Meet Jeff Beachbum Berry: Master of the Tiki Cocktail Revival

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A self-proclaimed bum, nothing slovenly can be found in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s dogged search for authentic tiki recipes. Years spent excavating potions concocted in the Caribbean led to seven books on vintage tropical drinks, a circuit of lecturing and speaking engagements, the Total Tiki app containing his encyclopedic knowledge, and Latitude 29—he and his wife Annene Kaye’s (or “Mrs. Bum” as Jeff calls her) love letter to tiki in New Orleans. The bug for tiki cocktail culture bit young. Before Berry could even sip on a Mai Tai, his parents ferried him around to Polynesian restaurants bedecked with indoor waterfalls, lagoons, oceanic art, and flaming drinks with ice forming around the straw. “It was all very transported and all-encompassing, so when I got old enough to drink, I sought these places out,” said Berry. When he turned 18, he beelined for Tiki-Ti in his hometown of Los Angeles, California. He ordered Ray’s Mistake, the most popular drink on the menu since 1968 and named after founder Ray Buhen. He was hooked. At the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, he found the mothership. Built in 1956, it has eight dining rooms, a garden path filled with tiki torches and sculptures, lush foliage, waterfalls, and lagoons. It also has the longest-running Polynesian show in the United States. “The first time I walked into the Mai-Kai and ordered a drink at the Molokai bar, my mind was blown,” he said. As tiki bars started closing, Berry embarked on his chase for the elusive recipes of the drinks he loved. With a journalistic background, he started with the research, hitting libraries, combing over old magazines and cocktail books from the 1940s to 1960s, but he came up empty-handed. The recipes he coveted appeared in magazines, but they didn’t turn out when he tried making them—the disconnect between what you got at the bar and what the recipe yielded stymied him. “When I started doing some footwork, I found out why,” recalled Berry. “I went to the bars that still existed, and I would ask the bartenders what was in the drink. Their response, ‘Rum and fruit juice’ brooked no further inquiry. That was the end of that.” Gradually, he pried out of them that these recipes were valuable trade secrets nobody gave away. If you wanted a drink like Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie or Trader Vic’s Mai Tai and nobody knows how to make it properly, you would have to go there to get a good one, guaranteeing a solid customer base. Over time, as bartenders retired (or relented to his dogged inquiries) and passed knowledge to friends and family, those secret recipes started to enter the world. It took years, but Berry began gathering a handful, usually thanks to used bookstores. “The thing that made tiki cocktails so intriguing was the complexity and the layers of flavor you couldn’t quite parse,” he said. “It was a very tasty hobby, but still just a hobby. I wrote for a living but in the movie business. I had no professional interest in cocktails. I just wanted to know how to make a good drink.” Berry became known as “the drinks guy” among his band of fellow tiki lovers, lauded for his punch. People started asking for recipes and instead of telling them, Berry went to the Xerox place and made a little zine. He handed it out to anyone who asked about drink recipes, and one copy found its way to a comic book publisher in San Jose. “He liked tiki stuff and asked if I wanted to put out a book. Our little spiral-bound, very DIY book came out in 1998,” he said. It became popular, and one book turned into a second and a third. His screenwriting career started to dry up, but the cocktail renaissance had begun. In the early 2000s, interest in vintage cocktails took hold but tiki drinks were out of favor. “It was syrupy, slushy, cruise ship stuff,” Berry said. “People didn’t know tiki drinks were actual craft cocktails before that word existed. The conversion started to happen slowly, which led to me speaking at cocktail conventions, and Potions of the Caribbean came out, my second real book after Sipping Safari.” Throughout this period, Berry and his wife collected tiki ephemera. Their house burst with iconic pieces like lanterns from Don the Beachcomber and tiki poles from Trader Vic’s. Neo-tiki bars started opening up with modern twists on classic tiki style. The recipes Berry had unearthed populated the drink menus, and in 2009, the bars started joining “50 Best Bars” lists and earning accolades from drinks awards programs. “They were making lots of money off the recipes, but I wasn’t making a living off the cocktail books I had written,” said Berry. “So Mrs. Beachbum said, ‘Why don’t we open a place and serve the drinks that you found?’” Latitude 29, located in the Bienville House Hotel in the historic French Quarter, New Orleans, took seed. He had no restaurant or bar experience other than