Jeff Berry is perched on a barstool sipping Belgian beer and professing rather amusingly his ignorance of the world of hops and yeast. Berry is a drink aficionado, but one of a single-minded fanaticism. Beach Bum Berry, as he is known, is a tiki cocktail expert.
When asked what, per se, a tiki drink is, Berry first makes a light-hearted attempt to swat at what he believes is a bit of a misnomer. “The term tiki drink is kind of a retro term that has only come about in the last two or three years as part of the tiki cultural revival,” he says. “Back in the day, they were called exotic drinks or tropical drinks — faux-tropical is more appropriate because most of them were invented not in the tropics but in Hollywood.”
Then, ever the diplomat, he shrugs. “I just go with it — it’s so much easier than stopping people and getting all William Safire about it.”
Berry grew up in California in the ’60s in the heyday of the tiki bar craze. His first encounter with the Polynesian-themed restaurants came when he was eight years old. His parents took him into what he describes as “a completely self-contained hermetically-sealed fantasy world decorated to a T by Santo Loquasto or something. They had no windows, the whole idea was that when you walked in, you were transported away from reality.” In that fantasy world, waterfalls splashed and lagoons burbled gently. Dawn to dusk, dioramas of island scenes flickered behind the bar, and canoes hung from the ceiling. Waiters proffered bowls of blazing alcoholic concoctions, garnished with speared fruit. It all sounds about as sophisticated as a boat ride through Disneyland — an enthralling world for a little boy. “That’s when I fell in love with the South Pacific — at least the Hollywood version of it,” he adds with a chuckle.
Across the darkened rooms of the tiki havens, Berry watched smiling faces aglow in the light of their volcanic eruptions of cocktails. They were transported — if only for a while — to islands where friendly savages sacrificed virgin daiquiris to the blazing Scorpion Bowl.
“The idea of going to the tropics for an extended amount of time was fairly unheard of,” Berry explains. “Most people rarely traveled beyond their home state if beyond their home city, so the world was a lot larger. There was no ‘Global Village’ and the notion of far-off exotic places still held a lot of romance for people. The tiki thing exploited that — it was an affordable mini-escape into this romantic world.”
Alas, When Berry was finally old enough to drink, it was the early eighties, a period that he describes as “the beginning of the dark ages of crappy drinks.” As disco balls fizzled, so too the tiki drink, and what ghosts of its past remained were stained the red of maraschino cherry syrup and tasted just as natural.
The heart and soul of the tiki however, was once not so artificial. The original tiki bartenders, according to Berry, “were the original bar chefs.” Take Donn Beach, nee Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who opened what many consider to be the granddaddy of all tiki bars, Don the Beachcomber. Beach’s drinks were very complex, says Berry, not just a wham-bam mix of liquors and mixers. “You’re dealing with upwards of twelve ingredients, sometimes muddled or pureed exotic fruits, nuts or spices.” The cocktails also often had a certain “X-factor” ingredient that was typically unidentifiable. “That somewhat sly, teasing flavor layer that you can’t figure out what it is that sends the drink into kind of a curve ball.”
Though Don the Beachcomber was certainly not the only tiki bar of its time, it was “the Spago of its day,” says Berry, “and people ripped him off immediately.” It was this that drove Beach to guard his recipes carefully, almost obsessively, to the point of transcribing them into code. It was this secrecy that further intrigued Berry, who set out to crack the code and compile his own tome of recipes.
Berry started from scratch, poking around in the shadows of the few remaining tiki bars ,attempting to ply old-timers for information, but they remained tight-lipped. “The only way to find out what was in the drinks was to ask people that were still alive that used to make them,” he said. “The ones that were still working would have none of that. Throughout the heyday of the Polynesian craze, very often the bartenders who knew these recipes didn’t even tell their bosses. For years, this was their passport to employment.”
Once, he said, the daughter of an old Don’s waiter bestowed upon him a notebook full of drink recipes — all in code. “Donn could have taught the Bush administration a thing or two about secrecy,” laughs Berry. “He’s very obscure now because he never published his recipes.”
One tiki bar owner did publish his recipes however — another one of the fathers of the Tiki scene, a man who went by the name of Trader Vic. Though the recipe book had been out of publication since the ’70s, Berry searched for the 400-page volume and finally found his holy grail. “It was like the Rosetta Stone and the Dead Sea scrolls all rolled into one,” he says.
Knowing what ingredients were in the drink, he says, was just the tip of the iceberg. There was always the question of whether a drink belonged in a blender or a shaker. If it demanded ice, was it to be crushed, and if so, how much? “So I’ll have to make six versions of a drink sometimes until you finally get something that seems like a balanced drink to your tastes. A lot of my recipes are my subjective versions of what I think these drinks should be. There’s no other way to do it because the recipes are not giving the full information.” Armed with the knowledge he gleaned from Trader Vic’s manuscripts and a lot of experimentation, Berry set to work in earnest, and has now published several books of tiki drink recipes — some borrowed, some created from his own mind.
Lately, says Berry, the tiki bar culture has been enjoying an upswing amongst both the pop-culture-loving “tragicomically hip” types and the rising stars of the artisan drink movement. “All of these hotshot star bartenders in big cities are getting into it because they see a kindred spirit in Don, someone who was really creative and really ahead of the curve and doing amazing work,” says Berry. “A lot of [bartenders] can really flex their muscles with this new genre.”
Whatever the reason, Berry could care less, as long someone finally figures out how to fix a decent Zombie. “I’ve tried hundreds,” he says, “and they all suck.”
Visit Beach Bum Berry’s website at www.beachbumberry.com.