Kai were finally able to taste the authentic Dr. Fong after an absence of more than 40 years.
Dr. Fong was featured on a special lost cocktails menu in September 2016 during the book release party for Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by Tim “Swanky” Glazner.
The special event also featured several other long-lost cocktails (Hanalei Bay and the Demerara Float) plus two days of gatherings of Mai-Kai enthusiasts from across the country. [More photos on Tiki Central]
The book chronicles the history of the iconic restaurant, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Pick up the book on Amazon or get a signed copy in The Mai-Kai Trading Post gift shop. It’s also usually available in the new online ordering app.
Dr. Fong returned again in August 2017 as part of The Mai-Kai’s monthly Flashback Friday promotion, including a special new recipe. See more below under the Tribute recipe notes.