Behind the Swizzlestick: Beachbum Berry

An interview with the modern day godfather of tiki cocktails
photo courtesy Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

Many years ago Jeff “Beachbum” Berry began a quest to find the long-lost cocktail recipes from the early days of American tiki bars. These secret recipes were often number encoded or had vague references like “Don’s Mix #2” or “Trader Vic’s Navy Grog syrup” to keep rival bartenders from stealing them. So it was with a great deal of detective work and long hours of research Mr. Berry unlocked these secrets and has now written six books about his findings. It is his work that is largely responsible for the tiki renaissance that is being experienced around the globe and why many in the cocktail community consider him the modern godfather of tiki. These days when he is not writing or teaching a cocktail seminar he can be found at his tiki bar and restaurant Latitude 29 located inside the Bienville House Hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

I had a chance to interview him about the history of tiki and what inspires him about the culture surrounding it.

AP: What was it about tiki cocktails and that captured your imagination?

JB: As a child taken to Polynesian restaurants in the 1960s, I watched adults ordering these amazing-looking exotic cocktails served with ice cones molded around straws, fancifully garnished with flaming lime shells. But by the time I was old enough to order one, it was the 1980s and all the places that served them were disappearing. So I looked into how to make them myself.

I originally started in libraries, looking up old magazines, and in used book stores, searching for old recipe books.  I also scoured swap meets and paper ephemera shows for old Polynesian restaurant menus. Aside from the Trader Vic books (which spilled many but not all of his secrets), I didn’t learn much this way.  Because the original restaurants were so profitable — and what drove the profits were the drinks — they kept the recipes secret. Eventually, after I published my first book, I persuaded some of he old-timers I’d met to open up, and eventually I got their little black recipe books. But even there they were in code. It wasn’t enough to get the books; I still couldn’t make the drinks. I had to crack the code, by combining evidence with guesswork and experimentation — which in some cases took several years.

So basically, tiki cocktails were the hobby that took over my life!

AP: Of the original tiki bartenders, who did you learn the most from?

JB: I learned a lot from my friends Bob Esmino and Tony Ramos. But mostly from Ray Buhen, who in the mid-1990s was still mixing at the Tiki-Ti, the bar he’d opened in 1961 in East Hollywood. He was almost 90 years old then, but he still remembered his early days working at Don The Beachcomber’s in 1934. He wouldn’t divulge any recipes, though.   Whatever the drink was, he would always bark that the ingredients were “rum and fruit juice!” But by watching Ray work, I learned by example. So when I finally did get my hands on some recipes, which were almost always in “notes to self” shorthand with no indication of how to actually make the drinks, I knew how to blend them and serve them.

AP: Do you think there is one ingredient that is the most archetypal and essential for Tiki cocktails? If so, what is it?

JB: Gotta be rum. There are a few great tiki drinks that call for gin or even whiskey, but rum is the heart and soul of the genre.

AP: What cocktail recipe are you most proud of deciphering/rediscovering?

JB: Definitely Don The Beachcomber’s original “lost” 1934 Zombie. Followed closely by the original, never-before-published Nui Nui, Jet Pilot, Saturn, Rum Barrel, Pearl Diver and Navy Grog — all of which can now be found on cocktail menus the world over.

AP: After years of researching and writing about tiki cocktails what made you and your wife decide to open Latitude 29?

JB: After six books, I just had nothing left to say about tropical drinks. It was time to stop writing about them and start serving them. And after 25-odd years of drinking in other people’s tiki bars, Annene and I knew what we liked and what we didn’t, and what we wanted in our own.

We sought a vibe that’s relaxed and always friendly, with lots of “aloha,” but with a look and feel that one restaurant reviewer called “unexpectedly chic.” Instead of the usual thatch and beach-bar bric-a-brac, Latitude 29 surrounds you with polished antique woods, specially commissioned oceanic decor by premiere neo-tiki artists Bosko Hrnjak and Danny Gallardo, and a hand-selected soundtrack of transportive tunes culled from around the world.

We wanted a cocktail menu that spans the entire 80-year history of tiki drinking, from the lost vintage recipes that I unearthed — some of which I’ve never published, and have had their world premiere at Latitude 29 — to my own original recipes, because by 2014 I felt that I couldn’t just serve the classics anymore. If we’d opened in 2009, I would have happily just served a full menu of only Don The Beachcomber drinks that I’d discovered. But by the time we opened, those drinks were already being served in new tiki bars that had gotten them from my books. So I felt that I had to include my own original tiki recipes too, to make Latitude 29 a unique destination, as opposed to just another tiki revival bar.

AP: Where did the name come from?

JB: Latitude 20 was a Polynesian restaurant in Redondo Beach, California, in the 1960s. I had a matchbook and some mugs from there, and always liked the name — the nautical feel of it, and the way it rolled off the tongue. Latitude 29 is the parallel on which New Orleans sits, so I just changed the number.

AP: With everything going on in the modern tiki cocktail movement, is their anyone out there whose work has impressed or inspired you?

JB: Mike Buhen Sr., the son of Ray who now runs the Tiki-Ti, is my idol. If you want to know how to do it right — day after day, year after year, decade after decade — spend an evening at the Ti. Same props to Kern Mattei, the GM of the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. I don’t know how he can do what he does, running a place with seven dining rooms, two bars, a Polynesian dance troupe and a sprawling tropical lagoon that all have to be handled with care.

AP: If there was one misunderstanding about tiki cocktails you could dispel forever, what would it be?

JB: That they’re sweet, syrupy, cruise-ship drinks. In fact they’re complex, culinary craft cocktails — when made right, of course. A well-crafted tiki drink is a high-wire balancing act, juggling sweet and sour, strong and light, fruity and dry, providing new layers of taste that keep the flavor evolving from the opening notes to the midpalate to the finish.

AP: You announced recently that you were working with Cocktail Kingdom to release a tenth anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari. What would you like to share with our readers about that project?

JB: This edition will feature a new afterward taking readers through the ten years after “Sippin’” first appeared: the explosive tiki cocktail revolution that no-one — including me — saw coming in 2007, which was aided and abetted by the craft cocktail renaissance that grew on parallel tracks, ending with the opening of amazing new tiki cocktail bars around the world. Plus a new preface detailing how I discovered, decoded, and divulged the book’s long-lost recipes.

via beachbumberry.com

There will also be 14 additional, previously unpublished vintage tiki drink recipes. And 10 new recipes from the tiki revival around the world.

The book’s also been completely redesigned, featuring photos and graphics unique to this edition.

Cocktail Kingdom will publish the book by the end of this year … fingers crossed!

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