At Tales of the Cocktail, Jeff "Beachbum" Berry tells the story of one of history's most potent drinks.
When Jeff "Beachbum" Berry started writing about tiki drinks, they were the mess that prompted the cocktail renaissance - sweet, sad and degraded cocktails that endured years of half-assed mixing. They were your parents' fond memories, and even the idea of them seemed yellowed by time. Berry's start with tiki certainly has its roots in the old days, when his folks took him to an over-the-top Chinese restaurant that tried to capitalize on the tiki craze in California's San Fernando Valley. It made an impression on him, so when Berry was old enough, he started drinking in the few remaining tiki bars in Los Angeles in '70s that still made the drinks properly. "I just liked these drinks," he says.
At this year's Tales of the Cocktail, Berry will speak Wednesday on a panel with Steve Remsberg and Ian Burrell titled, "The Rise of the Zombie: Tiki's Deadly Drink." He describes the Zombie as "the Cosmopolitan of its day," a drink that became part of American culture. Comedians joked about it because of its strength, and it drove business for its inventor, tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber. It was so popular that Don only shared the recipe with his staff in code so that rivals couldn't hire away his bartenders to get the Zombie recipe. It took Berry 10 years of research to finally figure it out.
Berry's interest in tiki drinks emerged from the mystery that surrounded them. The growth of disco and its urbane swank made tiki's exotic opulence seem corny and dated, and it didn't help that many of the signature drinks had devolved over decades, particularly when the secrecy that protected their recipes backfired. "It worked really well, to the point where nobody knew how to make a Zombie," he says. When Berry asked bartenders what was in any tiki drink - Zombie included - the standard answer was "rum and fruit juice." He realized a real answer would require research.
Berry fondly remembers the pre-Internet hunt for tiki recipes, which meant haunting used book stores, swap meets, yard sales - anywhere that he might find a recipe book, a postcard, a place mat or menu that might provide a clue. "You couldn't go on eBay and find Trader Vic's 1972 Bar Guide," he says. "You had to be in the right place at the right time and find it on a used bookstore shelf." He quickly learned that he couldn't entirely trust what he found. "When a magazine or newspaper printed a recipe that Trader Vic or Don the Beachcomber gave them, it wasn't the real recipe. An old dowager in Beverly Hills who knew Vic told me, He told me you always leave something out. They wanted people to be able to make something that reminded them of what they had at your place, but it was never going to be as good. If they've never been to your restaurant, you want it to taste good enough that they might go to your place, but not so good that they'll be happy drinking it at home."
Officially, Berry was in film school at UCLA, but he spent far more time as entertainment editor for the school paper, The Daily Bruin, than he did learning to light sets. He had no background in bartending and only knew about drinks from the receiving side, often at Tiki Ti on Sunset Boulevard. As such, he made incremental progress at best recreating tiki drinks. If a bartender made one poorly, he'd recognize one ingredient because there was too much of it, or he could identify another because it was noticeably light. "If they were done right, you couldn't pick apart the flavors," he says. When he found Trader Vic's 1972 Bar Guide and started seeing his wife Annene, he gained some speed. The former was fairly accurate and helped him understand the contours of the drinks, while his wife's bartending background meant that she could understand a drink and make up a version of it.
At the time, Berry was simply a tiki obsessive on the front end of a '90s tike resurgence that would also garner renewed affection for Yma Sumac, Martin Denny and Hawaiian shirts. At parties, he would inevitably run into other tiki collectors, and in those circles he was the drinks guy. He photocopied his favorite recipes, decorating the pages in pre-clip art days with images that he literally cut and pasted from his finds, and started to give it away to kindred tiki souls. When a tiki fan at indie comic book publisher Slave Labor Graphics saw a copy, Berry the tiki enthusiast turned pro and published his book. It was spiral-bound and sold only in comics stores, but it was in the world.
1998's Grog Log didn't make any money, but it helped move his hunt forward as it proved a valuable calling card. Old Filipino bartenders who were once suspicious of him took him more seriously, and the children of people who were involved in tiki's heyday became willing to share their parents' papers and effects. He began to discover as he continued his research that not only were the drinks noteworthy, but so were the people who made them. Berry discovered a world of cads, scoundrels, freedom fighters, and unlikely heroes, and by the time he wrote 2007's Sippin' Safari, he had rebalanced the project so that their stories dominated the book, with recipes running as sidebars. "That was my first real book," Berry says.
But the drinks were still at the heart of the obsession, and he wanted to get them right. "Trader Vic's book was like the Dead Sea Scrolls for me," he says. "He spelled it all out. It a book for restaurant bartenders and amateur bartenders, but he walked you through everything. When you got the Beachcomber versions in old books, they were bare bones. A dash of pimento liqueur. What's pimento liqueur? What's a dash? I would have to make 10 versions of the drink because a dash could be three drops or a quarter of an ounce."
Another breakthrough came when, in the process of researching Sippin' Safari, he got the recipes from The Luau and Kon Tiki restaurant chains. "The ingredients had changed. You couldn't get a 91.4-proof Jamaican rum the way that the recipes called for, so you had to do a lot of re-engineering to make them taste good with an 80-proof rum that probably had a whole different body and character." He discovered over the years that a number of early recipes weren't quite right, and some were flat-out wrong as sources maintained the mystery behind the drinks by giving out incorrect recipes. He eventually had enough changes that in 2012 he published Beachbum Berry Remixed, a book of corrections and revisions in addition to new recipes.
Despite becoming the foremost authority on an admittedly odd corner of the cocktail world, the New York-centric cocktail renaissance that started in the early 2000s was slow to embrace him. Tiki drinks are neither sleek and modern nor stylishly old-fashioned, and they're associated with a cultural crassness. "Before Tales [of the Cocktail], I wasn't on anybody's radar," Berry says. "But Ann invited me down here in '05 to do a Spirited Dinner at Tujague's." That started an ongoing relationship with Tales of the Cocktail, but it also helped make inroads for him and tiki drinks in the craft cocktail world. The drinks often required as many ingredients from the kitchen as the well, and bartenders could appreciate the challenge they offered. "Balancing a 10, 12-ingredient cocktail is much more difficult than balancing a three-ingredient cocktail."
Berry moved to New Orleans a year ago, and he's now looking for a place to open - naturally - a tiki bar. That may be the extent of his tiki work for the foreseeable future as he thinks he's said most of what he has to say about them. This year at Tales of the Cocktail, he'll branch out and be a part of a second panel - one not tiki-themed. He'll join David Wondrich on Saturday for a talk titled "The Dark Ages: Mixology, 1967-1988," and they'll explore the drinks that emerged with the death of tiki and the rise of disco and new wave. "These are the drinks that killed the cocktail world."