Meet the Sage of Rum: Jeff Berry

During the 2019 Tales of the Cocktail I had the opportunity to sit down with and interview Jeff Berry, author of multiple Tiki history and cocktail books, as well as the owner of Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans. Why do I consider him a Sage of Rum?

Great question, glad you asked. Mr. Berry was literally the first through the door when it came to revitalizing and creating what we see as the modern Tiki and Rum cocktail landscape.

Back in the early days of Tiki, to keep competitors from stealing the cocktail recipes, owners would encode and split the recipes up in numbered and lettered bottles and even went so far as to split the cocktails creation among bar staff. In his quest to discover and recreate these cocktails, Jeff tracked down the old recipe books, deciphered the codes, and interviewed the bartenders of that age until he was successful in this endeavor.

This led to him writing Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log in 1998 and Intoxica in 2002. These were later merged into one book along with even more recipes in his 2012 Beachbum Berry Remixed. Which is my go-to Tiki cocktail book along with his 2007 tome Sippin’ Safari which was recently released in a 10th anniversary edition. In 2013 he released Potions of the Caribbean that contains over 70 cocktails that span five centuries and in my not so humble opinion on the subject is an excellent resource book with a lot of great stories.

Oh wait, you still want to know why he is a Sage of Rum? During all of this research Jeff Berry obtained the knowledge of what Rums were used and implemented in the recipes, and how Rums from multiple locales were used to create unique flavor experiences for the imbiber.

In other words he knows more than almost anyone on how to use antique and modern Rums to create the best Rum cocktail experiences and is one of the reasons I consider him one of the world’s top minds when it comes to truly understanding and being a Sage of Rum.

The setting: Jeff and I are sitting poolside at the Royal Sonesta hotel. Music is blaring and Tales of the Cocktails participants are relaxing in and around the pool taking a break from the indoor festivities.

I know your understanding of Rums comes from your investigation work and writing. Do you actually collect Rums?

Jeff: I do not collect Rums. Steve Remsberg has given me some extinct Rums. Jeff Isbister in Miami found me some old Hawaiian Rum that was amazing. I do not actively collect. I am more into Tikiabilia as opposed to Rum.

If there was extinct Rum that you could bring back, what would it be?

Jeff: That is a great question, and they are many. When I was researching cocktail recipes I would see abbreviations for higher proof Rums. 97 proof Punch Rums. Practically all the Jamaican Rums today are 80 proof and there is just too much water in them.

Part of that is tax reasons, the lower the proof the lower the tax. For me the more concentrated the Rum flavor the better the cocktail is going to be and 80 proof just does not do it.

We are living in interesting Rum times. What about the modern Rum world is exciting you?

Jeff: Rum being paid attention to and legitimized. When I was getting started it was the ugly red haired stepchild of the spirits industry. I am more of a Rum cocktail geek and the modern Rums are giving us a wider flavor profiles and give us more to work with when creating drinks.

What about the modern Rum world concerns you?

Jeff: Dealing with the multinational corporations that are strangling smaller Rum producers, and stifling innovation. I worry about the might of the big corporations protecting their market share and keeping the status quo.

Another thing that concerns me is the sustainability of the planet. If you care about Rum, you need to care about the planet, because without sugar cane there will be no Rum. Industrial pollution does more to hurt the planet than anything else and we need to find ways to turn things around. These are the kind of things that are on my mind when I go to bed at night and get up in the morning.

Looking for any old Rums?

Jeff: The list would have been longer list five years ago but Ed Hamilton is releasing a 151 product so I do not have to chase that, he has the new White Stache Rum that is also good. I am always on the hunt for the higher proof Jamaican punch Rums.

Do you have any go to books that you reference?

Jeff: Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan, helps refresh me and be a better host and owner. I dip in to Wayne Curtis “And a Bottle of Rum” and Dave Wondrich “Punch”. I dip into those quite a bit.

Any last words for the readers?

Jeff: The best sipping and most creative expressions and blends of Rums are not necessarily the best cocktail Rums. You need cocktail Rums to be woodier, piratey, and rough around the edges.

*Interview edited for brevity

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