Words by: Ian Cameron (photography by Olivier Konig)
Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry is arguably the greatest living authority on tiki, both as a phenomenon and as a human database of tiki cocktails. The former Hollywood screenwriter talks about how tiki has always been part of his life, tips his straw hat to the London scene and talks about who he thinks has 'crapped on' the legacy of Trader Vic.
How'd you get into tiki? What's your earliest tiki memory?
It started when I was eight. I was living in the San Fernando Valley in LA. In the '60s every Chinese restaurant turned into a polynesian restaurant. When we ate out as a family some were amazing. They were decorated to an inch of their lives. Moonlighting Hollywood directors would approach a restaurant as if they were making a film set. They were designed to be a fantasy environment, where every square inch was sculpted, not boxed in, even with indoor waterfalls. I really took to it, and sought them out. For adults it was either fun or tacky but for me it had the allure of Disneyworld. By the '80s they were all disappearing though.
Why does tiki continue to fascinate you?
I think probably because it's the whole notion of it being faux. They were serving Caribbean drinks in a Polynesian setting, providing an experience that transports you away from the ordinary world. I guess I wanted that escapism yourself. 'Theming' these days has a whole different definition, but back in the mid-century Trader Vic was spending $4-5m on a single restaurant. It's hard to describe them now and I only experienced them as a kid, but Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale and Trader Vic's in Emeryville, California still have that sense of opulence. It wasn't at all tacky but very high end. There were more blue collar versions but Donn's bars and Trader Vic's was the fur coat crowd. The valet parking costs alone put most people out of the running.
Tiki's escapism has always flourished at difficult times. Donn opened at the height of depression and then there was World War Two, then the '50s everybody was petrified of the Cold War, nuclear winter, McCarthyism. Now, of course, there's economic Armageddon, Orwellian homeland security and no-fly lists.
What about the drinks?
I find it fascinating that a well-made pre-Prohibition cocktail with three ingredients can be like a poem, but a tiki drink with up to 12 ingredients can be a symphony. It's a struggle to balance three ingredients and when you're confronted by something with 12 you might think it's overkill. Get it right and it's astounding. It really is more of a culinary thing, using techniques from the kitchen, even putting butter and honey in a drink. I'm not interested in a perfectly done pre-Prohibition Martinez. I always order tropical drinks rather than bitters and amaros.
Tiki was all about fresh squeezed fruit, well ahead of the craft cocktail movement. The drinks have teasing elusive flavours, full of proprietary secrets. It's 180-degrees away from the sharing culture of today. Take the Allspice syrup at Trader Vic's - I still don't know what goes in it. Maybe it's my palate but often with a tiki drink you can't tell what's in it. Whenever I asked what was in something they'd just say rum and fruit juice. They probably didn't know anyway. They were proprietary recipes, and the bartenders were just pouring bottles labelled 'number 2' etc. To deconstruct it you have to keep going back on a busy night and hope that you get a drinks that's made improperly. That way you work it out. Tiki is the longest drinks trend in history, with drinks ahead of their time.
How have you been so successful at unearthing old recipes?
I would watch bartenders at work and reverse engineer their drinks. I'd go to antique malls and swap meets for ephemera, find hints on menus, or in old magazine articles. I'd hunt out the old bartenders. If I could find them they were often still working at bars, if not tiki, serving Chocolate Martinis and Spritzers. If you tipped well, became a regular and showed respect you could get a hint about making them. Donn's original Zombie had three different rums, two citrus, three or four syrups.
Donn died in '89 and Vic in '84. Did you ever meet either of them?
While I was in LA I was mostly just a regular punter and I didn't have the time or the wherewithal that they were still around. Or had the balls to call them up. Do I regret that? Hell, yeah. I would love to have met Donn Beach. All it would have taken was a plane to Hawaii to visit him.
I interviewed a lot of people who worked for him. I tried to rake muck, and do my due diligence journalistically. But I could not get anyone to say anything that was not glowing. He was a creative genius, some of his drinks rank beyond anything created before or since, he was a savant. He was renowned for his hostmanship, and Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich even talked about what a nice guy he was. If I had asked him one question it would have been: "Will you adopt me?"
As far as Trader Vic, I never met him but I've talked to his employees. They all respected him but he had a temper and was a screamer. He was a genius in his own right but he didn't get there first. He was Donn's greatest imitator.
What's the most important development in bartending to hit tiki recently?
The drinks. From the '30s to the '60s people went for the entire tiki experience and its exotic 'otherness'. Back then people never left their home town or state. Now we don't have that, it's not exotic. In today's culture that's irrelevant but the quality of drinks is what it will be remembered for, though if it wasn't for the craft movement it wouldn't have come back. It's the intrinsic value of the drinks, so even if you do feel it's tacky you've had a proper tiki drink.
What are the biggest crimes against tiki that you've witnessed?
