Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them (Cocktail Kingdom), hardcover, 317 pages, $34.95.
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Like a fine barrel-aged rum, the new magnum opus from Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry benefited from years maturation, developing a rich depth of flavor and nuance. When Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them is finally uncorked next week, it will undoubtedly be savored to the last drop by a growing legion of fans.
It could also quite possibly be Berry’s last call as a self-proclaimed “layabout” author. While the carefree image will likely remain, Berry’s other much-anticipated project could soon make him a much busier Bum. The former screenwriter, whose six books since 1998 have sown the seeds of the Tiki cocktail revival, will be embarking on a new career next year when he opens his own bar in New Orleans.
These plans are accelerating, Berry confirmed in an e-mail this week, and he hopes to sign a lease at an undisclosed location by the end of the year. That would put him on track to open his Tiki bar (in partnership with Mrs. Bum, aka Annene Kaye) as early as spring 2014. They already have a designer, architect and key staff lined up. In the meantime, Berry’s solo career as a literary figure will reach its peak with the release of Potions of the Caribbean.
Berry’s sixth book on tropical drinks and the fascinating stories behind them, Potions of the Caribbean could be considered the sequel to Sippin’ Safari (2007), both in style and substance. Berry’s first three books were mainly spiral-bound drink recipe compilations, and his previous (Beachbum Berry Remixed, 2010) was a redesigned and expanded re-release of the first two.
But with Sippin’ Safari, Berry used his seemingly endless supply of vintage recipes, photos and artwork to embellish the stories of the bartenders, restaurant owners and other pioneers of the early days of Tiki. The result was a wonderful read – a beautifully illustrated cocktail guide, history book and retro culture travelogue all rolled into one. The new book follows this same format, with the stories taking a starring role and the recipes enhancing the narrative.
The rich history of the Caribbean and its role in the Tiki cocktail movement was actually supposed to be an additional chapter of Sippin’ Safari. A subtitle near the end of the book’s final chapter, which tells the story of Mariano Lucidine and The Mai-Kai, introduces the Potions of the Caribbean name while very briefly mentioning the birthplace of rum and its role in Tiki cocktails.
Berry explained his dilemma on the Oct. 29 episode of The Quiet Village podcast. “I was trying to cram all this stuff into one chapter,” he told host Digitiki. “After we talked about The Mai-Kai, I was just going to go down to Cuba and Jamaica. But I realized there was just way, way too much stuff to do that, so it became its own book, five years later.”
A Tiki cocktail opus takes shape
The years spent researching and writing the book, as well as securing a new publisher, was time well spent. While Sippin’ Safari was a compact 184-page paperback, Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them is nearly twice as large at 317 pages, and it’s Berry’s first hardcover tome.
Called “a hybrid of street-smart gumshoe, anthropologist and mixologist” by The Los Angeles Times and “the Indiana Jones of Tiki drinks” by The New York Times, Berry has perfected the ultimate way to make history more palatable. The book features 77 vintage Caribbean drink recipes, including 16 “lost” recipes that have never been published anywhere in any format. It also features 19 recipes appearing for the first time in book form. The stories about the people who created, served or simply drank the drinks promise to be just as intoxicating. You’ll meet:
* William Dampier, the 17th-century pirate who collected native recipes while he plundered.
* José “Sloppy Joe” Abeal, whose name became iconic when Prohibition steered millions of Americans thirsty for legal rum to his Havana saloon.
* Influential mixologist Joe Scialom, who fled imprisonment in Cairo to bring his a new cocktail style to the islands.
* Novelists Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, who hated each other almost as much as they loved to drink.
* Restaurateurs “Trader Vic” Bergeron and Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), who based their faux-Polynesian Tiki drinks on the daiquiris and punches they discovered in the West Indies and made them the star of their South Pacific-themed empires in the 1930s.
As the title suggests, the story goes way back. “It starts out in 1492 with Columbus and the Caribbean Indians and what they were drinking, and then goes all the way through the centuries, up to Jimmy Buffett and boat drinks in the late 1990s,” said Berry on The Quiet Village podcast. Berry even suggests that Columbus is the true father of Tiki drinks.
“The earliest recipe I have is from 1575,” Berry told Digitiki. “It’s a syphilis cure. … I don’t know how many people can make it because you need this stuff called pox wood, and you need to boil it for a couple of days. But it’s in there, just in case you’ve been in the wrong part of town and don’t want to tell your doctor.”
Likely much more useful are the proto-Tiki recipes included in the chapter about how Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic “discovered their entire mixology style in the Caribbean.” Berry said that “if it wasn’t for the Caribbean, there probably wouldn’t be any Tiki drinks because basically what I learned is Tiki drinks are just Caribbean drinks, kind of squared of cubed, just made more complex or more dimensionalized by having different ingredients.”
