For a moment in 2011 it looked like I was going to be the bar manager at a Chinese inspired restaurant. In the research phase of what direction to take the cocktail list, I resolved on one and only one direction… the South Seas. It didn’t take long for me to decide which books I needed to pick up first and they were all by the same author, Jeff Beachbum Berry. Grog Log and Intoxica! were packed with recipes using all manor of foreign fruits and syrups, but Sippin’ Safari really opened my eyes. That book remains one of the first books I recommend that any bartender read as they are begin to learn the true history and importance of the profession. There are tricks in that book used by bartenders decades ago, that I incorporate into my bartending style and mis-en-place every single day.
In the fall we had the pleasure of spending some time with Jeff when he was in Toronto. He gave a talk at the Drake Hotel and then later when we all headed out for some drinks and food. Jeff is one of those story-tellers that you could listen to all night and not get bored. He is kind and generous with his time. And he is authentic. This guy is the real deal and we are so happy that he said yes to have a conversation with us for Bartender Atlas.
Bartender Atlas: What was your first experience in a Tiki Bar?
Jeff Beachbum Berry: When I was old enough to drink in bars, in 1980, I started drinking tiki drinks. That’s really all I was interested in. I never really enjoyed any other sort of cocktail. Tiki drinks were so good, and non tiki cocktails were so bad. This was the ’80s in Los Angeles-—you couldn’t get a good cocktail anywhere, except in an old school tiki bar. It was just this mysterious, layered flavor that I couldn’t get enough of. The first truly great one I drank would have to have been the Ray’s Mistake, at the Tiki-Ti in East Hollywood. Almost 40 years later, I still can’t figure out what’s in that drink.
BA: When did you start tracking down all these pieces of tropical cocktail history?
JBB: About by the time I was old enough to order a Tiki cocktail, all the first-wave places that served them were disappearing. So I looked into how to make them myself. I originally started in libraries in the early 1990s, 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 top-secret. After I published my first book, I persuaded some of the old-timers I’d met to open up, and eventually I got their little black recipe books. But even there the recipes 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. So basically, Tiki cocktails were the hobby that took over my life!
BA: What was your day-job before you started writing books and articles about all things exotica?
JBB: I was a journalist, then I was a film writer and director, and then I discovered I liked making drinks more than making movies. I guess I was born to be a bum!
BA: Is there anything in your research for all your books that you have held back? Any artifacts or recipes that you are keeping just for yourself?
JBB: I’ve published almost all of the good “lost” recipes that I tracked down and then decoded — chief among them the now once-again famous Jet Pilot, Nui Nui, Saturn, Pearl Diver, Puka Punch, Jungle Bird, and original Zombie — because the whole point was to share these secrets with fellow Tiki geeks. But there are a few I’ve held onto, so that I’d have something new to offer in future books. Some of these are on offer now at my bar in New Orleans, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29.
BA: Is there some artifact that you know exists but have never been able to track down?
JBB: There are some vintage rums that were used in the original mid-century classics that have so far eluded me. Especially Wray & Nephew 17-year rum, which Trader Vic used to create his Mai Tai in 1944.
BA: At what point in your research did you decide that you wanted to open your own bar? Was it a difficult process, coming from the perspective of someone that hadn’t run a bar before?
JBB: After six books, I was “written out.” I just had little left to say about tropical drinks. It was time to stop writing about cocktails, and start serving them. New Orleans was the obvious place to open a Beachbum Berry bar, because that’s where the love was: Every year since 2005, Mrs. Beachbum (my wife Annene) and I came down for Tales Of The Cocktail, and every year we met more people who were cool, nice people, and who wanted us to open there.
Although I’d never run a bar-restaurant, Annene knew the business inside and out after having done just about every job in the service industry before she met me. And after 25-odd years of drinking in other people’s Tiki bars, I knew what I liked and what I didn’t, and so we had a clear, firm notion of what we wanted in our own place. We sought a vibe that’s relaxed and always friendly, with lots of “aloha,” but with a look and feel that one restaurant reviewer called “unexpectedly chic.” We wanted a cocktail menu that spanned the entire 80-year history of Tiki drinking, from the lost vintage recipes that I’d unearthed to my own original recipes, because by 2014 I felt that I couldn’t just serve the classics anymore. If we’d opened in 2009, I would have happily just served a full menu of only Don The Beachcomber drinks that I’d discovered. But by the time we opened, those drinks were already being served in new Tiki bars that had gotten them from my books. So I felt that I had to include my own original Tiki recipes too, to make Latitude 29 a unique destination, as opposed to just another Tiki Revival bar.
BA: Several books in, among them a revised version of Sippin’ Safari, and with Latitude 29 rolling along with the demand for you to travel all over the world to talk about all things tropical, do you feel that there is something you haven’t done yet?
JBB: I really look forward to the day when I can do nothing again. This has all been fun, but it’s way too much work for a bum!
BA: What place, whether it’s a whole city or a specific bar that you would say is your favourite spot for a cocktail?
JBB: Well, anyone who owns a bar and says that their bar is not their favorite bar is either lying or is the owner of a bar that I wouldn’t want to visit. Your staff, your drinks, your decor, your music — you chose them all, right? How could any other place be your favorite? So I gotta say Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29. It’s home. And as the saying goes, that’s where the heart is.
Thanks Jeff for taking the time to speak with us!