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The concept of tiki sprang from the cocktail shakers of two men: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, aka Don the Beachcomber, and Victor Trader Vic Bergeron. It reached its apogee in the 1960s when tiki restaurants proliferated around the country, and patrons could dine under bamboo-thatched roofs, watch exotic Polynesian-themed dances, and sip on rum cocktails made from secret recipes.
The movement lost steam in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, many tiki restaurants had closed. The man to thank for tiki’s renaissance is Jeff Beachbum Berry. Berry is not one to toot his own conch shell, as he says, but Jeff literally wrote the blog on tiki by tracking down and saving many original tiki recipes that would have otherwise been lost to time. Back in the 1980s, when no one cared about tiki except Berry and a few other diehard fans, he hunted down former bartenders and spent hours wheedling these old-timers to share private noteblogs with proprietary recipes. Sometimes, it took years for Berry to find the original recipe for a drink. After publishing several definitive volumes, Berry’s next step was to put it all into practice and open a bar. New Orleans was the perfect place to do so, not only because of our strong drinking culture, but because Don the Beachcomber was from here.
The tiki-focused bar at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 with its sculptural rum map
Latitude 29 (the latitude of New Orleans) is a tiki lover’s delight. Tucked in the narrow space of the Hotel Bienville, the bar is packed with tiki decor that is too well crafted to be just kitsch. Hand-carved tiki statues created especially for the restaurant welcome drinkers. Behind the bar is a Map of Tiki, with statues dotting the myriad islands that contributed to the movement’s creation. Go ahead and start your journey. If you’ve never had a well-made tiki drink, you may be surprised at its complexity. This is not the jungle juice you drank at that unfortunate spring break party. Try the traditional Mai Tai or Nui Nui or a house creation like its namesake, the Latitude 29, or the Pontchartrain Pearl Diver. Skip the cloying disappointment of a Pat O’Brien’s hurricane and try one at Latitude (one half of the Hurricane Two-Step, completed at Tiki Tolteca down the block). If you are a rum fan, you will love drinking your way down their highly curated rum list, which is organized by flavor profile. Latitude’s kitchen offers modern twists on the Polynesian fare of the 1950s, and the homemade taro chips are a perfect accompaniment to the drinks. Jeff explains, A classic preProhibition cocktail usually maxes out at three ingredients. It’s like a song, while a classic tiki drink is more like a symphony, a polyphonic composition balancing up to fourteen different ingredients. I think that complexity is what’s attracting today’s mixologists to the genre it’s a way to stretch themselves, to flex their muscles. Make sure to spend some time at Latitude 29 and enjoy its symphonic delights.