Ladies and gentleman, tonight we dress our best aloha shirt and pull the top-shelf rums because we have a deluxe guest: Jeff "Beachbum" Berry.
Photo: Annene Kaye
For those who know a couple of things about tropical mixology and the regulars at our Tiki Lounge, the Bum doesn't need an introduction. We talked about him regarding his last book, Sippin' Safari, and in this blog the references to his tips are frequent. Anyway, here you have a brief introduction. Jeff Berry is one of the best mixologists in the world, and for sure the best in our field. Through his books we can have a look at the history of tiki drinks from Don the Beachcomber to our days, recovering lost recipes literally from bartender's pockets. Ok, come on with that interview.
Aloha, Jeff! How would you define a good drink?
Balance! It's that balance between sweet and sour, strong and light, fruity and dry, providing new layers of taste that keep the flavor evolving from the opening notes to the midpalate to the finish. The best tropical drinks also surprise you with unexpected, unidentifiable layers of taste, usually accomplished through the sly use of syrups that non-tropical bars tend to ignore (orgeat, passion fruit, vanilla, falernum, cinnamon, etc.)
For most people, tiki drinks are sweet funny stuff in a weird mug and an umbrella. But a Martini is James Bond in a NY loft. Most people doesn't go to tiki bars to enjoy the drinks but the environment. Why tropical mixology has never been recognised at the same gastronomical level than classical cocktails?
It actually was recognized in the past. Prominent food critics of the 1940s and 1950s wrote glowing reviews about the tropical drinks served at Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber's. The problem was that the many imitators of Don and Vic did not have the talent, the time, and the money to serve tropical drinks in all their glory (with expensive, multiple ingredients, painstakingly prepared). They cranked out cheap, syrupy, inferior drinks to cash in on the Tiki craze, and those inferior recipes -- not the top-secret originals that Don created -- were the ones that migrated to mainstream, non-Tiki bars, and got printed in recipe books, eventually giving tropical drinks the bad name they ended up with. The sad fact of the matter is that it's difficult to make a good tropical, but very easy to make a bad one!
What did impulse you to write your first book, Grog Log? Where did you started to look for the lost recipes?
The impulse was, I wanted a good tropical drink! But by the time I was old enough to order one all the places that served them were disappearing.
I started in libraries, looking in old magazines, and used book stores, searching for old recipe books. Aside from the Trader Vic books, I didn't learn much this way. When I went to the few actual remaining places that made good tropical drinks, I learned by drinking! Unlike me, Mrs. Bum (Annene Kaye) was a trained bartender, so she helped me to "deconstruct," or reverse-engineer, the drinks we sampled. The best information came from old Tiki bartenders themselves -- the few who would actually volunteer any information. Tiki bartenders were (and are) very secretive about their recipes, because keeping those secrets made them more valued employees to their bosses, who could no longer serve the drinks if the bartender left with his recipes.
Since you published Grog Log there is a new conscience about how a tropical drink should be. When someone decides to open a new tiki bar, like the Forbidden Island in Alameda, CA, or the Mahiki in London, The quality of the cocktails has improved, they're not the syrupy umbrella stuff anymore. Do you think there is a hope for tiki bars in a next future?
Back in the dark ages of the 1980s and 1990s, I didn't used to think so. But now people are actually taking the time to do Tiki right. Martin Cate is doing amazing work over at Forbidden Island, and I've heard that London bars like Trailer Happiness take their mixing very seriously. It's a happy side-effect of the mainstream cocktail renaissance that tropical drinks are now also getting respect -- a case of a rising tide lifting all boats.
Polynesian pop started in the USA because of many factors. But, if we think about it, a tiki bar is based in faux. So, it can be "exported" to any place in the world. Trader Vic's based his success in this idea. Having traveled and visited many places around the world, do you think there are a good level in the tiki bars outside the States or there is really a difference? What's the best tiki bar you remember outside USA?
