I've Heard: From Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry!


In our never-ending search for all the Tiki news that fits (“If it fits – we’ll print it!”), we reached out to the Big Daddy of today’s Tiki Torch Bearers (TTBs) – someone who is a driving force in bringing more and more of the Tiki lifestyle to the hungry masses: Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry! Jeff graciously agreed to a FOM interview and we are happy to present that to you now. Be sure take a few minutes and meet another TTB who is creating the vibe we all enjoy so much!.

Please give our readers a quick background on yourself
(BBB): Beginning in 1994, I published a series of books about the long-lost recipes of the American tiki drink's golden age, which lasted from the Depression to the Disco era. Many of these recipes were closely guarded trade secrets that had never before been published. After tracking these recipes down, I often had to "decode" them, as they were written in a number code to stop rival tiki bartenders from stealing them.

These books — and eventually my iPhone drink app “Total Tiki,” co-created with Martin Doudoroff — revealed the "lost" secret recipes that are now served in neo-Tiki bars around the world, including the Jet Pilot, Saturn, Three Dots & A Dash, and the original 1934 Zombie. Along the way, David Wondrich in Esquire magazine dubbed me “one of the instigators of the cocktail revolution,” Food & Wine called me “one of the world’s leading rum experts,” and the New York Times said I was “the Indiana Jones of Tiki drinks.”

As the 21st century Tiki Revival grew, it became time to stop writing about drinks and start serving them. So my wife Mrs. Bum (alias Annene Kaye) and I opened Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 in late 2014, in the heart of the French Quarter of New Orleans.

I’ve also co-created a line of Tiki barware with Cocktail Kingdom, and co-created a retail line of falernum and orgeat syrups with Adam Kolesar of Orgeat Works.

What was the first time you encountered Tiki/Polynesian Pop culture and what did you think about the experience?
BBB): As a six-year-old taken to Polynesian restaurants in the 1960s, I watched grown-ups 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 -- that they kept the recipes secret. They wouldn't publish them, so people couldn’t make them at home.

The other reason recipes weren't written down was that the big restaurant owners, like Don the Beachcomber, didn't want their competitors to get them. The people he hired to tend bar knew only that a recipe called for a half ounce of "spice number two" or a dash of "syrup number four"—that's how the bottles were labeled. So if a rival restaurateur hired away one of Donn’s barmen, that barman still wouldn’t know what was in Donn’s recipes.

Eventually, after I published my first book, I persuaded some of these old guys 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. Tracking down and decoding these vintage recipes involved a lot of time and effort. So whenever I discovered a “lost” drink that wasn’t satisfying, but had the potential to be, I hated just to file it and move on. Instead, I sometimes spent weeks adapting and tweaking such drinks into something worth printing. Without even being aware of it, I was home-schooling myself in the building blocks of exotic drinkery. Eventually I started making drinks from scratch.

How do you see yourself and your role in the current Tiki revival?
(BBB): I’m not one to toot my own conch shell, so I’ll let Robert Simonson of the New York Times do it: “Without Jeff Berry’s diligence in tracking down barkeeps from Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber and prying from them the drink recipes secreted in their brains, the tiki revival that began in the late 2000s simply wouldn’t have occurred.”

And here’s M. Carrie Allen, writing in The Washington Post: “If you’ve had a good tiki drink, one that layered rums in a way that really worked, that contained flavors you couldn’t quite put your finger on, you were probably an unknowing beneficiary of Berry’s work.”

What do you know about the Fraternal Order of Moai and its mission?
(BBB): I know that some of my best friends are members (aloha, Joe & Nicole Desmond!) and that FOM does fine charitable work for Pacific Islanders.

What do you see for the future of the Tiki/Polynesian Pop movement?
(BBB): I can’t speak for the future of the movement writ large, but my future is Tiki till the end of time — well, anyway, till the end of my time. Specifically, at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, which is my forever home, and the place that makes me happiest.

Please tell us about any upcoming projects that you might have in the works
(BBB): I just finished putting together a deluxe 10-Year anniversary edition of “Sippin’ Safari.” 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 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.

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

Cocktail Kingdom will publish the book in a hardcover edition, we hope by late October or early November.

And now for a question of Supreme Importance to the Fellows of FOM: What are some of the possible reasons that clowns inspire a ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in some FOM members?
(BBB): Their greasepaint recalls horrific memories of encountering Tikis painted bright red and green at restaurants that used to be Tiki bars.

Thank you Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry for a great interview and for your support of the Fraternal Order of Moai - we look forward to all new projects and adventures of yours!

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