his research forays, but his wife had occupied just about every position you could in restaurants before she became a writer. She took charge, got it open, and still runs it today. His latest adventure calls to his early zeal for finding those secret recipes. In 2014, he and Martin Doudoroff launched the Total Tiki app. Recently, they added a web-based version of Total Tiki. “We can post photos of all the places that drinks came from and profiles of all the bartenders who made the drinks with videos of them making them,” said Berry. “We even have an interactive map.” Berry still generously shares the fruits of his labors, introducing a new generation to the recipes he pried from reluctant bartenders and excavated from old bar manuals. His office is now one of the rattan barstools at Latitude 29 where he can order his favorite drink, the Mister Curtis, and nosh on Pimento Cheese Crab Rangoons. The gentle chai spice layered with overproof Jamaican Demerara Rum, thinned out a bit with Puerto Rican Rum, is named after Wayne Curtis, a regular customer and author of the book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. Donn Beach and Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr., may hold the title of grandfathers of tiki, but they rarely revealed their recipes. Without Jeff Berry and his archeological approach to acquiring those closely held recipes, his lifelong love of tiki culture, and his steadfast dedication to transparency, the tiki movement would have faded out as those plankholder bars closed. “I’m just the guy in the hat with the drinks, but without Beachbum, we would not have the Navy Grog, Mai Tai, and Jungle Bird around for the next generation of ‘bums’ to discover.” Beachbum’s Five Favorite Tiki Cocktails 1. OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS (by Beachbum Berry for Latitude 29) 1 1/2 ounces Tanqueray gin 1 ounce fresh lime juice 1/2 ounce Domain de Canton ginger liqueur 1/2 ounce cinnamon syrup* 1/4 ounce Latitude 29 Formula Orgeat (available at 1/8 teaspoon (6 drops) Herbsaint 1/2 oz Fentiman’s ginger beer (FLOAT) METHOD:  Shake everything—except ginger beer—with ice. Strain into a teardrop glass lined with an ice shell “igloo” (pictured**) or into a cocktail coupe with no ice. Pour in ginger beer. *Cinnamon syrup: Crush 3 cinnamon sticks with a mortar & pestle. Place the crushed sticks into a pan with 1 cup water and 1 cup organic cane sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then cover and simmer on low heat for 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and, keeping it covered, let sit at least 2 hours before straining and bottling. Lasts one month, refrigerated. **Ice igloo: Make in advance by filling the empty glass with shaved ice, then pressing the ice up the sides of the glass using a muddler or spoon; place in freezer for 4 hours, or until ice shell hardens. 2. LUAU DAIQUIRI (By Beachbum Berry for Latitude 29) 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice 3/4 ounce orange juice 3/4 oz Vanilla Re’al Madagascar Vanilla Infused Syrup 2 ounces white Puerto Rican rum METHOD:  Shake with ice cubes. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with small edible purple orchid. 3. THE DEEP SIX (By Beachbum Berry for Latitude 29) 4 oz Myers’s Dark Jamaican rum 1 oz Hamilton 151-proof Demerara rum 2 oz fresh lime juice 2 oz pineapple juice 2 1/2 oz Latitude 29 Formula Falernum (available at 1 1/4 oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram Shake with ice cubes. Pour into Deep Six Bowl (pictured, available at cocktail or other tiki bowl for two. Add more ice cubes to fill. Serve with long straws, resting in straw notches on lip of bowl. Garnish with mint. 4. NAVY GROG (Adapted from the Don The Beachcomber original by Beachbum Berry for Latitude 29) 1 1/2 oz Hamilton Beachbum Berry’s Navy Grog Blend Rum 3/4 oz fresh lime juice 3/4 oz Ocean Spray white grapefruit juice 1 oz honey mix* Shake with ice cubes. Strain into double old-fashioned glass with ice cone around straw (pictured, Navy Grog Ice Cone Mold available at cocktail or into glass filled with ice cubes. Garnish with lime wedge and mint sprig. *Honey mix: Equal parts honey and water, stirred until honey dissolves. 5. ZOMBIE (Adapted from the Don The Beachcomber original by Beachbum Berry for Latitude 29) 2 oz Hamilton Beachbum Berry’s Zombie Rum Blend 3/4 oz fresh lime juice 1/2 oz Ocean Spray White grapefruit juice 1/2 oz Latitude 29 Formula Falernum (available at 1/2 oz cinnamon syrup 1/8 teaspoon (6 drops) grenadine 1/8 teaspoon (6 drops) Herbsaint 1 dash Angostura bitters 3/4 cup (6 oz) crushed ice In an electric blender, blend everything at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a  Beachbum Berry Zombie Glass (pictured, available from or other tall glass. Add ice cubes to fill. Garnish with mint. To learn more about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, visit his website, or follow his latest updates on Facebook.

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