Symposiums serve up taste of the Caribbean, bring the stories to life
While some authors make a few personal appearances in advance of a book release, Berry’s role as an in-demand speaker and mixologist takes book promotion to a new level. He has been whetting our appetites for Potions of the Caribbean for more than five years with symposiums at Tiki and cocktail events around the world.
We got our first taste of Potions of the Caribbean way back in June 2008 at The Hukilau event in Fort Lauderdale, where Berry presented a symposium of the same name. Subtitled “Lost Cocktails from America’s Postwar Playground,” the hour-long interactive presentation hit some of the same topics that will appear in the book, such as Sloppy Joe Abeal and Trader Vic. It specifically covered the post-WWII era when Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico developed their tourist industries to compete with Hawaii and other exotic vacation destinations.
One of the highlights of any Beachbum Berry event are the cocktails served to everyone to illustrate his vivid stories and colorful slideshows (again, a great way to promote a book). We sampled several at the event at the Yankee Clipper on Fort Lauderdale Beach, but the stand-out is this Caribbean classic that Berry adapted to modern mixology standards:
(Adapted from traditional recipe by Beachbum Berry)
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/4 ounce vanilla syrup
* 1 1/2 ounces Demerara rum (El Dorado 12-year recommended)
Shake well with 1 cup of crushed ice and serve in an Old Fashioned glass with more crushed ice. Double the recipe to fill a larger Tiki mug.
My take: A very simple, sweet and yet complex flavor explosion thanks to the distinctive tropical flavors and delicious rum.
After The Hukilau, Berry took his show on the road to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in July 2008. [See full coverage from Matt Robold on his Rum Dood blog and Chuck Taggart on his Looka! blog.] Berry expanded the symposium and – with the able assistance of Wayne Curtis, Martin Cate, and Stephen Remsberg – covered many more topics from the upcoming book, from the early rum punches to Caribbean spices, to one of Jamaica’s legendary bartenders, Jasper LeFranc.
Fast forward to June 2010, and Berry returned to The Hukilau with a new symposium titled “The Suffering Bastard: Joe Scialom, International Barman of Mystery.” In this fascinating presentation at the Bahia Mar on Fort Lauderdale Beach, Berry not only served the vintage Suffering Bastard recipe he recently unveiled in Remixed, he also wove a great tale of the drink’s inventor.
While Shialom invented the cocktail in 1942 at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, he later landed in the Caribbean, where he was an influential character. “He ended up in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and kind of invented a new kind of Caribbean mixology down there, just in time for Castro to kick him out of Havana,” Berry said on The Quiet Village. He devotes an entire chapter to Shialom in Potions of the Caribbean.
In the ensuing years, as the book continued to inch closer to fruition, Berry no doubt presented other symposiums around the world featuring stories and teasers. He’s a jetsetter rivaling the likes of Joe Shialom, after all, appearing at events across Europe and other far-flung locales.
Caribbean cocktail roadshow’s final stop
When Berry returned to The Hukilau in June 2013, Potions of the Caribbean was finally finished and we were told it was perhaps his last full-blown Hukilau symposium considering his upcoming bar project. He pulled out all the stops with “Beachbum Berry Presents the Wild West Indies,” presented to a sold-out audience on the main stage in The Mai-Kai dining room.
He brought along two special guests to bring his stories to life: New Orleans rum expert Stephen “Professor” Remsberg (owner of the world’s largest private collection) and New York City rum and cocktail authority Joe “Leisure Master” Desmond. After a plug for his new Navy Grog Ice Cone Kit (look for our upcoming product review, coming soon), Berry took us on a cruise back in time to the Caribbean with an entertaining sneak preview of his book.
The first stop was Colon, on the Caribbean side of Panama. Berry revealed the sordid underbelly of this pre-Prohibition cocktail hotspot, which rivaled Havana and Kingston as one of the best places in the Caribbean to get a drink. “It was known as ‘the wickedest city in the Americas’ because anything you wanted you could get in Colon,” Berry said. Whorehouses, bars, gambling dens, you name it. However, the vices were rivaled by the filth and the lack of sewage and trash collection. A visiting Paul Gauguin called it “one big toilet” before wisely moving on to Tahiti.
But the construction of the Panama Canal (1882-1914) lured “thousands upon thousands” to the area and its promise of jobs and debauchery. Known as “death’s nursery,” the massive job claimed tens of thousands of lives. “If there was a disease around, it was there,” Berry said. But amid this misery, there was a vibrant bar scene. “They drank a lot in Panama during this time,” he said.
He talked about Colon’s infamous Bottle Alley bar district, where empties were reportedly piled two stories high in the street. When the Yellow Fever plague was eradicated, upscale joints opened their doors and the Strangers Club became the area’s first proper cocktail bar. Desmond, dressed in period white suit, demonstrated how to make a Strangers Club classic from 1926, the Raspberry Gin Fizz (lime, cream, egg white, raspberry syrup, gin), while samples were distributed to thirsty attendees.
