“Asheville needs a yacht club,” Billy McKelvy declares inside the newly opened Asheville Yacht Club downtown.
Tiki bars typically thrive on their implicit promise to tranquilize its customers with fruity, high-proof drinks. Donn Beach, who launched the midcentury tiki craze from his Pacificana-seeped bar in Los Angeles, famously offered a cocktail so potent that the menu advertised a two-drink maximum. The pseudo-exotic fantasias Beach and his acolytes orchestrated were always more bizarre, more romantic and more fun when viewed through an out-of-focus lens.
McKelvy and his business partner, JT Black, have a feeling their concept will fly in Asheville, a city notably bereft of tiki culture. The Yacht Club talks tiki with a thick Florida accent, courtesy of McKelvy’s childhood and chef Glenn Goldberg’s training. The menu is more Boca than Bali, a departure from tradition McKelvy excitedly defends.
“It’s an eclectic Polynesian menu,” McKelvy explains. “If you go to any tiki bars, it’s bamboo-and-brown tikis. We didn’t want that same old tiki thing: We’re just more rock and roll. We have an artistic, lowbrow approach.”
They also have beer taps, a flat-screen TV and a jug of Sysco sour mix perched on the bar, all elements Jeff Berry notices when he walks into the almost-completed club. “I guess you have to have the TV,” he sighs. “It’s a necessary evil these days.”
Having Berry walk into your tiki bar is a bit like having Tom Brady show up at your pee-wee football practice. In addition to being a new resident of Asheville, Berry is widely recognized as the world’s foremost expert on tiki drinks. His four books on tiki cocktailing often constitute a tiki bar’s entire reference section. So tremendous is his stature in the tiki world that when he enters the Yacht Club and McKelvy says, “Donn, can I get you a drink?” it’s not clear whether McKelvy’s using the term as an honorific, like sensei, or if his overwhelming awe has caused him to mix up the major players in tiki’s pantheon.
Berry was a regular at the legendary Tiki-Ti back in L.A., where he worked for decades as a screenwriter and director, and would love to find a tiki home in the mountains. But since he openly admits to being too lazy to start his own bar—“I really am a bum; it’s not just a gimmick,” shrugs Berry, who publishes under the name Beach Bum Berry—his only real hope is to gently steer the Yacht Club’s owners toward a purer tiki aesthetic.
So Berry praises the WayneO-designed tikis that flank the booths, and the metal roofing above them, before gently raising the issue of lime juice. Berry, who thinks nothing of leaving a $9 maragarita made with sour mix untouched, can get apoplectic on the topic: It’s easy to imagine him as an ancient tiki mariner, a bottle of Island De-Lites sour mix chained to his neck.
“If I can get people to use fresh lime juice, that’s all I ask,” he tells McKelvy. “If you’re getting your lobster from Maine and steak from Omaha, can’t you take five steps over to the bar and have the same attitude toward your lime juice?”
Berry’s commitment to getting drinks right pervades his latest book, Sippin’ Safari: In Search of the Great “Lost” Tropical Drinks Recipes and the People Behind Them (SLG Publishing, 2007), the first of his books not to feature his interpretations of the cocktails pioneered by the nation’s first tiki barmen.
“On the first three books, if a recipe was close, but not good enough, I’d spend weeks at it, changing it, adapting it,” Berry explained over drinks at the Flying Frog, which he says has a cocktail menu he’d be hard-pressed to find in L.A. “But as I got into the history of it, it was no longer a question of finding a really good drink. I only put in drinks that were good as they were.”
Berry wasn’t merely transcribing drinks, though. The reason popular drinks like the Zombie got lost in the first place was because the competition among tiki bars in the 1940s was so fierce—and, perhaps, their devotion to South Seas-ish ritual so strong—that bartenders recorded their recipes in code. Berry’s fellow cocktail historian Wayne Curtis cites a 1948 Saturday Evening Post story in his book And A Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (Crown, 2006), that reported bartenders at Don the Beachcomber were ripping the labels off bottles so nosy drinkers couldn’t learn their secrets by sight. Those barkeeps’ boozy playbooks went undeciphered until Berry found them.
