Should Don’s Mix Not Be a Mix At All?

In tiki's heyday, the recipes for proprietary syrups were fiercely guarded, including that for Donn Beach's "Don's Mix." Now that the once-elusive mix of grapefruit and cinnamon is no longer a secret, Carey Jones asks today's tiki bartenders how they make and use it.

Don's Mix Tiki Syrup

In mid-century America, tiki bars were ubiquitous, their drinks beloved and instantly recognizable for their rums and juices, whimsical mugs and outlandish garnishes. But the recipes for these cocktails were famously shrouded in secrecy. In such a profitable corner of the industry, bar operators feared that rivals would steal their recipes, or that their own bartenders might abscond with signature tiki knowledge.

No cocktail illustrates this quite like the Zombie, invented by Donn Beach, the founding father of the tiki movement and creator of its long-secret ingredient, “Don’s Mix.” The drink was so popular in mid-century America that it was a trendy order in non-tiki bars as well. Those establishments, however, were left guessing the drink’s formula.

“If a recipe was in print, it was a crappy contemporary knock-off, the product of guesswork or hackwork,” says preeminent tiki scholar Jeff “Beachbum” Berry—author of six tiki books and owner of Latitude 29 in New Orleans. After tracking down the descendants of tiki bartenders, some of whom had held onto their parent’s notebooks of scribbled-down recipes, Berry unearthed an original recipe for the Zombie. But that opened a new puzzle: It called for half an ounce of “Don’s Mix,” without explaining what the ingredient was.

“The people he hired to tend bar knew only that a recipe called for a half-ounce of ‘Spices #4’ or a dash of ’Syrup #2’—that’s how the bottles were labeled,” according to Berry. When he finally found a recipe for Don’s Mix in a former bartender’s notebook, the recipe called for two parts grapefruit juice to one part… “Spices #4.”

Further into the labyrinth he went. The son of another Beachcomber bartender was able tell Berry where the syrups were made, but not their composition. “He would go to the Astra Company out in Inglewood to pick up #2 and #4 … A chemist would open a safe, take out the ingredients and twirl some knobs in a big mixing machine,” Berry says. Months later, he met a veteran tiki bartender who remembered “Spices #4” as a cinnamon syrup.

At long last, Berry had sleuthed the original Don’s Mix: one part cinnamon syrup, two parts grapefruit juice. A simple enough concoction, given the layers of encryption evolved. Yet its legacy has persisted; grapefruit and cinnamon continue to figure prominently in the tiki world, and in the tiki-inspired creations of modern cocktail bartenders.

But in the current cocktail era, is there any reason to keep Don’s Mix alive, rather than just reaching for the ingredients on their own? On this, tiki bartenders disagree. “Not really,” says Berry; even at his own bar, grapefruit and cinnamon are used as separate elements. St. John Frizell, whose Brooklyn bar Fort Defiance hosts weekly tiki nights wherein the bar turns into the “Sunken Harbor Club,” concurs. “Grapefruit and cinnamon syrup gain nothing from being combined in one bottle,” he says. “When developing new tiki-esque drinks”—like Zac Overman’s Padang Swizzle, which he created at Fort Defiance—“we often reach for those flavors because they work well together.”

Martin Cate, proprietor of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, also agrees, but for a more practical reason: “Grapefruit is especially volatile and prone to degrading rapidly, so we don’t want the mixture to sit.” He also prefers the flexibility of keeping the ingredients independent. “We like to adjust the ratio based on the kind of grapefruits we’re getting seasonally,” he says. “About two months a year, we’re able to get white grapefruit, and the rest of the time we have pink; the pinks are a little sweeter, so we adjust as needed.” In the Donn Day Afternoon at Smuggler’s Cove, he plays on the combination without any fresh grapefruit at all—spiking grapefruit-flavored beer with cinnamon syrup.

But other bars do keep the Don’s Mix tradition alive. “Now that Jeff Berry has unlocked the secrets to classic tiki drinks, many bartenders are riffing on their own with fresh ingredients,” says Blair Reynolds of Portland tiki bar Hale Pele. Reynold’s devised his own Don’s Mix-inspired “Paradise Blend,” one of the cocktail syrups he sells under the BG Reynolds label, for which he incorporates both white and pink grapefruit along with the cinnamon syrup base.

“When grapefruit and cinnamon work together, particularly white grapefruit, it [somehow] creates a different taste altogether,” says Reynolds. “The best way I’ve heard it described as is ‘apple pie’—baking spice from the cinnamon, a mellow earthy sweetness from the grapefruit.”

Julian Cox, beverage director of Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, likes to play the cinnamon in Don’s Mix with other autumnal flavors, even in drinks outside the tiki realm. For Cox, part of the reason he keeps the mix together is out of reverence for Donn Beach’s legacy.

“We really use Don’s Mix as a tribute to his style and the birth of tiki,” says Cox. Bartenders may disagree as to whether combining grapefruit and cinnamon in a single cryptically labeled bottle may be a practice that’s outlived its usefulness. But as a piece of tiki history, it still manages to fascinate, even decades after its heyday.