From there, we traveled to Cuba, where “Prohibition almost single-handedly created the Cuban tourist industry.” Americans thirsty for booze simply trekked 90 miles south of Key West and “got themselves smashed.” Said Berry: “People would get off the boat at Havana harbor, they would go to a bar, sit there and drink, take a cab back to the boat and go home. That’s all they ever saw of Havana.”
Into this scene stepped José Abeal, whose Sloppy Joe’s Bar became the go-to spot for American tourists. “It was packed to the rafters,” Berry said. The bar was open 24 hours a day with up to 11 bartenders working at a time. Its celebrity patrons included Errol Flynn, who was such a fixture that the bar created a signature drink called the Errol Flynn Pick Me Up (cognac, port wine, bitters, absinthe). Flynn’s favorite, however, was the Cuba Libre (rum and Coke), which Sloppy Joe’s perfected by shaking the rum with a squeezed wedge of lime.
While the tourist hordes were drinking at Sloppy Joe’s, Cubans (and Americans in the know) were enjoying daiquiris at El Floridita, home of “perhaps the greatest mixologist in the Caribbean,” Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, aka Constante. He didn’t even bother to name his masterpieces, Berry noted. “They’re numbered like modernist paintings.” His fame grew and attracted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, who showed up one day “and never left. It became his sort of his home office.”
El Floridita’s Daiquiri #3 became known as the Hemingway Daiquiri, or Papa Doble (white rum, lime and grapefruit juice, maraschino liqueur). Victor Bergeron was also a frequent customer, famously gleaning many ideas he would later apply at Trader Vic’s. “He applied his own sensibility and his own palate to what he learned and came up with his own version of tropical drinks,” such as the Scorpion, Fogcutter and Mai Tai (“the most famous Tiki drink of all time”). Constante’s Daiquiri #4 became the inspiration for Trader Vic’s Daiquiri.
Berry asked us to compare Vic’s classic Mai Tai recipe to Constante’s Daiquiri #2 (samples provided). It includes lime, rum and sugar (“the three building blocks of all tropical mixology”) plus curacao and orange juice. If you swap the OJ for almond-flavored orgeat, you get the basic flavors of the Mai Tai. The rums, proportions and presentation are much different, but “Daiquiri #2 may very well have been on Vic’s mind when he created the Mai Tai,” Berry theorized.
A detour to Jamaica and the secret of Jasper’s tasty cocktails
Years later, when Trader Vic became essentially the world’s first celebrity chef and author of 14 cookbooks, he sent his collaborator and editor, Shirley Sarvis, to the Caribbean for new ideas and drink recipes. She hit Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Barbados, Trinidad, Curacao, Haiti and ended up in Jamaica.
There, she discovered bartender Jasper LeFranc, creator of such acclaimed drinks as Jasper’s Jamaican, at the Bay Roc Hotel in Montego Bay. LeFranc was already well-known by locals and travelers seeking the best Caribbean cocktails. One of the latter was Stephen Remsberg, who took to the stage and mixed up the best drink of the day.
Remsberg talked about his experiences at the old Bay Roc (parts of which still exist in the Couples Resort) and LeFranc’s bar (which is sadly long gone). “He was a marvelous bartender, and a complete teetotaler,” Remsberg said. “But the drinks he invented were fantastic.”
He then revealed the “basic stock mix” that LeFranc used in many of his cocktails. “This one mix produces an incredible variety of drinks, all of which taste quite different from one another if you use a different rum,” Remsberg said. We then enjoyed samples of one of LeFranc’s cocktails.
(By Jasper LeFranc of the Bay Roc Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica)
* 1 ounce Jasper’s Secret Mix (see below)
* 1/2 ounce triple sec (or Cointreau)
* 1/2 ounce Cherry Heering (or quality cherry brandy)
* 1 1/2 ounces gold Jamaican rum (such as Appleton Special)
Mix with cubed ice for a few seconds and pour into a cocktail glass. (I prefer a quick shake.) Add ice to fill.
Served at the Bay Roc as a cocktail over ice in an Old Fashioned glass. Remsberg said LeFranc’s cocktails were typically not garnished, but the punches in tall glasses were (see below).
My take: The spicy mix and cherry brandy stand out in this nicely balanced and flavor-packed cocktail. The handy pre-made mix allows you to whip up a complex cocktail fairly easily.
Jasper’s Secret Mix
Combine in a glass or plastic bottle:
* 16 ounces fresh-squeezed juice (12-15 limes)
* 2-3 cups white granulated sugar (adjust to taste)
* 1 1/2 ounces Angostura bitters
* 1/2 of a whole nutmeg, grated
Mix, shake and store in the refrigerator. Let it steep for a few hours before using. Give the bottle a strong shake before each use. It will keep in the fridge for weeks, assuming it lasts that long. It will work just fine in smaller (or larger) batches with the same proportions.