Berry was the first researcher to bother trying to figure out what bartenders meant by terms like Spices #2, a shorthand that appeared throughout house-recipe books. A retired Kon Tiki staffer was no help: “I said, ‘Bob, what’s spice #2?,’ and he told me to just substitute spiced rum,” Berry recalls. “I told him no, no I wasn’t going to do that. But I bought spiced rums—all the spiced rums: Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry’s—and sampled them. Mostly I tasted cinnamon and allspice.”
Berry ended up using a mix of vanilla syrup and allspice where the recipe called for spice #2, and decided “it tasted good. Donn the Beachcomber may be turning over in his grave, but it tasted pretty good.”
Curtis has likened Berry’s work to archaeology, calling him the “Indiana Jones of tiki drinks.” He has meticulously reconstructed an array of drinks, relying on interviews with bartenders’ relatives, a grasp of basic cocktailing principles and countless tasting sessions to point him toward his holy flaming drink bowl.
“Last night I tried about 12 different things,” said Berry, who lately has been fooling around with the flavors of chai. He long ago quit trying to make mini-drinks, since “if you do the math, and do a quarter version, you’re not going to get a proper chill. The rocks won’t melt the same way.”
Berry’s work involves as much psychology as physical science: He often makes sense of cryptic cocktails by trying to understand the men who made them. Assaulted at the bar by deep-pocketed sophisticates yelping their orders for elaborate umbrella-garnished drinks, the great bartenders of tiki’s golden era probably didn’t waste time carefully measuring out half-jiggers and two-thirds of a cup. “Chances are, you’re not going to use odd measures,” he said.
Getting into the heads of tiki barmen is one thing: Getting at their patrons’ palates is quite another. It’s almost impossible to know what Americans who had never eaten pizza or chorizo or lemongrass considered delicious. While writing Sippin’, Berry frequently recruited Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail, to serve as a final taster because he guessed his obsession with all things 1930s might have influenced his taste buds.
“It’s shocking when it doesn’t taste good,” Berry said, remembering his disappointment when a Don the Beachcomber recipe fell flat. “For me, finding a Don the Beachcomber recipe was the ultimate. So to taste it and have it suck … . The question is why does it suck? And the answer is, in 1934, it didn’t suck. It was a new taste sensation. He was starting at ground zero and inventing these things.”
Re-inventing Donn’s drinks is made considerably harder because certain rums have vanished from the American scene, and other rums are no longer being made at all, Berry said. When Donn was at the bar, Puerto Rican rum was still a lively, vibrant thing: Light rums designed to compete with vodka now dominate the export market. “Donn was very specific about the rums to use,” Berry said. “The biggest problem is I can’t find those rums anymore.”
Berry’s reverence for ingredients echoes the attitudes of the earliest tiki practioners, who made an art of splashing their elixirs with various syrups and essences and constantly stressed the need for freshly squeezed juice. Curtis quotes David Embury, whose bartending guide was published in 1948: “It should scarcely be necessary to caution you never, never, NEVER to use unsweetened canned juices.”
Sixty years later, Berry is giving the guys over at the Yacht Club similar advice. He isn’t quite as puritanical as Embury—he thinks premade pineapple and grapefruit juices are completely acceptable—but he won’t budge on limes. Berry left Hollywood partly because he was tired of seeing art bow to commerce, and it pains him to see cocktailing follow a similar story line. He hates seeing modern bars spoil yesterday’s “rum rhapsodies” with synthesized additives that undercut the art of tiki.
“Use recipes that don’t call for citrus, so you’re not using any artificial crap,” Berry pleads.
McKelvy nods, but he’s clearly not planning to adjust his bar menu. “I thought I’d have some drinks made from vodka, because some people have to go to work in the morning,” he offers.
Berry’s still talking about limes: “Like a Painkiller. A Painkiller is a fabulous drink, whereas if you feature a drink that should have fresh lime and it doesn’t, they’re going to go somewhere else. You can convert people the first time.”
“Hear that, JT?” McElvy calls to his partner, who’s fussing with a bar fixture. “You gotta get them the first time out, mother man.”
Turning back to Berry, McElvy grins: “It’s just so special having you here. This is really a wonderful thing.”
The Asheville Yacht Club is located at 87 Patton Ave. in downtown Asheville. The bar and restaurant are open seven days a week, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Phone: (828) 255-TIKI.