The only valid criticism with tiki is that you don't go far enough. If someone doesn't like their surroundings or the umbrella in their drink, it's probably that the bar owner hasn't gone as far as Donn and Vic went. That they haven't done tiki tastefully enough and somehow have managed to kill the atmosphere. That's not the way it used to be done. It wasn't tacky. If they were to really go into it they would see the scale, they'd take one sip and get it.
What's your most treasured tiki possession? We're assuming your house is all tiki'd out...
Absolutely it is. There's a real disconnect from outside to in. I recently moved coast to coast and had to rent a truck and cart it across the country - including 8ft and 10ft tiki poles from Donn Beach and Trader Vic's. I buy from Oceanic Arts, which would buy the stuff after restaurants closed and rent it to movie companies. Also you can find stuff at thrift stores and swap meets. Some things come up at auction - I heard there was a Donn Beach 15ft bamboo bar from Marina Del Ray. I never got to one of those.
My most treasured possession is a vintage Tiki-stemmed cocktail coupe with beveled glass reservoir, from Trader Vic's circa 1950s - it took me years to find.
Do you have a favourite tiki bar?
I'd have to sub-divide it between my favourite classic and my favourite new bar. For classic I'd have to say for the east coast it's Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, it was built in 1956 and is one of the last remaining Polynesian palaces. It has a tropical garden, seven dining rooms, and great drinks. On the left coast it's gotta be Tiki Ti - I spent most of my life in LA until 2007, now I'm in North Carolina.
If we're talking neo-contemporary then I'd say Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco. It has it all, it's a craft cocktail bar and has housemade syrups and liqueurs, has a rum sommelier curating what's behind the bar. Amazing complex culinary cocktails, all served impeccably, with fantastic decor. There's a great sense of 'aloha'.
London has the most evolved tiki scene outside the States. It's the new LA as far as that goes - there's Mahiki, Trailer Happiness and Kanaloa. Jamie from Cheeky Tiki has a wonderful understanding of the movement. I haven't been to New York since 2008 and there were no craft tiki bars then, so I haven't been to Painkiller or to the tiki night at Lani Kai.
You've previously said you felt Trader Vic's legacy has been 'crapped on'. Why and by whom?
I said that about Trader Vic's [the restaurant group] because of the drinks. They are falling down on the job. I understand that they are expensive to make, but Vic was a quality control fanatic and God help you if you turned in anything less than a perfect drink in any of his 20 restaurants across the world. Today I don't see that quality control, they are not using the rums he would specify. I was in Atlanta recently and you don't get aged Martinique rum, or aged Jamaican rum in your Mai Tai - instead they use cheap well rums. I don't see the same attention paid to his recipes, but the hotel prices haven't dropped. I have enormous respect for Vic but being honest it does bother me when I have a Trader Vic drink and it's not what it used to be.
Vic published all recipes so his name remained on lips. Donn never published his recipes and that secrecy made him a fortune but hurt his legacy. They disappeared and it's a rehabilitation job to talk about Donn Beach. He didn't last like Vic did and doesn't benefit from his longevity. That said, I don't think Don would have minded that much. I don't think Donn was driven like Vic was.
Where do you see tiki going hext?
I always look to London for trends, it's ahead of the curve. Every time I'm in London there are bartenders asking me in-depth questions about rum. You never think of putting three different gins in a Martini but when you do it with rum you dimensionalise the base flavour. From what I tasted London is more sophisticated about base spirit. You don't have to settle from the bottle or wholesaler.
There are more rums these days but most of them taste the same, even if they come from more islands and I see them mixing them in London. I love the idea of home blending I just love it. I went to the Langham and saw their tiny casks aging their own rums.
I would hope that because the first trend lasted 40 years, and has returned with a vengeance, hopefully it will be here for a long time yet. These days I get amazing tiki drinks everywhere. I had a great Mai Tai at the Connaught, I've had them in PDT, in Berlin too - magnificent tiki drinks, just not in tiki bars.
This wasn't always your day job, was it?
I used to work in feature films and TV. I specialised in screenplay rewrites for Dreamworks, Warner Brothers and Disney. I'm embarrassed to say I worked on Inspector Gadget, Romy & Michell's High School Reunion and George and the Jungle. I'm glad my name was not on them but I was paid really well. Eventually I started putting together my first feature film and got them optioned but then I heard I had been 'blacklisted'. Everyone loved my scripts but that no one would make as they were too smart. In 2007 most of the world dried up so I didn't need to be in LA anymore and I could focus on this as a career.
So where did the Beachbum part of your name come from? Have you officially changed your name, Donn Beach-style?
It's just kind of a lark. Back when snakes still walked and there was no Photoshop I was doing my first book. I used to cut fonts out of flyers and record covers and I remember a matchbox cover from Beachbum Burt's, on Redondo Beach, in south west LA. It became the title page and just stuck. I might change my name legally. I never expected to get to the state it is but then the cocktail renaissance began. I never thought it would be anything other than a hobby.