You make a good point, Ivan, when you say that the Tiki bar is "based in faux." Since the USA didn't have any old, atmospheric, exotic bars to offer, it had to manufacture a faux atmosphere out of our collective dream of what such genuine places might be like in other parts of the world. One of the biggest disappointments for me when I travelled through the South Pacific was that there are no Tiki bars out there! American restaurateurs made all that stuff up! On the other hand, I have been to bars outside the USA that actually were genuinely exotic -- nothing faux about them -- and even though they weren't Polynesian, they still satisfied that longing for adventure, for mystery, for "atmosphere." In particular, the cave-like cellar bars of Vienna, the smoke-filled waterfront bars of Barcelona, and the centuries-old pubs of London all satisfied my "wanderlust" yearning for dark, evocative, romantic places. While not Tiki in decor, they were "Tiki" in spirit.
To answer your question about ACTUAL Tiki bars outside the USA, from what I've seen of photographs of new places in England and Scandinavia, the Europeans seem to be doing a better job than the Americans with decor and lighting. Of course, a photo can't tell you whether a drink is good or not, so I'll have to withhold judgment until I actually get to visit these places. (The last time I was in Europe was 1989...!)
Talking about exporting tiki. In Europe we have the eternal problem that we can't find certain ingredients. We can home-brew Falernum, Pimento, and other mixers, but we can't distill Demerara 151. In this blog we have discussed about finding a solution for the lack of this primary ingredient in certain drinks. Can you tell what do you would do in our situation?
This is a big problem for Americans too. Outside of the northeast states and the west coast, it's very difficult to find Demerara 151. The tragedy is, there is NO substitute for that rum.
But I have had limited success with one kind of recipe. If a recipe calls for both gold Puerto Rican rum and Demerara 151, I've found that sometimes you can approximate the same body and flavor by substituting dark Jamaican rum and Bacardi 151. (Try this in a Zombie or Coffee Grog. Not perfect, but not bad either.)
So, can ingredients be substituted?
Of course -- that's how new drinks are born. Everything is permitted ... as long as the result tastes good to you!
I understand that in the golden age of the tropical mixology, teetotalism was not very popular, but nowadays this has changed. What about non-alcoholic drinks? Could you recommend a couple of good ones?
From the Grog Log, try the Tiki Teetotaler or the Coco Bo. And in Intoxica!, there's the Maui Sunrise.
When drinking at home, do you garnish your drinks? And what about mugs, are they important for the drinking experience?
Ha! You busted me! I am a lazy man, so when no one's looking I will make myself a drink sans garnish. But when company comes, the drinks are always dressed to impress.
As for mugs, I collect them avidly, but I don't really like drinking out of them. Most hold too much liquid volume, and then there's the issue of color: The color of a drink is part of the drinking experience. I want to SEE my drink, and mugs prevent me from doing that. On the other hand, some drinks are made to be served in mugs and bowls, and should always be (such as the Scorpion, the Rum Barrel, the Fog Cutter, etc.)
For you, what is the most important aspect in a tiki bar? Order from more to less important: Decor / Drinks / Drink presentation / service / mood
Decor and mood are most important. I will tolerate a bad drink, or just order straight liquor, if I can sit in a good Tiki environment. Of course, it's great to have both! So drinks would be second. Presentation and service, third...
Do you have a favourite cocktail, or any that is special for you for any reason?
It used to be the Navy Grog, until I "discovered" the 1934 Zombie. These days, that's my drink of choice. I like rich, heavy-bodied rum drinks, and this one is the ultimate in that category.
Now, you can tell to our readers anything you want. Anything.
I used to think I was the only person in the world who was interested in this stuff. I can't tell you how happy I am that people like Ivan are blogging like this, spreading the word to new converts all over the world. The more of us "Tropaholics" there are, the more Tiki bars will be encouraged to satisfy our demands properly. So, everyone, keep reading ... and keep drinking!
Okole Maluna, Bum. Mahalo nui loa.