Hailed as “the Indiana Jones of tiki drinks” by The New York Times, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of six books on the subject, has well earned his place among Imbibe magazine’s “25 Most Influential Cocktail Personalities of the Past Century.” Known for his straw hats and loud print jackets, Berry doesn’t just study the tiki lifestyle—he embodies it. This year marks his 10th appearance at the annual Tales of the Cocktail (July 15-19), and his first since opening the French Quarter tiki temple Latitude 29, named one of Esquire’s “2015 Best Bars in America.”
You grew up in California and have traveled extensively, yet recently made New Orleans home. Why here?
I participated in Tales of the Cocktail for the first time in 2005. Neither my wife, Annene—aka Mrs. Bum—or I had ever been to New Orleans before, but when we stepped out of the shuttle in the French Quarter it was like, “Where has this place been all of our lives?” It looked like Barcelona or some old European city, the people were great, there were Julliard-trained musicians playing on the street, the bar and restaurant scene was vibrant and in no time at all I had a job offer and a place to live. I have not missed a Tales since, and each year our circle of friends widened and we got more and more love from the town. It was just a natural to open here. We didn’t even think about anywhere else. Plus we love restaurants and going out, and people go out all the time here; whether they have the money to or not, they find a way. That kind of sealed it for us.
How does a Polynesian bar and restaurant fit in the French Quarter?
In the contemporary sense, we live in the subtropics, and its hot here, and tiki drinks are very refreshing. But there’s also a lot of historical precedence for it. There were a number of Polynesian restaurants here during the 1960s, and Don the Beachcomber, the guy who singlehandedly invented the tiki bar and the drink in 1934, was a New Orleans native. So you could say tiki was born here, because Don the Beachcomber was.
What’s the biggest misconception about tiki cocktails?
That they’re sweet, syrupy cruise ship drinks. When they are done right, they are very far from that. They are actually very artfully balanced artisanal drinks. They are culinary farm-to-glass cocktails created 70 years before those terms ever even existed. Back in the '30s they were squeezing fresh juices, making their own syrups, bitters and liqueurs and using premium spirits—they basically were the first craft cocktail. Unfortunately tiki kind of died out in the 1970s, and most people born then or after had no exposure to how these drinks were supposed to taste, so all they got were the cheap knockoffs. So you have to get people to try the drinks, and once they do there’s no turning back.
Which would you recommend for fence-sitters?
I think the Navy Grog is one of Don the Beachcomber’s most brilliant drinks. It’s something he invented in the ’40s, but it was decades ahead of its time. It’s lime juice, grapefruit juice, honey, three different rums blended together into a single-base spirit—which was something Don pioneered and was amazing at—and a few dashes of allspice liqueur. It’s a dry, strong, balanced multi-ingredient drink that shows tiki in its best light.
You are on two Tales panels this year, “The Big One: Drinking WWII” and “Tapping Rum’s Past for Rum’s Future.” Talk about New Orleans’ relation to rum.
There were about 12 rum distilleries in Louisiana before Prohibition. One in particular that Don the Beachcomber put in several of his recipes was called Pontalba Rum, probably named for those apartments in Jackson Square. And rum is coming back. There are now several distilleries operating here, such as Old New Orleans Rum.
Any advice for Tales first-timers?
Be choosy and pace yourself. Don’t try to do 30 things in a day; five is more than enough. And, this is not easy to do, but if you can steal the time, get out of the French Quarter and take in other parts of the city, which were revelatory to me when I finally got to do it.