You like tiki drinks? Well, this guy — Jeff Berry — is the reason you get good recipes

If you’ve ever enjoyed a classic Don the Beachcomber Zombie and enjoyed it, if you’ve ever had a good one, then you’ve really got three people to thank: one, whomever made said drink for you (if that’s you, congratulations!); two, Don the Beachcomber, for coming up with the recipe (and you know, that whole tiki bar thing in the first place); and finally, Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry, for without him we’d not have the recipe today.

It’s hard to overstate this guy’s importance for tiki bars: Jeff Berry literally wrote the books on tiki. Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari is required reading, if you ask us, as is his Potions of the Caribbean. He’s also recently stepped into the bar owner role (at the urging of his wife Annene, who figured if other people are opening bars with the recipes he’s collected, then he should too).

Berry was recently in Australia for De Kuyper’s The Works program, and editor Sam Bygrave sat down with him to chat.

Jeff Berry on cultural appropritation and tiki

“You do a poor version of a tiki bar with crappy, cartoony god figures, then yeah, it’s going to be offensive,” says Jeff Berry, who is The Guy when it comes to tiki. Here he discusses cultural appropriation and whether or not there’s a case for tiki culture to answer.

Can you tell me a bit about how this all began for you? You’re not from a hospitality background as far as I understand it?
Yeah I didn’t want to be Trader Vic, I wanted to be Stanley Kubrick, I was in the movie business for a long, long time and all the money I was making just went into my hobby, which was tropical drinks. That’s just what I did for fun, what I did to procrastinate — which is what I spent most of my time doing anyway. And it just gradually took over my life. But it wasn’t until the 1990’s when I was in my thirties that I started learning how to actually make the drinks, as opposed to just going to tiki bars and drinking them. And the only reason I did that was because the 40 year trend was finally ending and all these places were closing down, and it slowly began to dawn on me that if I wanted to drink all these magnificent cocktails I’d have to go make them because I couldn’t buy them anywhere. That’s what started me off. I think the first drink I tried to make was a can of Minute Maid Daiquiri mix, and it was like why doesn’t this taste as good as the drinks I have at Trader Vic’s! 

It’s funny, I got into tiki years and years — decades — before I could actually legally have a tiki drink. My parents liked Chinese food and at the time, in the 1960’s in Southern California — as was the case all over the US and to some extent the UK and other places — most Chinese had figured out that all these really expensive Polynesian places, Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, The Luau, all that — they were just serving basic Cantonese, cheap ass Chinese food and charging a fortune for it; changing the name of an egg roll to ‘tiki’s nest’ or something like that, and they were serving exotic cocktails along with it. So most Chinese restarauteurs just retrofitted their restaurants with tiki decor, served the same food, and then hired a tiki bartender to give them a cocktail list. The first place like that I was taken to would have been around 1964, in Encino California; it was called Ah Fong’s. That was the Chinese name, but the original name was The Bora-Bora Room. It had opened in ’62, but it had spent so much money on the build out, so much money on this amazing decor — there was a indoor waterfall, there was tiki print carpet, there was a little resin island scene behind the bar, the back bar was like this dawn to dusk lighting change, a little miniature hut with a little resin sea, and you had to walk to through the bar to get to the dining room, just done to a tee — it was a Hollywood movie set. That’s when I fell in love the whole Polynesian thing, years before I could drink. So of course, once I turned 21 I went seeking these places out because finally I can actually have one of these drinks in some of these places.

What were the tiki bars at the time that were still around and doing good things?
Well of course I drank illegally when I was a teenager, but when I was 21 and I could finally show my ID and have a drink at a bar, most of the great places were gone. There were a few left, Trader Vic’s was still left and they made magnificent drinks, but I couldn’t afford them — it was either do my laundry and eat dinner or go have a Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s. Sometimes that latter decision was made. Then there were more neighbourhood-like joints, like Tiki Ti in East Hollywood, which opens in 61 and is still there, like third generation family staff. And they made amazing drinks, and you have to remember at the time in the 1980’s, that was the dark ages of the cocktail — the cocktail was dead and buried. Nobody was drinking cocktails, if you wanted to get high you smoked or you snorted, you know — maybe you’d chase it with a white wine Spritzer or a Chocolate Martini but cocktails were dead. The only places I ever had a good cocktail were tiki bars, because they’d never changed what they were doing.  Tiki bars like the Tiki Ti, and Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber’s were doing culinary craft cocktails 70 years before those terms even existed. They were doing the only craft cocktails I ever tasted in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. I’d never had a real Old Fashioned or a real Martini or Daiquiri — you went to super high-end restaurants, where you drop a fortune in a white table cloth fine dining place, amazing food — there was a complete disconnect between the kitchen and the bar. If you ordered a Daiquiri at one of these places, it would come in a Hurricane glass frozen with strawberries and there’d be whipped cream on top. It was years before I knew what a real Daiquiri was! 

