Professor Tiki

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.

Sippin Safari drink book
Sippin SafariAmazon

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.

Were there other bars you used as "labs"?

The other place I learned from was a bar in LA called the Tiki-Ti. It was run by a guy named Ray Buhen, who was one of the original Don the Beachcomber bartenders in 1934, so he actually knew all of Don's recipes. So, when you go to the Tiki-Ti and order a drink you're actually ordering, more or less, one of the original Don the Beachcomber's drinks.

I got hold of all the Don the Beachcomber menus and descriptions of the drinks. I talked to bartenders and people who used to go there, and eventually I was able to reverse-engineer a lot of Don's drinks. After that, I was able to get hold of some of the recipe books and compare, contrast, and finalize. It was a long process.

I can imagine. And these are potent drinks. I have the feeling that a night of research could do some damage.

Who knows how many years I've taken off my life in the pursuit of history.

When you were cracking the recipe codes, did you come across any surprising ingredients?

Oh, yes. The two that really surprised me were "spices number two" and "spices number four". Number four was a cinnamon-infused sugar syrup that was the secret ingredient in the original zombie—that was a revelation. When you put it into a drink in the proportions indicated, you'd never in a million years identify the flavor. But it adds a complexity, an intriguing mystery.

"Spices number two" is a mixture of allspice and vanilla; that was something that I was just guessing at, but it tasted really good when I added it, so I just stuck with it. Again, it gives drinks a really intriguing taste, but never in a million years could you pick out what it was. There's a drink called the nui nui, which uses both number two and number four, and it's just an amazing drink. I've made that drink for tiki-themed dinners I've hosted in New Orleans and Las Vegas, and it's always knocked people out. It really was a lost drink; nobody knew how to make it. I found the recipe in one of the black bar books, and there was no way I could have done it without knowing what "spices number two" and "spices number four" were.

What does the nui nui taste like?

It's a lovely, floral, icy drink. You get cinnamon, vanilla, allspice, tanginess from the lime, a little sweetness from the orange, and then all these nice rums and a splash of bitters. It's a marvelous drink.

What is your favorite tiki drink?

Well, I have three. I've been drinking the original 1934 Don the Beachcomber zombie lately, probably because I'm so happy with myself for finally cracking the recipe. It's a great drink; the little addition of cinnamon mixed with grapefruit is brilliant.

But to my mind, the zombie is one of three culinary drinks that show just how far ahead of its time Don's was. Another is called the missionary's downfall, which is fresh mint, fresh pineapple, honey, lime, and rum, and you blend all that together with rum. It's truly the work of a bar chef. And I'm a huge fan of Don's navy grog, which uses lime, grapefruit, honey, soda, and three different rums blended together: a dry white Puerto Rican rum, a dark heavy-bodied Jamaican rum, and a smoky taste of a demerara. It is a perfect example of how they blended rums together to make an amazing taste.

Those sound great but not like drinks you could just head home and make on a whim. If you were to pare down a tiki bar for the home bartender, what would be the essential tools and ingredients?

Well, let's assume that you've already got the basics: a shaker, a juice squeezer, and a blender. You will need a very wide complement of measuring ingredients because you cannot free-pour with these drinks— there's so much going on in them, you have to be precise. Your measuring kit should start with an eye dropper and move up into measuring spoons, from one-eighth of a teaspoon to one-quarter of a teaspoon, half a teaspoon, and a tablespoon. You'll also need the usual jiggers—one ounce and one and a half ounces—and a very good ice crusher.

Then, of course, there are the ingredients. It is essential to use fresh fruit to make your juices, and you'll need a good stove and saucepan because you'll be making your own syrups.

Oh, and booze. You can get away with making the most of the great tropical drinks with five rums: a white Puerto Rican, a gold rum from the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, a dark Jamaican rum (Appleton makes a good one), a Martinique rhum agricole, and a demerara rum, which is a smoky rum from Guyana. With those five you can make a navy grog, a mai tai—all kinds of great drinks.

How important is glassware to the presentation of tiki drinks?

Glassware has always been a very big part of it all. Originally, most of these drinks were served in specialty glasses—snifters or tall glasses. But I do have a problem with ceramic tiki mugs. I collect them, and I have no problem with them as artifacts, but I don't like to drink from them. When you pour a cocktail into a tiki mug you lose the color, which is a major aspect of a drink. The more you see the drinks as culinary experiences, the more you want to see what you're drinking.

Have you experimented with flaming drinks?

Oh, sure. When I was a kid they just knocked me out. Now there are books that tell you how to do it, but when I started experimenting I was literally playing with fire.

There are two good ways to light a drink. One way is to take half a lime or lemon, scrape out all the fruit from the rind, and fill that with 151 proof rum. Then you float it in the center of the drink—this works only if you have a wide bowl or a widemouthed mug—and light that on fire. The rum will burn, but it's contained in its shell so it won't spill over into the drink. Another way is to cut a lemon, an orange, or a lime wheel, float it in a drink, and put a sugar cube on top of it. Then you douse the sugar cube in high-proof rum and light it. The sugar cube will burn nicely.

You also develop your own recipes, right? Are you working on anything interesting now?

Yes. I'm mostly a drink archaeologist, but the research process gives me all kinds of fun ideas for new drinks. I have about 30 new recipes that I've been playing with. For the past couple of years I've been doing events like Tales of the Cocktail, which is a big drink gathering in New Orleans, and tiki conventions, where I hold tropical-drink seminars.

The other great project I've been working on—and one of the reasons I've been coming up with new drinks—is a cocktail dinner where I work with a chef to come up with six courses and an original drink pairing for each dish. That has worked really well with tropical drinks because there are so many elements to them. No matter what the chef throws at you, you can come up with a drink that complements it.

What's one great pairing?

Drinks like the nui nui and the navy grog, which are heavy, spicy rum cocktails, pair really well with pork, which is a staple of Polynesian-themed meals. With a Polynesian- or Tahitian-style fish dish with a coconut sauce, you might try a drink like the one I call the restless native, which is a mix of coconut rum, creme de cacao, and lime. The coconut in the rum pairs up nicely with the coconut in the sauce, but the drink is tart, so it cuts the richness. Chefs are taking these cocktails seriously as something that can be served with the food as opposed to just poolside drinks.