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Jeff “Beachbum” Berry shares his favorite tiki bars in America and advises how to create an authentic tiki experience at home.
Story by Erin Z. Bass
Photos courtesy Jeff “Beachbum” Berry
Photo credit: Olivier Konig
Named one of the “25 Most Influential Cocktail Personalities of the Past Century,” Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has written six books on vintage tiki drinks and cuisine, co-created the app Total Tiki for iPad and iPhone, is the owner of tiki bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans, and sells a line of tiki barware with Cocktail Kingdom. If that’s not enough, his cocktail recipes have been printed in publications around the world, and it’s safe to say he’s an expert on rum.
While Berry and other tiki enthusiasts enjoy a good Mai Tai or Polynesian Pearl Diver year-round, tiki drinks are most popular in the summertime. The umbrellas, tropical flowers and coconuts that make up their presentation will instantly transport you to the tropics.
Legendary bars Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s are credited with kickstarting the tiki craze in the 1930s and inventing many of the drinks we sip today. Berry opened his Latitude 29 in the Bienville House Hotel in New Orleans in 2014 as a spot to showcase his tiki collection of décor and the recipes he’s worked years to perfect. (The bar’s cocktail menu spans the entire 80-year history of tiki drinking.)
We asked him about his current favorite tiki bars in the U.S., his favorite menu items at Latitude 29, where he keeps his own collection of tiki relics, and what home bartenders need to recreate the tiki experience in their back yard.
Erin Z. Bass: You opened your own tiki bar, Latitude 29, in New Orleans in 2014, but you’ve spent over 20 years visiting tiki bars and talking to legendary bartenders. With a tiki revival in full swing, what are your favorite tiki spots in the U.S. and why?
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry: On the West coast: The Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, which has been family owned since 1961. The house specialty is the Ray’s Mistake, a secret recipe that regulars have been trying to figure out for decades. My other favorites are the Rum Barrel and the Puka Puka. If you’re not driving, try a Great White Shark (which has a bite like one).
On the East coast: The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It’s the last of the great midcentury Polynesian palaces, and it looks the same as it did over 60 years ago, complete with indoor waterfalls, outdoor jungle gardens, live Tahitian fire-dancers and seven tiki-filled dining rooms. The entire space is perfectly preserved, as if you’re time-traveling back to opening day in 1956. Of the 51 tiki drinks on the menu, two standouts are the Mutiny and the Black Magic.
EZB: Do you have a favorite drink or dish on the menu at Latitude 29?
JB: The Sambal Shrimp & Grits is my favorite main course. It’s an Asian-inflected take on a Louisiana staple. I love the interplay between the miso-infused grits, bacon marmalade, pork gravy and spiced gulf shrimp.
EZB: A big part of the tiki appeal is the décor, and you’ve got quite a collection. What are some of your most prized pieces, and did most of them go into Latitude 29 or do you have a warehouse somewhere?
JB: Almost everything from my house went into the restaurant. In that sense, Latitude 29 may be the biggest “home bar” in the country! Stuff I’d collected from the 1980s until we opened in 2014 is now décor in the bar and dining room. Some of my favorites: a circa-1960s eight-foot tiki pole bought at auction from Trader Vic’s in St. Paul; a 200-pound vintage statue of the Hawaiian goddess Pele; and wall carvings and tapa ceiling lanterns created especially for Latitude by my favorite neo-tiki artist Bosko Hrnjak.
EZB: What do you recommend for people who want to have a tiki cocktail experience at home? Are there some essentials needed to stock the bar and how much does the glass matter?
JB: You’ll need fresh limes and lemons and sweeteners such as orgeat, passion fruit and simple syrup (equal parts sugar and hot water; stir till sugar dissolves, cool it and bottle it). And of course, you need rum—lots of rum! You can make most of the great tropical drinks if you stock five rums: a dry white Puerto Rican; a medium-bodied gold Puerto Rican or Barbados; a dark Jamaican punch rum; a Martinique rhum agricole; and a smoky demerara rum from Guyana. With those five you can make all kinds of great drinks. Presentation has always been a very big part of it all. Tiki drinks are what I call “conversation piece cocktails,” which have to look as good as they taste, with elaborate garnishes and drinking vessels. Originally, most of these drinks were served in bespoke specialty glasses—ribbed “Pearl Diver” glasses, ceramic tiki mugs, coconut mugs, etc. Cocktail Kingdom now retails a line of these items that I helped design.
In a shaker, add lime juice, rums, orange Curacao and sugar syrup. Add at least 2 cups of crushed ice, then shake well for around 10 seconds. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Sink your spent lime shell in the drink, and garnish with a mint sprig.
Note from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry: A Mai Tai should not be red or blue. Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, developed in 1944, became the iconic tiki drink and was created to showcase a special 17-year-old rum. A proper Mai Tai has a deep amber hue, because the liquor should dominate, not the sweeteners.