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3-Course Interview: Jeff "Beachbum" Berry 

Scott Gold talks to the tiki expert about his new book, Potions of the Caribbean

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Photo by Olivier Konig

Local author, mixologist, rum expert and cocktail historian Jeff "Beachbum" Berry (www.beachbumberry.com) has written extensively about vintage tropical drinks and cuisine. His latest, Potions of the Caribbean, focuses not on the tiki culture for which he's known, but on the Caribbean. The book is available at www.cocktailkingdom.com.

You've written five books about cocktails, particularly tiki-inspired drinks. What made you head to the Caribbean for your latest?

Berry: Actually, I wasn't going to write another book, because I'd already covered pretty much everything about the tiki era that I wanted to know. The books were kind of a process of discovery for me: As I was writing, I discovered all about the lost recipes from the tiki bars that are disappearing. Once I satisfied my curiosity about what they were and where they came from, I thought that was pretty much it. It finally began to dawn on me at the end of my third book, Sippin' Safari, that I'd been swimming in the wrong ocean. The more I learned about the origins of these drinks, the more I realized that they all had roots in the Caribbean. The two main creators of the 40-year tiki craze — Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic — both traveled to the Caribbean, Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad, which is where they learned how to mix tropical drinks.

The book is filled with vintage recipes from Caribbean cultures. Do you have any favorites?

B: Yes, I do. I found that the more tiki drinks I drank and the more complicated they became, the more I appreciated the foundation on which all of these drinks are built, which is the three building blocks: rum, lime and sugar. That, basically, is a daiquiri. When I find myself at home and I want a drink, I find myself going for one of those. If you have lime, sugar and the right rum, a daiquiri is really hard to beat. For rum, I recommend Havana Club Cuban rum, which you can't get here, but also Cana Brava, a really nice Cuban-style rum. Most domestic white rums taste like vodka, but Cana Brava has that body and long finish that you don't usually get with white rums, but you do get with a proper Cuban.

  Another one is a recipe that I haven't made. It's the oldest complete recipe I found, since most were fragments. This was a German syphilis cure from 1575 made from guaiac wood from Venezuela. [The drink is] boiled like a hot toddy. It didn't really work on the guy who invented it, unfortunately, because he died of the disease, so they gave up on it after that.

What's the most surprising thing you learned in writing this book?

B: From the mixological point of view, it's about how much we owe Christopher Columbus. Of course, he introduced forced labor, colonial oppression and all that awful stuff, but he also introduced lime — which he called crab lemons — and sugar. You can't have rum without sugar. Of all this, I was shocked to find out just how miserable Caribbean history was. I'd studied the Pacific islands, so I didn't know too much about it going into this book. From 1492, it was just one long catalogue of brutality and maltreatment. You look at the tourist ads and the Caribbean looks like such a romantic place, but when you dig under the surface, you're like, "Wow, really?" I have to think that alcohol and later cocktails played an important part in carrying on with such a life. And personally, without sounding too callous, I'm very grateful to them all for doing that.

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