Since they first emerged as the basis for a huge pop-culture phenomenon coming out of 1930s Hollywood, the popularity, and quality, of tiki cocktails has waxed and waned over the years.
While tiki suffered through a pretty low stretch there during the ’80s and ’90s, in the past five or 10 years, it’s gone through a number of mini-resurgences.
If you’ve found yourself in a cocktail bar of late serving a well-made version of the form – typically a layered cocktail of rum, fresh juices, sugar, and flavored syrups – you probably have Jeff “Beachbum’’ Berry to thank in large part. The author of six books on tiki drinks and food, including Beachbum Berry Remixed, Berry was pivotal in unearthing some of the lost recipes from tiki pioneers like Don The Beachcomber.
Berry will appear at Empire in Boston on Monday to talk about the history of one of the most iconic tiki drinks, the Zombie. The class includes a lecture, Q&A, and tasting. Buy tickets here.
I spoke to Berry on the phone from New Orleans about tiki’s lasting influence.
You’ve lead a pretty interesting life. If you had to give us the quick pitch for the biopic what would it sound like?
Well, I spent 20 years in Hollywood; I was a screenwriter, a director, and sometimes producer. But my hobby was always tiki drinks. It was just something I researched and made in my spare time for fun. I gradually discovered that I liked making drinks more than making movies, and the cocktail thing kind of took over after I wrote six books on the subject. And now here I am the owner of a bar and restaurant in New Orleans.
Are there any commonalities between the drink and movie industries?
Yes. Well, the commonalities are there, and so are some extreme differences, which is why I’m in former camp now.
They’re both creative endeavors; coming up with a new drink recipe is like writing a new book or magazine article or short story or poem. It’s the same creative process of inspiration – or as Jack London would say chasing after inspiration with a club. It’s spewing out that first rough draft, then it’s revisions, testing, rethinking, throwing it out there and revising again, sometimes putting it in a drawer and revisiting it.
I’m self taught as someone who makes drinks, and I go about it the same way as I do with writing: stray bullets on the first draft, then zeroing in on the target.
Do you remember when you had your first tiki cocktail? Was there an epiphany moment?
I came of drinking age in 1980s, this was the dark ages of the cocktail. Of course I didn’t have that perspective at the time. Everything was garbage, throwing it all in a blender – they’d put a Side Car in a blender, a Daiquiri, a Whiskey Sour. Everything was made with bottled mixes that were just awful. The only good drinks you would encounter in that period were the tiki drinks in restaurants. A lot of were still doing it they way they used to do it in the 1930s. They were making culinary craft cocktails decades before those terms existed.
Those were the only good drinks I had and the ones I gravitated toward. The epiphany came just a few years ago, at the height of the cocktail renaissance we’re all lucky enough to be living through now with the explosion of creativity and new bars. The epiphany was these drinks are as good as if not better than the best the cocktail renaissance has to offer. They stood the test of time. If you entered some of these 1934 recipes into a global cocktail competition today, if you didn’t win you would certainly place.
Do you think the persistence of tiki played a roll in the cocktail thing we’ve got going on now?
Actually, it’s the exact opposite. The cocktail renaissance was driven by a renewed interest in pre-Prohibition, 19th-century classics by Jerry Thomas and all that. If you go to the best bars, ones like Drink in Boston, they’re all driven by stirred, classic pre-Prohibition drinks. A lot of the bartenders of the renaissance that opened up speakeasies in Chicago, London, New York, Berlin, that what they discovered.
To them tiki drinks were something you didn’t have in your bar because of the stigma that they were umbrella drinks, tourist drinks. It took them a long time to come around that, no, these are craft cocktails, a cocktail genre of their own that can stand aside the Jerry Thomas cannon. They were late to be adopted, but now you go into any good cocktail bar in the world and there will be a couple tiki cocktails on the menu. But it took a long time.
Seems like we take it for granted, but in most bars in the world, it’s still the dark ages right?
