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Passing the Torch

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Like an imbiber's Indiana Jones on the trail of ancient tropical cocktails, Jeff "Beachbum" Berry is the raider of a lost art. Equal parts archivist and alcohol aficionado, he has come to be known as the primary exhumer of mummified Tiki mixology, to the point where any nonscientific survey of south seas-themed watering holes surely would result in a knock on the Beachbum's thatched door. Berry has penned three hilarious and critically acclaimed books on the drinkable parts of Polynesian pop culture (a fourth, Sippin' Safari, is due out from Club Tiki Press in July), and his contagious enthusiasm for the subject spills over even in casual conversation.

It's during one such talk -- specifically, on the foraging he did for the 50 or so forgotten recipes that appear for the first time in Safari's pages -- that the his archeologist's ethos is unearthed. Speaking excitedly about finally deciphering the ingredients of one obscure grog, Berry explains the conflict between his dual preservationist and creationist impulses, all the while wielding figures of speech reserved for cinematic, Spielbergian adventurers:

"The basic tension is this: You find a drink. It may have taken you years to crack. You crack the code, and it's not all you want it to be. Do you take the experience you have mixing drinks and try and 'fix' it? Are you violating your precepts as a cocktail historian, or should you just present it as is, in an inferior state?"

The care with which Berry weighs this conundrum provides some insight into the his undying devotion to Tiki drinks. A kitschy patio dŽcor to most folks under 40, typified by loud floral prints and tacky backyard torches, the "real' Tiki has become something of a life pursuit for Berry. But to fully understand this obsession, one must first understand the nature of the culture itself. And to do that, one must start much earlier.

As with many manufactured fantasies, the roots of Tiki bar culture can be traced back to Southern California. In the 1930s, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton and other film-industry icons flocked to the Hollywood hotspot Don The Beachcomber's, a lavish bar and restaurant decked out as a Polynesian paradise. The brainchild of a New Orleanian entrepreneur, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, the Beachcomber's became famous for serving up exotic, high-octane tropical concoctions to the Silver Screen elite. Soon the Beachcomber's moniker referred not only to Gantt's massively popular hangout, but to Gantt himself.

"Donn [Beach] basically invented the Tiki bar," says Berry. "There weren't any before him. And he single-handedly invented what I call the faux tropical drink. No tropical drinks as we know them were invented in the tropics. They were all invented in Hollywood."

It's obvious that Donn's pioneering spirit -- in addition to bar and restaurant proprietor, his swashbuckling history includes stints as an island hopper, a bootlegger and a WWII Army liaison -- appeals both to the historian and the mixologist in Berry. His tone rises slightly as he launches into a fellow barkeep's version of the Beachcomber's legacy: "You hear the term 'bar chef' tossed around? Donn was the first bar chef. He was using ingredients like cucumber and puree of litchi nuts, things no one would put into a drink in the '30s. He did a lot of things with butter -- not in hot drinks, but in cold ones. He had this mix: honey and butter whipped together, and then you add to that allspice, vanilla and cinnamon. He whipped that into a sort of batter and blended it with lime, orange, rum and different things.

"One drink was called the Pearl Diver. Once you blend it, you strain it into a fine-mesh wire sieve to get all the solids out of it, and you have this velvety textured thing. You'd never know what was in it; it has this weird mouth-feel, really interesting. He was just going wild. He had to stay one step ahead of all the people who were imitating him."

One such imitator was Victor Jules Bergeron, an Oakland restaurateur who caught wind of Donn's celebrity-luring locale. Upon returning to the Bay area after a trip to Los Angeles in the late '30s, Bergeron Tiki-fied his barbecue restaurant to model Donn's original Beachcomber's dŽcor. Dubbed Trader Vic's, the establishment would grow to rival -- some say surpass -- the Beachcomber's in popularity. (Donn and Vic later would develop a competitive relationship, which included a famous dispute in the '40s over who had invented the Mai Tai; Berry magnanimously credits Vic, while adding the caveat that it probably was derived from one of Donn's creations.)

A more blatant copycat, a New York nightclub operator named Monte Proser, even went so far as to open a chain of East Coast Beachcomber's. ("Three thousand miles away from Donn's lawyers," chuckles Berry.) To protect his valuable recipes, Donn began using numbers and symbols in place of the actual item descriptions: one called for "spices #2," another "syrup Parisienne." It's this kind of secrecy which makes Berry's modern research for Sippin' Safari sound like a subplot from The Da Vinci Code.

"Aside from Donn and Vic, [restaurateurs] didn't even know what was in these recipes the bartenders were serving," says Berry. "That was the job security. It was sort of like this secret alchemy thing. The guys I talked to, the old-timers who were still around, even though they'd been retired for years -- or if they were still working, they hadn't made a tropical drink in 30 years, because it all died out in the '70s with margaritas and white wine spritzers -- they would not part with the recipes. Finally, I got some of the little black books that these guys carried around. It was always little black address books with recipes. Some of them were in code, too."

According to Berry, the stories that accompanied them often were as interesting as the recipes themselves. "A lot of the bartenders were Filipinos, [at the time] like 15-year-old resistance fighters," he says. "Others were secret sources for gossip columnists. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons would pay them to give tidbits about Howard Hughes or Lana Turner. This one guy, Hank Riddle, was known as Monsieur Henri in Hopper's column: 'Well, Monsieur Henri says ...' Just incredible lives these guys lived."

Though both Don The Beachcomber's and Trader Vic's would go on to spawn national and international franchises in the ensuing mid-century Tiki trend, their products bore little resemblance to the daring beverages of yore. Many of those spinoffs have since closed. But Berry says there are three pleasure palaces still carrying the torch for classic Tiki tropicals: The Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale ("preserved in amber"), Forbidden Island in Alameda, Calif. ("new, but I've heard it's great"), and the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles ("a living lab -- the only place in L.A. to get a real Beachcomber's drink").

"The craze has come back," says Berry. "I was working in a vacuum. I thought I was the only guy interested in this for years. The book started as a Xeroxed zine that I would give away for free at parties. Now chains like Trader Vic's, which were really hit hard in the '80s and '90s, they're opening million-dollar restaurants. If you go into Target or Wal-Mart, they're selling Polynesian dŽcor. It started as this underground hipster thing: the L.A. lounge revival, the Vegas Rat Pack thing, postwar instrumentals. I believe [the music] is what started the whole thing again. Then from that came the fashion. People who were going to shows had to have the aloha wear."

And at that, even Indiana Jones can't resist a jovial dig. "It's like going to some Aztec archeological find," adds the Beachbum with a laugh. "Who was this banished race?"

New Orleanian Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, better - known as Donn Beach, created Tiki bar culture in - Hollywood.
  • New Orleanian Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, better known as Donn Beach, created Tiki bar culture in Hollywood.

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