Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is extremely passionate about Tiki, tropical drinks and The Mai-Kai. In April, we caught up with the author of such essential Tiki cocktail bibles as Grog Log and Sippin’ Safari in his natural habitat (The Mai-Kai gardens) and posed the following questions.
Interview by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward
1. If you could transport yourself for one night back in time to any Tiki bar or restaurant, what would it be and when?
That would be Don the Beachcomber’s in 1934: Ground zero, the big bang, the creation of the Tiki bar as we know it – by Donn, right after Prohibition. I would have loved to have seen what that was like.
2. If Food Network or the Travel Channel came to you and said, “Pitch us a show about tropical drinks,” what would you suggest?
I would suggest that they just take their suggestion and shove it. Because none of those channels, none of those hosts, none of that garbage is about what these places are about. What these places are about is “aloha,” it’s about the spirit of true hospitality, of welcoming, of making you feel important, of making you feel good. All of these TV channels traffic in all of this competition bullshit, where restaurants are not places to go to relax and unwind. Where you get stressed out and compete against your fellow chefs or bartenders. I hate all that. That’s the antithesis of the true spirit of hospitality, of genteel camaraderie, of going to a place to exchange confidences and emotions, and happy experiences with people that you either know or you’ve met at these places. It’s not about competition, it’s not about who’s the best, it’s not about some guy with spiked hair telling you about the awesomeness of the food. That’s just artificial garbage. … All these people are self-appointed experts. They don’t know anything about anything.
3. What can we expect from the new book?
The new book is called Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them. It’s a big, big, big book for me. It’s a real departure. It covers five centuries of drink history. I start off in 1492 with Columbus and what his sailors are drinking, and with what the Indians that they met were drinking. I take it all the way through the 18th century, 19th century, into Cuba during Prohibition, all the way up to Jimmy Buffett and boat drinks in the 1990s. That’s 500 years of history. It was a huge undertaking and it took me several years. Originally, the first 300 years was going to be just one chapter. But it ended up being three chapters because there was just so much stuff I found. You couldn’t explain the stuff I was into – 20th century tropical drinks, Tiki, Donn Beach and Trader Vic, or even Prohibition-era Havana – without going into detail about the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. So that became a much bigger undertaking. It’s sort of like an epic story now. I can’t wait for it to come out and see what people think. I hope it delivers. The reason I wrote it was there wasn’t really a book that was only about Caribbean drinks. There were books where you would get one chapter about it, or three or four recipes. But when I found out that all Tiki drinks come from the Caribbean, and that’s where Donn and Vic went for inspiration, that’s where I went. I went to the Caribbean. And it was a huge subject. Much bigger than I ever thought it was going to be.
4. What so-called classic Tiki drink do you hate?
“What I hate is a non-Tiki drink that’s been associated with Tiki drinks. I hate the Piña Colada. I know it’s fashionable for cocktail geeks, connoisseurs and aficionados to bash the Piña Colada – so it makes me feel guilty for joining their ranks – but the fact is that it’s not a balanced tropical drink. It’s all sweet. There’s no sour, there’s no citrus component to balance out all that sweet. That’s fine for what it is: It’s a dessert drink. Think of it as a pineapple-coconut milkshake. And that’s great. But for some reason it’s been included as a Tiki drink in most menus. By the 1970s, even Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber put it on their menus, even though they knew damn well it wasn’t a Tiki drink. But the popularity of it meant they had to put it on their menus. So, for me, I really object to that drink being part of the Tiki canon because it’s not a Tiki drink. Granted, it is a true Caribbean drink. It was invented by a Caribbean bartender in the Caribbean, I’ll give it that. But it’s still completely unbalanced. At desert, it’s great. As a balanced cocktail, it’s a complete failure. And I don’t like seeing it among the Tiki drinks that succeed as a balanced drink.”
5. What’s your favorite Mai-Kai drink and why?
I love the Deep Sea Diver because of the honey butter mix. And I love so many other drinks because of how great they are. But there are two I always go to. Can I make it two favorites? They’re pretty much variations on the same theme. It’s a theme that Mariano (Licudine, original Mai-Kai mixologist) created, that neither Donn Beach nor Trader Vic nor anyone who came before Mariano can lay claim to. Mariano thought to put coffee in a tropical drink, and it just knocks it out of the park. For me, the Mutiny and the Black Magic are two beautiful tropical drinks that Mariano created specifically for The Mai-Kai that did not exist before The Mai-Kai that for me define The Mai-Kai. Every time I think of The Mai-Kai, I think of either the Black Magic or the Mutiny. The Mutiny is a little fruitier, a little bit more passion fruit-forward version of the Black Magic, which is more coffee-forward. They’re both big snifter drinks with coffee in them. Each one, depending on my mood, is the one I’ll order.
Get updates on Jeff’s adventures and his upcoming book at BeachbumBerry.com.
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