For the majority of tiki’s nearly centurylong existence, the precise makeup of Don’s Mix—a central ingredient in Don the Beachcomber’s Donga Punch, and, crucially, his Zombie, the most storied drink in the history of the genre—remained a mystery. Over the years, the recipes for this and other closely guarded trade secrets were decoded through a series of hard-won breakthroughs by tiki scholar and bar owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. Now, bartender Garret Richard has made another breakthrough.
“I always felt like there was just some information missing,” said Richard, who has spent much of his bartending career immersed equally in the worlds of technique-driven drink-making (Booker and Dax, Existing Conditions) and tiki classics (he’s the author of Tropical Standard and the founder of the former tiki popup Exotica). “I thought it was sort of a flawed ingredient,” he says of Don’s Mix, which has traditionally been made by combining two parts grapefruit juice with one part cinnamon syrup. “Those two things go bad faster together,” he explains.
Richard, now the chief cocktail officer at Brooklyn’s Sunken Harbor Club, believes he’s stumbled on not only a better Don’s Mix, but perhaps a more period-correct version, too. Inspired by the techniques outlined by Darcy O’Neil, a chemist and drink-maker and the author of Fix the Pumps, a history of America’s soda fountains, Richard applies the same flavoring techniques used at soda fountains to create what he’s calling Antica Don’s Mix. “Don had referenced soda fountain stuff a lot. It was clear that he was working with people that were making syrups,” says Richard. “My thought was: What if he just approached this ingredient the same way a soda fountain [drink-]maker would make a syrup?”
This meant flavoring simple syrups with essences (essential oils cut with alcohol), extracts (spices rested in high-proof spirits and then strained off) and acid powders. In his recipe, Richard combines grapefruit essence and cinnamon extract—in the same 2:1 ratio decoded by Berry—in simple syrup along with a touch of citric acid. The result is a flavor-packed product, with all the brightness of its fresh juice counterpart in a more shelf-stable package. “The amazing thing about it is how focused the flavors are, how juicy it is, even though there’s no fresh juice in it,” says Richard, who notes that the balance of cinnamon and grapefruit is distinct, and the syrup still possesses the requisite pink color. “I made it probably two months ago and it’s still super, super crisp.”
It’s not the first time Richard has set out to improve upon the Don’s Mix formula. In his book, Richard includes a recipe for Don’s Remix, a modern approach to the syrup using a cordial technique learned from Existing Conditions co-owners Don Lee and Dave Arnold. It requires clarifying grapefruit juice to make it more shelf-stable and using that clarified juice as the water component in a cinnamon syrup. The resulting product brought Don’s Mix closer to the efficient, shelf-stable ingredient he believes Donn Beach would’ve used. But, using a Spinzall was certainly not in Beach’s repertoire. For Richard, the techniques he’s learned from O’Neil are the missing link. “At first, I did a high-tech version of it,” he explains, “but the older technology might be even better.”