Jeff Berry, the self-described tropical-drink evangelist and author of the tiki bible Sippin’ Safari, shares the secrets to making cool, classy zombies and mai tais.
Credit: detail from cover of "Sippin Safari"For years tiki drinks have been relegated to the bottom of the cocktail totem pole, stereotyped as saccharine, fluorescent delivery systems for large quantities of cheap rum and paper umbrellas. But now, 50 years after pop-culture Polynesian restaurants like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's put the mai tai and the zombie on the map, the tiki tide seems to be rising again.
If anyone can be credited for this renaissance, it is Jeff Berry, a cocktail guru and self-described "beach bum" who has authored four authoritative texts on tiki culture, including, Sippin' Safari (SLG Publishing, 2007). Over the past decade, Berry has devoted countless hours of research in bars and his home "lab" to re-creating the original recipes for such unique drinks as the Bali Hai and the Honolulu Cooler, which were lost to history when America's tiki craze sputtered out. These cocktails, Berry reminds naysayers, were not sludgy sugar bombs; they were complex mixological masterpieces, praised by the top food critics of their day and engineered by the world's first true bar chefs. Now, happily, as a new generation of retro-minded bartenders embraces vintage recipes, fresh ingredients, and super-premium rums, Berry believes he can foresee a day when these venerable sips will be returned to the cocktail spotlight.
Recently SAVEUR spoke with Berry about pairing tiki cocktails with food, stocking a home bar, and mixing the perfect mai tai.
How did you become interested in tiki drinks and culture?
It started when I was about ten years old. Back then, in the late '60s, there were Polynesian-themed restaurants everywhere; every town in America had at least one. Where I grew up—in California's San Fernando Valley—there were about 20. At the time they weren't tacky; you went there for a big night out. Often when my parents went out they would take us kids along. The restaurants would always be outrageously decorated, with outrigger canoes hanging from the ceiling, waterfalls flowing through the dining room, dawn-to-dusk light dioramas, and island scenes behind the bar. In fact, a lot of them were done by Hollywood art directors who worked for movie studios. For a ten-year-old, they were really overwhelming.
So, that impression stuck with me. When I got old enough to drink I wanted to try some of the exotic cocktails I remembered from when I was a kid, but by the time I was 21, around 1980, they were already disappearing. At that point, the trend was over, tiki was considered tacky, and places were going out of business. I figured that if I wanted the drinks, I would have to make them myself.
What was the first drink you tried to make?
The first drink I attempted was probably a daiquiri using the frozen mix from the supermarket. Tiki recipes were not published; you couldn't go to a bookstore and buy a book full of them. I tried hunting bartenders down and asking for recipes, but even guys in their '80s, who hadn't made a drink in 30 years, wouldn't part with the recipes. Secrecy was their job security, and that idea was completely ingrained in them.
The other reasons recipes weren't written down was that the big restaurant owners, like Don the Beachcomber, didn't want their competitors to get them. The people he hired to tend bar knew only that a recipe called for a half ounce of "spice number two" or a dash of "syrup number four"—that's how the bottles were labeled. But the more recipes I found and the more people I talked with, the more I figured out how to re-create the original drinks. Eventually, after I published my first book, I persuaded some of these old guys to open up, and eventually I got their little black recipe books. But even there they were in code. It wasn't enough to get the books; I still couldn't make the drinks. I had to crack the code, which in some cases took two years.
It seems as if for a recipe to be successfully coded it would need a lot of components. How complicated are these drinks?
There are so many things in play in a good tropical drink. Most classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails have three ingredients. There is a base liquor, a modifying flavor agent, and maybe a fruit juice. For example, an old-fashioned is whiskey, bitters, and sugar. You just shake it up, and you're done in two minutes. But tiki drinks were baroque in some ways. For example, the most famous tropical drink before the mai tai came along and knocked it off the throne was the zombie. That's the one that took me two years to crack. In a drink like that you have three different rums, so right there it gets complicated, and that's just your base liquor. You'd never put three different bourbons in a manhattan or three different gins in a martini, but one thing that Don the Beachcomber was a master at was blending rums of different characters and flavors and body to create a base liquor flavor that no one rum could achieve on its own. He did that routinely with his drinks—mixing heavy-bodied rums with drier light rums and with floral sugarcane rums to create that one base.
After the base liquor come the modifiers, which in a tropical drink can be two to five different fruit juices that balance out to create different notes of sweet and tart. Then come the homemade secret syrups, which were the hardest thing to crack in the codes. Finally, they add few dashes of spices and some bitters and prepare a careful presentation. Bartenders have to take all this stuff and flash-blend it with a very specific amount, maybe three to four ounces of crushed ice, to give the drink a proper chill and a slight amount of dilution to take the edge off all that rum. Making one from scratch at your home can take a half an hour. A good tropical drink is a real pain to make.
The mai tai is one tiki drink that most of us still know, but the traditional version is hard to come by. What is a "real" mai tai?
I've had mai tais that were every color of the rainbow. I've had red ones, blue ones, and yellow ones—but a proper mai tai should have an amber hue because it's the rum that should dominate the drink. Trader Vic created the drink in 1944 to showcase Wray and Nephew Special Reserve, which was one of the best rums on the market back then. His idea was to augment the taste of the rum with a few ingredients but not to overpower it—which is the effect you get with most badly made mai tais these days.
The mai tai was one of the first drinks I had because Trader Vic's restaurants were around when I first started drinking, and some are still around today. You can go into any Trader Vic's location and get a Trader Vic's mai tai. They are not necessarily made the way he used to make them—they're using mixes now—but you can still get the same taste. Trader Vic's was a drink lab for me, and he actually did put out cocktail recipe books. So, back in the '80s I was able to compare Trader Vic's recipes with the drinks I had in the restaurant and learn a little bit more about how to construct them.