There’s an escape thing to tiki, but it’s a complete fabrication in a way.
Yeah it’s all faux. If you wanted to be technical you’d call them faux-Polynesian drinks and faux-Polynesian bars and restaurants. It was a mid-twentieth century American pop culture phenomenon. They took Polynesian culture and Disneyfied it a little bit and Hollywood-ised it a little bit.

Watch Jeff Berry talk about what makes a great tiki drink

Here, tiki author and owner of New Orleans bar Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry talks about what you need to consider to make a great tiki drink.

So it’s no surprise it happened in LA first, right?
It’s no surprise it happened in LA and in fact some of the best interiors were designed by Hollywood art directors, during the day they did movie sets and on the side they did the Polynesian places. And they were just completely self-contained environments — the best of them had no windows. You walk in and the rest of the world is just completely shut out, you’re in this hermetically sealed little fantasy world. Ironically though, and there’s a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and the evils of all that, that wasn’t cultural appropriation — that was cultural appreciation. It was taking something that was beautiful in its own right — I mean to me Oceanic art and Polynesian culture its something that for me can be enjoyed unironically and without regarding it as kitsch. No matter how Americanised it gets, there’s still the basic elements there that made me go out into the South Pacific. I mean people decry the evils of using this Polynesian iconography, but that’s what brought me to Polynesia, you know? I actually went to Easter Island and the Cook Islands because of these interiors.

There was a bar in Oregon that closed down due to claims of cultural appropriation.
It was a Mexican restaurant, which was two white ladies that opened up a Mexican restaurant and said some rather insensitive things about how they’d gone down to Mexico and stolen these recipes from old Mexican ladies. 

Does tiki have this problem that it’s got to contend with?
People are trying to graft that on to tiki. The social justice warrior set and the call-out warrior set runs into problems here because it’s not real in the first place: you’re not coopting an existing culture, it’s a fantasy interpretation of a culture. Also, if you’ve got Easter Island Moai represented in your bar, it’s kind of like having ancient Roman statuary in an Italian restaurant; nobody is worshipping those figures, and they haven’t for hundreds of years and in the Roman sense for thousands of years. Now, yes, you do a poor version of a tiki bar with crappy, cartoony god figures, then yeah, it’s going to be offensive.

It’s the ooga-booga style.
Exactly. There are bad versions of tiki which richly deserve to be castigated, but then there are respectful and admiring versions of it where you do it because you love it and you’re not misrepresenting it. To me, the big problem with the term cultural appropriation is what’s evil about that term? All culture is appropriation. There wouldn’t be culture without appropriation, everything influences everything else.

You couldn’t be a writer, you couldn’t be a filmmaker, any kind of creative pursuit.
No, you don’t pull anything whole out of Zeus’ thigh, you have influences. The same is true with tiki. I think the dirty word shouldn’t be cultural appropriation but cultural misappropriation. And yeah, some tiki places are guilty of that. But I think that it’s not really the best target for people who decry that kind of thing.

What are the key tenets of an amazing tiki cocktail?
What makes a great tiki drink is basically what makes a great Caribbean drink. The Caribbean template has always been sweet, sour, strong, weak. The old Planters Punch rule: one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. Balance, between those four things; a bad tiki drink is going to be what in the popular perception, a tiki drink is, which is too sweet and two watery. Balance is the key. You need the sour element to be amped up enough to counteract the sweet; and the strong whether it’s rum or gin or what have you, needs to be present; and even the weak is important. How much dilution is very important. The best tiki drinks can hold their own against other form of cocktail, pre-Prohibiton, Jerry Thomas classics, whatever. When you make a tiki drink right, actually you’re doing something that I think is much more impressive, than making a perfect Martinez or a perfect Old Fashioned. Yeah a three ingredient cocktail , you can take a long time to master that, but how much longer is it going to take you to master an eight or 12 ingredients cocktail, balancing everything out, having that intensely layered amount of flavours working in harmony together, that’s actually a much harder thing to do than to do a classic.

Were you born in LA? 
Well almost everybody I ever talk to from LA wasn’t technically born there, like their parents took them out there when they were two or five or whatever. I was born in Albany New York, driven out to Los Angeles as a two year old and pretty much spent my whole life there. 

Interview by Sam Bygrave
Photographs by Christopher Pearce