Tiki takes Asheville

“Asheville needs a yacht club,” Billy McKelvy declares inside the newly opened Asheville Yacht Club downtown.

Photo By Jon Elliston

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.


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25 thoughts on “Tiki takes Asheville

  1. Nam Vet

    A tiki bar in Asheville? Seems more like a Florida thing to me. No go for me.

  2. C

    Enough about this Berry guy….
    Was a drink even ordered? It sounds like there was a lot of loitering going on, but no actual eating or drinking…

    How IS the food and how are the drinks?
    What is the price range?
    What hours/days are the place open?
    Is this place a chain?
    Are the owners local?

    Uh, help me out here, I just thought this article was about a restaurant.

  3. Jody

    The food is excellent-
    Have had several of the appetizers and entrees.
    The prices are too cheap, try the place before they have to go up a buck or two.
    Specialty drinks are priced according to the ingredients and labor, standard bar drinks are cheap.
    It is not a chain, the owners are local.

    I do know them, I do not want to overshoot my opinion so we’ll leave it at that…

  4. Billy Velvet

    All our food is hand made from scratch.Our Drinks are made with key lime juice which is absolutly not a sysco product.I thank the mountain express for the article.At the time, before opening the restraunt there was a bottle of sysco sour mix not lime juice that was on the bar as a return item.I’m sure they’re sorry for the mix up.We are here to support the local community and hospitality industry at reasonable and fair price with a soon to be late menu as well.Families are always welcome.We hand built the place with over 80 per-cent recycled material.We are currently the only true green restraunt in Asheville.If your looking for a truly great dining experience with an awsome atmosphere at reasonable prices then we’re the place for you.87 Patton Ave . Down town Asheville.

    It’s not about Florida.The Asheville Yacht Club is just a light hearted play on words we are locally owned and operated, for you, the community..

    Much love and respect to all,

    Bill McKelvy Asheville Yacht Club

  5. Billy

    The Hours are 4 pm to 2am in the morning.Spring,summer and fall hours are 11 am to 2 am we are open for lunch and dinner.

    Bill McKelvy

  6. Jon Elliston

    Thanks, Bill, for the clarifications and the additional information.

    On a personal note, thanks for having tater tots on your menu. In my book, that’s a most welcome addition to downtown dining.

    Jon Elliston

  7. Concerned Reader

    I think it is a disservice to your publication to continue to employ Ms. Raskin. I know more about Jeff Berry and his search to find authentic tiki recipes than I do about the food offerings of the restaurant she was reviewing. This was more a book review and plug for Berry than a quality article concerning the newest addition to Asheville’s oversaturated restaurant market. Knowing the chef, I was already inclined to visit this restaurant. I would not be so excited if my impression was based on Ms. Raskin’s review as the restaurant apparently left so small an impression upon her, she had to fill her article with biography about Mr. Berry instead.

  8. Jon Elliston

    Concerned reader:

    Thanks for the feedback, and I see your point — to a point. I think what Raskin set out to do was a) let readers know that there’s a new tiki bar in town; b) let readers know that there’s a new cocktail expert in town. And while you may have found the discussion of the restaurant too brief for your taste, I assure you that that discussion was brief for a reason: We have a policy of not doing an in-depth food review of a brand new restaurant. It’s not fair to the new eateries, which may or may not have found their sea legs yet. The article went to press, in fact, just a few days after the Yacht Club opened, so it seemed premature to review the food. It did not, however, seem to early to let people know about a fun new dining/drinking option in town, and to get to know Asheville’s new resident cocktail expert.

    I hope that addresses your concerns, and thanks again for reading and writing.

    Jon Elliston
    Managing Editor

  9. Jon Elliston

    And to clarify a bit more: When Raskin and Berry visited the Yacht Club, they had not done their full opening yet — so there wasn’t any food to report on yet.

    And I’d be remiss if I didn’t reply to the suggestion that “it is a disservice to [our] publication to continue to employ Ms. Raskin.” It’s actually a good service to both our publication and our readers: Raskin’s knowledge of the food scene is already formidable, and it’s getting stronger all the time. So we can all look forward to more good work from her in the Xpress food section.


    Jon Elliston
    Managing Editor

  10. Nam Vet

    illy, good job defending your new restaurant. On the basis of your comments I will give a visit!

  11. Billy

    No, not yet 16 hour work days have prevented us from doing so.Be rest assured, as soon as time will allow we’ll have a website.


  12. edtomfish

    Is this article about The Yacht Club or Jeff Berry? I guess I’ll chalk it up to yet another fluff piece by HRR. Good to see she has her editors sticking up for her these days at least.

    Went to the bar recently. Nice looking place, a lot of time and thought went into decor. I feel bad for the over-done bathroom, because while it looks great, it’s only bound to get trashed eventually (fact of life for bar bathrooms).

    Whoever pours the beers should probably ask an expert on how to pour the Guinness/and or adjust the gas. It’s not your everyday beer and Guinness drinkers know the difference.

    I’m not quite sure downtown needs yet another bar/restuarant but at least this one is pretty.

  13. Nam Vet

    There are a lot of good places to eat in Asheville. Some of my favorites: Tupelo Honey, Early Girl, Thai Basil, Bouchon, Table, Salsa’s, Bonefish, snacks and coffee at Old Europe, cookies from Sugar Momma, pizza at Mellow Mushroom, vegetarian at Rosetta’s, lunch special at Greenlife deli case. Many more I am sure. I’m not much into the Tiki tropical drink type place, as a rule, but I will try this place once.

  14. don

    Billy,You just hired my step son,, JIm,, he is incredible in the kitchen and a great person. He will definitely be an asset to your new venture. he is alot of fun.. can’t wait to visit and try the fare.

  15. Flaboy

    I like the decor and the atmosphere. The beers on tap are way to trendy and hippy for a tiki bar. A true tiki bar would at least have bud or the #1 beer in the world…..

  16. Liz Munster

    Much success to you Billy

    hope I can get away from Maine and stop in for a drinky poo and some apps
    Liz Munster-friend of your Uncle Billy’s and Aunt Jule

  17. Halley

    Ate there tonight. The drinks were good. We ordered 1/2lb peel and eat shrimp, and it was frozen shrimp on iceberg lettuce. The shrimps were tiny, slightly larger than the mini cocktail shirmp. The hot butter didn’t compliment the cold shrimp at all. Worst of all, it was 12 bucks, and there could not possibly have been half a pound of shrimp there. Also, kind of gooey and overcooked. Bummer, dude. Why not use fresh, local shrimp? It’s much more green! (and yummy).

  18. Halley

    By local, I mean NC… the menu says theirs comes from the gulf coast.

  19. Steve

    There are only a few vegetarian items on the menu; nachos (leave off the meat), veggie quesadilla, black beans and rice, and veggie skewers, but I’ve had them all and every one of them is really good. And if you add a side of their habanero sauce (they call it Tiki Torcher Sauce) you just can’t do better. That and the Pilsner Urquel on tap make it #1 in my book. And I’ve heard nothing but good about other menu items as well. A toast to Tears and Beers!

    Oh, I forgot about the “Pitcher of Tots”. Tater Tots served in a pitcher. A novelty item to be sure and great with beer.

    Keep up the good work Billy!

  20. Toni

    Miami girl needed a Big M fix!!!
    Bless You!
    I would like to donate (as in paint them for free) a couple of hand painted palm fronds. Sitting in the booth I was looking at the walls and thought… Palm fronds hanging down from under the tin roof!!! Yeah! If you like the idea let me know and I will e-mail you some photo’s so you can see if you like them.
    Looking forward to trying the meat patties and Red Stripe next!

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