Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is the author of five books on vintage tiki cocktails and cuisine and serves on the advisory board of the Museum of the American Cocktail. You can visit his website at beachbumberry.com.
Q: It seems like maybe this latest tiki revival might have some legs to it.
A: I don’t want to venture too strong an opinion that it will last, but I think it’s definitely got another few years. I mean, it’s just started to peak now, and it hasn’t filtered down to non-major metropolitan cultural centers yet, which the first wave did. The first tiki craze lasted about 40 years. It was the longest drink fad in the history of the country.
It started off in Hollywood and San Francisco with Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber, and gradually it spiraled out. Almost every medium to small town in the country had some kind of tiki bar or Polynesian restaurant. It was insane.
Q: The fruity, sugary drinks that people think of as tiki, is that just what the original cocktails morphed into over the years?
A: You hit it on the head. It really has morphed into that, and that was one of the reasons why the revival was so long in coming, why it took forever for the places in big cities which have discerning clientele to think that they could actually serve these drinks. Because the public conception since the 1970s has been that these are going to be really fruity, syrupy, cruise ship drinks.
Basically, to try to put it in a nutshell, the original restaurants were so profitable — and what drove the profits were the drinks — that they kept the recipes secret. They wouldn’t publish them, and the only people who knew them were the bartenders.
The only way you could get these recipes if you were opening up your own tiki establishment was to poach one of the bartenders from Trader Vic’s or Don the Beachcomber’s who knew the recipes. Even then, very often the bartenders would not tell you what the recipes were. Consequently, very little got written down, and the bartenders who knew the recipes got very, very possessive about them.
I mean, when I first started interviewing these old-timers and tried to get the recipes out of them, some of them had been retired for 40 years and there was absolutely no reason why they needed to keep these recipes secret, but they wouldn’t tell me what was in them.
When all the big, glamorous, high-overhead tiki places started going out of business, when the fad had finally run its course and people had decided that it was tacky instead of sophisticated, the drinks kind of died out with these places, and the places that were left were the low-overhead places that could still survive. And they didn’t have the money or the skill or the bartenders to make the drinks properly, and they made cheap knock-off versions.
The original drinks were culinary cocktails, and some of them were 70 years ahead of their time.
I do a lot of cocktail seminars around the country and in Europe now, and bartenders are all interested in these drinks, and a lot of them are really surprised to see what these recipes were in back in the ’30s and ’40s. Now you hear all this talk about farm-to-glass cocktails and culinary cocktails and all this kind of stuff, and they were doing that in the 1930s.
Don the Beachcomber had one drink called the Missionary’s Downfall. Yeah, a kitchsy name, but the drink had fresh mint, fresh pineapple, honey, fresh lime juice, peach brandy and rum. And if you entered that drink in a cocktail contest today, you would at least place.
It’s really a contemporary drink, and he invented it in the 1930s. Nobody was doing anything like that back then with cocktails, which is why his place became so famous and so popular.
Q: I picked one cocktail, a signature drink for the party, because it was going to be so complicated and expensive to offer several. Would you recommend that too, if you’re having a party?
A: There’s a lot of party pitfalls with these drinks. They’re really labor intensive and take forever to make, even if you’ve done everything in advance — juiced the limes and got everything together — they’re still going to take a long time, and you can’t really be a good host or hostess because you’re going to be behind the bar all night. The way I get around that is I do punches. Look through the book and find something that doesn’t call for a blender, and best if it doesn’t have bitters in it, because that’s not going to work as well.
The other problem I’ve had at parties is that some people just don’t like rum. Either they can’t drink it or they don’t like it, and they’ll ask you for a vodka drink. So it’s good to have a vodka drink in your back pocket that you could make if you have to.
Q: Do you have a favorite tiki drink?
A: I’m a big fan of Don the Beachcomber’s Navy Grog.
He called himself Don the Beachcomber, but his actual name was Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. He was from New Orleans. But he was just this genius. I think he was one of the greatest American mixologists of all time myself, and I’d make that argument to anybody.
That drink is a good example of the kind of pioneer stuff he did. It’s lime, grapefruit, honey and a little soda water, and then three kinds of rum mixed together.
Nobody was really sweetening drinks with honey back in the ’30s and ’40s, but he used it, and it works great with grapefruit juice and lime juice. Nobody was combining citrus like that, and nobody was using honey.
But his biggest genius thing was combining the three rums the way he did. You would never think of putting two or three gins in a martini, or two or three bourbons in a Manhattan, but he routinely did that with rums.
He would mix rums with different body and character from different regions, and create a base spirit that no one rum could possibly give you, and really dimensionalize the drink.
That was one of his little secret weapons, the secret stuff he did that he wouldn’t want anyone else to know about back in the day.
Q: Is there the same sort of revival going on with tiki-style food?
A: Not really, because the food was basically just Cantonese food, which in the 1930s was very exotic to people. Back then, and all the way up into the ’50s, American dining out was basically steak and potatoes, or spaghetti if you went to an Italian place.
Back in Don’s day, going to a Chinese restaurant was considered a daring, kind of slumming thing to do.
The kitchens were considered unclean, and soy sauce was called “bug juice.” When he started serving that food in his restaurant, he actually did kitchen tours for diners so they could come into the kitchen and see how bright and clean it was. But of course, over the years, Cantonese is now the most prosaic, boring kind of Chinese food there is.
No, the food hasn’t really survived, and to a large extent that’s a good thing, because a lot of it wasn’t very good.
Q: It would be great if someone would come along and reinvent it, huh?
A: Yeah, well, that is actually kind of happening. In these new tiki bars that are opening up, the food is generally much better than it was back in the day.