Before becoming a full-fledged tiki anthropologist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry spent 10 years as a script doctor for film and television. This Hollywood gig ropes in writers with a knack for zhuzhing up existing screenplays without razing the existing work.
“I wanted to put as few of my own fingerprints on the piece as possible,” says Berry, whose uncredited touch benefitted a number of ‘90s movies, including “George of the Jungle,” “Inspector Gadget” and “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion.” He adds, “I’m not the guy or girl who originated it. I just want to enhance it.”
This tactful, polish-rag approach has served Berry well in his current vocations, as an author uncovering esoteric tiki ephemera and as the owner of the French Quarter’s Latitude 29, where many of these cocktails are served and celebrated. “It’s the same way I go about adapting other people’s drinks,” says Berry. “I’m not interested in making it my own—but I will add a little something to set it over the edge.”
As one of the tiki world’s preeminent scholars, Berry’s archives brim with long-forgotten recipes worthy of revival. But there’s one in particular that’s a natural candidate for his brand of subtle modern-day remake: The Best Year, a disco-age blender drink created by influential bartender Valerio “Bobby” Batugo.
Though Berry never met Batugo, who died in 1996, the writer has long been familiar with the Filipino immigrant and his outsized influence on Southern California cocktail culture. A boxer who left the Philippines for California in the late 1920s, Batugo began his bar career in speakeasies during Prohibition, later building a following at celebrity haunts like Sardi’s and the Key Club inside Cafe La Maze. But it was his tenure at Tip’s, a restaurant in Valencia, California, just off the I-5 Freeway, that provided Batugo the most creative freedom.
More Howard Johnson than Hollywood haunt—”it looked a little like a Denny’s, with a bar alongside it,” says Berry—Tip’s employed Batugo for decades, a span that saw him fill several trophy shelves with cocktail competition awards, including multiple United States Bartenders Guild mix-off titles. The Best Year—an unlikely mixture of Licor 43, blue Curaçao, vodka, canned pineapple juice and Rose’s lime juice, blended with crushed ice—earned Batugo that honor in 1975.
Though The Best Year was invented during the 1970s, a drink-making era that Berry describes as “the Dark Ages,” he always felt like it had potential. The inclusion of the vanilla-forward Spanish liqueur Licor 43—nearly unheard-of in tiki recipes of any era—helped it stand out, lending it a “pleasant, smooth and balanced” flavor that’s at odds with the sickly-sweet profile commonly associated with drinks of the decade.
Still, Berry thought a few minor tweaks to Batugo’s original specs could make The Best Year more appealing to modern drinkers. The most obvious upgrades come in the form of fresh pineapple juice, in lieu of canned, and a homemade lime cordial in place of the bottled stuff. “It’s not a drink I could serve in my bar the way Bobby Batugo wrote it,” says Berry. “You’d be run out of town on a rail if you used Rose’s lime juice.” He also decided to cut the spirit base with a scant measure of aquavit, introducing an undercurrent of caraway that helps dry things out. “‘I’ve been using it as a secret weapon for some time, just to add more spicy layers,” he says. “Every time I see a vodka drink, I think, ‘Will this work with aquavit?’”
With little else changed, Berry’s update pays tribute to the oft-overlooked recipe. But on a more fundamental level, The Best Year just tastes good, too. “If I was in Valencia in the summer and it was hot out,” says the California native, “I would order more than one.”