Oh man. This is a perspective that we all in the drink community kind of lose track of. The bars you and I talk about, that’s like 1/10 of 1 percent of the world’s bars. Most place you’re going to you’re going to get at the very best an indifferent drink if not a downright bad one. We all do swim in a very small pond. But I think there are parallels you can draw between the nouveau cuisine of 1970s and the cocktail renaissance today.
Now, 30 years after nouveau cuisine you walk into a chain restaurant you’re going to see reflections of that on the menu, whether it’s pasta primavera or what have you. I think the same is going to happen with cocktails. You’re going to go into Bennigans or some other chain and get a decent drink. You’re going to get that trickle down thing. Not right now, but I see it happening, on cruise ships for example, they now have cocktail programs.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about tiki?
There’s that image of tiki drinks as this slushy, syrupy, cruise ship, bath tub thing that’s best avoided, but that’s what came out of the dark ages. People come into our place and say, “I don’t like sugary drinks.’’ They aren’t, these are intricately balanced culinary drinks. Once they try a sip the argument is over.
But, the short answer is that there still is that misconception out there. I used the world misconception wrongly probably, there are a lot of places out there that still do serve drinks that way. Not a misconception I guess, just a conception. But a lot of places are turning it around and it’s kind of fun to see.
You’ve traveled a lot over the years, do you have a favorite drinking town?
Oh man, I have been all over Europe, Latin America, North America, and I still think New Orleans. That’s why we moved here. In terms of the U.S., what’s unique about it is it’s the only city in the U.S. that has its own indigenous cocktails. Not just one drink, like the Manhattan for New York, but a whole slew that were invented here and served here for 150 years: the Sazerac, Vieux Carré, Ramos Fizz. … These were indigenous cocktails in the same way creole cuisine is only the indigenous American cuisine unique to this city.
In another more present tense sense the bar community here is… of all the ones I’ve experience, you can just sort of feel when you walk into some of these places the passion for it and the generosity. Most bartenders and bar owners in this town will share knowledge and give advice in a way that I haven’t found in other cities. Maybe it has something to do with nature of living here, a rising tide lifts all boats, and coming together after a natural disaster, but there’s a culture of sharing here, and because of that there’s a lot of vibrant creativity, ideas tossed back and forth. It’s almost like one big giant workshop, which I like.
What are some of the basic maxims for people to keep in mind if they want to make a tiki drink?
It’s very easy to get overwhelmed. This style of drink-making, if you’re doing it right, it’s hard. I think that’s why bartenders took to it late, it’s a good way for them to stretch their muscles and test themselves. Balancing a three-ingredient drink is one thing, but if you’re balancing out a 10-ingredient drink that’s a lot of balls in the air.
I think the best thing to do when starting out is pick something easy, make that work and move on from there, and complicate things gradually. The basic building blocks of all tiki drinks are the same as all Caribbean drinks, just rum and sugar. Make a Daiquiri, master it. Find the proportions you like, the level of tartness and sweetness you like, then start building off of that.
You’re going to be talking about the Zombie at Empire on Monday. Why is that such an important cocktail?
The Zombie was the Cosmopolitan of its day, enormously famous. It kickstarted the whole tiki craze that lasted for 40 years. What makes it interesting to me, so I can talk about one drink for 90 minutes, is this was the only time I can think of where a drink craze stared a lifestyle craze. It usually works the other way around. The Zombie was ground zero for the tiki pop culture thing that spread to architecture, music, fashion, tiki apartment buildings, tiki bowling alleys, clothing stores, movies. Pop culture was basically all tiki in the 1950s and ’60s, people decorated their houses like that, they’d go see the music. All this happened because of the Zombie.
The Zombie was the first drink that put Don the Beachcomber on the map in the 30s. Because of the strength of the drink, it was a marketing gimmick, they said we’ll only serve you two. It was a challenge, his way to get these two-fisted, red-blooded males to feel ok about ordering a pretty looking drink in a tall glass. It worked! Radio comedians and travel writers and newspaper columnists all picked up on this and started making jokes about it, and it just sort of went viral. It’s what made Don famous, his place famous, and made all these tiki places spread all over the country.