In the About section of his Facebook profile — that space where most of us drop life-defining Shakespeare quotes to seem smarter, or humble-brag references to our work helping orphaned macaques in Brazil — Jeff Berry’s take on his life is short and humble: “I’m a bum.”
Bumness is the quality by which Berry defines himself. It has become his brand, a stand-in for his name. His colorful books on tiki cocktails contain sporadic references to the perils of that irritating modern burden, the Job. With his white goatee, his straw hat and his retina-spraining tropical attire, he looks like a guy who took the writings of Brian Wilson and Mike Love the way others take the writings of Nietzsche or Rousseau: as a guide to living.
Yet when I talk to “Beachbum” Berry and get a sense of the time, effort and sheer doggedness it’s taken to track down, test and preserve cocktail recipes that would otherwise have been lost to the neon-tinted tiki mists of time, it strikes me: This Beachbum has worked his bum off.
If tiki is faux Polynesian, Jeff Berry is a faux bum.
In his decades playing cocktail archaeologist, Berry has published numerous books, released an app of tiki drinks and lectured all over the world. Now he might find it a little harder to pretend not to work: He and his wife, Annene Kaye (or “Mrs. Bum”), have gone into business.
“They finally got me,” he admits. “This is the first time I’ve had set hours since 1985.”
Berry hasn’t sold out; he’s bought in — to the very world he’s been writing about. His new “office” is Latitude 29, a charming tiki bar and restaurant inside the Bienville House Hotel in New Orleans’s French Quarter, where some colleagues and I recently unwound after an exhausting day at a conference.
As the resident drink nerd, I tried to convey — without succumbing to tipsy, orgeat-scented babbling — how cool it was that we were drinking cocktails that Berry spent 30 years researching, prepared to specs Berry himself had approved.
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.
Tiki cocktails have two best-known grandfathers, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. Although the Trader Vic’s chain published many of its drink recipes, Donn Beach was notoriously secretive. Bartenders at Don the Beachcomber knew ratios — a quarter-ounce from that bottle, an ounce from this — but not what was actually in the bottles they were pouring.
The two spawned countless imitators, and Berry, who grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, loved them. Chinese restaurants, he says, had figured out that they could drop a couple of Polynesian drinks on the menu and capitalize on the trend.
It was a restaurant in a California chain called Ah Fong’s that really hooked him: “They’d spent a fortune on decor. There was like an indoor waterfall and a lagoon and a canoe hanging from the ceiling, tiki-themed carpeting, aquariums, a diorama behind the bar of a hut on the beach and lighting changes from dawn to dusk. It was like Disney with booze.”
As Berry grew up — he worked as a writer in Hollywood for a while — he saw those places disappearing, taking the drinks with them. And while tiki drinks may have come out on fire, topped with plastic hula girls and enough fruit to topple Carmen Miranda, the drinks were actually good: “the first culinary craft cocktails made after Prohibition,” Berry says.
He realized that if he wanted a good Beachcomber-style zombie or mai tai, he’d have to learn how to make them himself. And he was in the right place to do it, living in L.A., “where all these people were still working or where their families were still living, and I was able to actually talk to them and get their little private top-secret recipe books.”
He compiled the recipes he found into little scrapbooks for friends, piecing them together with text from old menus and matchbooks. Just a hobby, but one of those books found its way to a comic book publisher.
More research followed, more books, more fans. The hobby became his life.
And gradually, tiki started to make a comeback. “All these neo-tiki bars were opening up all over the world . . . and between 75 and 90 percent of their menus were all recipes I had found,” Berry says. “Annene said, ‘You’re making a lot of money for other people. Why don’t you open up a place?’”
Yet Berry is grateful. The other bars enabled him to go to the Bienville House “and point to all of these really high-end new tiki bars getting all this great press and winning all these awards, and say, ‘Look, there’s a precedent for this.’ ” He may have helped create his competition, but in doing so, he created a viable model.
The bar’s name was inspired by an old tiki room in California, Latitude 20, which Berry recalled while shuffling through his extensive collection of menus, matchbooks and swizzle sticks. He went for the latitude of New Orleans, though he says he was called out by a Tulane University geography professor who pointed out that the city is technically closer to latitude 30. “But I dunno, I’m not sure I’d want a drink at Latitude 30,” he says jokingly. “Latitude 29 sounds cooler.”
Talking to Berry, I fell half in love with the Ah Fong’s of his childhood: a place that doesn’t exist anymore, itself based on a romanticized Polynesia that never existed in the first place. Weird. But Berry has a contagious affection for the tiki culture that many consider kitschy; there’s none of this “I love ABBA, but in a tongue-in-cheek way” that pervades so much pop culture. And really, who would choose to be loved ironically, at an amused distance?
At Latitude 29, we sipped a killer mai tai, a Missionary’s Downfall and several communal drinks. Five long straws went into the passion fruit-kissed Lapu Lapu in its flower-and-banana-leaf adorned bowl. Five straws went in again to the Aquadesiac, a drink that looks like blue tropical waters and was served in a ceramic conch shell, a tiny blue plastic mermaid clinging to the lemon curl on its rim.
By the time five happy drinkers wandered back out to the street again, work seemed very far away. What more could a bum — real or faux — ask for in a drink?
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.