Feel free to adjust the sweetness via the sugar. In Jamaica, rum drinks are traditionally very sweet, and Remsberg said the above proportion reflects that. Note that the 2009 book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From the Alamagoozlum to the Zombie 100 Rediscovered Recipes and the Stories Behind Them by Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh includes a recipe for Jasper’s Mix with less sugar. Remsberg said he likes it even sweeter than Jasper’s usual proportions, with up to 3 cups of sugar in the above recipe. My tastes lean toward the sweet version as well. “It’s easy to adjust,” he said.
Haigh’s lavishly illustrated hard-cover book also contains this very simple Planter’s Punch recipe that I actually prefer to the Witch Doctor. It’s easy to make and really lets the Jasper’s Mix shine through. It also features a darker and more flavorful rum. This was also Remsberg’s go-to drink at the Bay Roc.
(By Jasper LeFranc of the Bay Roc Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica)
* 1 ounce Jasper’s Secret Mix (see above)
* 1 1/2 to 2 ounces dark Jamaican rum
Stir (or quickly shake) with cracked or crushed ice and pour into a 10-ounce highball glass. Add more ice to fill. LeFranc also included the typical Caribbean garnish of a pineapple spear, an orange slice and a cocktail cherry. Remsberg has said he uses fresh mint.
LeFranc used Appleton Dark, which is no longer sold in the U.S. Try Appleton Estate Reserve, Appleton Estate Extra, Coruba, or Myers’s. Adjust the amount of rum to taste, and try other styles as well. I like this with a good aged gold rum.
My take: The rum shines through nicely amid a great balance of sour and sweet flavors, like any great Planters’ Punch, but with a spicy kick provided by the bitters and nutmeg.
Note that the recipe in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, which features the less sweet Jasper’s Mix, recommends equal parts rum and mix. I found that the sweeter mix allows for a heavier dose of rum and a better overall flavor. This is the recipe that Remsberg included in the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail symposium mentioned above. The Looka! blog features all of the above recipes, plus a few variations featuring Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum. You’ll also find the recipe for Jasper’s Jamaican Cocktail (also featured in Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log and Remixed).
Back on course for the final port of call
Berry’s symposium came full circle with Englishman Graham Greene, author of Our Man in Havana (1958), an unabashed lover of rum punch, and subject of a chapter in Potions of the Caribbean. Research for The Comedians (also adapted into a movie) in the early 1960s took him to Haiti, where he based his fictional story on a real place (Hotel Oloffson). The hotel attracted a bohemian clientele and became known as the Greenwich Village of the tropics. Greene was also attracted by the hotel’s Cesar’s Rum Punch, which appears in several of Berry’s books. From there, Greene went to another place of upheaval in the 1960s, Panama. His book Getting to Know the General covers this period, but it was pretty much an excuse to seek out more rum punch during his stay at the Panama Hilton, Berry notes. Greene’s book includes much detail on his quest for punch.
Berry wrapped up with a tribute to The Mai-Kai and its ties to the Caribbean in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Ironically, mixologist and bar manager Mariano Licudine (trained by Don the Beachcomber, who was inspired in the Caribbean) was sent there to teach bartenders at the big resorts and hotel chains how to make a proper tropical drink. “Resort owners wanted to turn the Caribbean into Hawaii,” Berry said. Licucine was “teaching Jamaicans how to make Planter’s Punch, and he was teaching Cubans how to make daiquiris.” He went to Havana, San Juan and Kingston, Berry said, and when he came back he was apparently inspired by what he saw there and came up with later additions to The Mai-Kai menu.
Beyond the Caribbean, it’s a brave new world
One cannot underestimate Jeff Berry’s influence on the modern Tiki revival, particularly the cocktails. If it weren’t for his work unearthing classic drinks for Grog Log in 1998 and Intoxica! in 2002, we might be sipping very different cocktails today. And Sippin’ Safari reached the zenith of cocktail anthropology with the discovery of Don the Beachcomber’s original 1934 Zombie [See story].
With Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them, Berry seemingly leaves no stone unturned in his quest to reveal every vintage cocktail and cool fact in the tropical canon. His work has inspired countless mixologists to take Tiki seriously and will continue to do so for years to come.
And after finally savoring the cocktails in his long-awaited ode to the Caribbean, we can look forward to tasting Berry’s handiwork at his soon-to-be-named watering hole. It promises to be another interesting journey.
More coverage online
* Press: New Orleans Times-Picayune | Liquor.com | DiffordsGuide.com | WLRN
* Blogs: A Mountain of Crushed Ice | Professor Cocktail | The Floating Rum Shack
Havana Cocteles | Tiki Central: Join the discussion
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