Cocktails

Let’s Talk About Ernest Beaumont Gantt

May 28, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Art: Nick Hensley

Cocktails

Let’s Talk About Ernest Beaumont Gantt

May 28, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Art: Nick Hensley

Better known as Don the Beachcomber, the godfather of tiki contributed more to cocktail culture than just tropical escapism.

Mention “tiki” and his is the first name to be brought up. He fabricated his own beachcomber persona, complete with pith hat, safari suits and floral leis; he hollowed out pineapples and coconuts in which to serve his rhum rhapsodies, the high-octane tropical cocktails we now call tiki drinks; and he gave rise to the fantasy bar, a space where drinkers could temporarily escape their reality for the fictionalized world of a far-off land. Unlike so much of cocktail history, which remains murky and disputed, the genesis of the tiki craze can be pinpointed precisely to 1934, when Ernest Beaumont Gantt opened the doors to Don’s Beachcomber Cafe on North McCadden Place in Los Angeles.

Stepping through the bamboo and rattan gate into the 24-seat bar revealed an atmosphere unlike anything that had come before. Souvenirs from Gantt’s travels throughout the Caribbean and South Pacific adorned the thatch-roofed interior, while elaborate drinks festooned with tropical garnishes emerged from out of sight. Gantt even legally changed his name to Donn Beach, assuming a fabricated persona to match the fantasy world he had created. Precisely because this world was so different from the clandestine speakeasies that preceded it, it’s often for the eye-catching nature of his drinks and his unique brand of showmanship that Gantt is remembered. Less is said, however, about what lies beneath the tiki trappings—the substance behind the style.

When contemporary bartenders began resuscitating cocktails in the 1990s, they were heralded for ushering drinks—and drinkers—out of the so-called dark ages. ’Tinis became genuine Martinis, fresh ingredients took pride of place, and bartending transformed from simply a way to make ends meet into a career to be pursued like any other. According to just about everyone, we were (and still are) experiencing a second golden age of cocktails, the likes of which had not been seen since the years preceding Prohibition. But just shy of six decades prior to the latest renaissance, beneath the ice cones, mango leaves and mountains of crushed ice, the very techniques being celebrated as innovative today were being practiced by Gantt, the rightful herald of the cocktails’ second golden age.

“He doesn’t get enough credit,” says Erick Castro, partner at Polite Provisions and host of the podcast “Bartender at Large.” “He basically invented batching,” he says, referring to the practice of blending small-volume ingredients of a particular cocktail into a single bottle to save time. The technique, sometimes known as the “biz,” is often attributed to Julie Reiner and the team at Flatiron Lounge, a seminal New York bar that operated from 2003 to 2018. Back in the 1930s, however, Gantt was batching his own concoctions, which he called Don’s Mixes, Don’s Spices and Don’s Dashes, the most famous of which, Don’s Mix #2, a blend of cinnamon syrup and grapefruit juice, is a central ingredient in classic drinks like the Donga Punch, among others. Whenever these blends are discussed, however, it is almost always to illustrate Don the Beachcomber’s extreme secrecy. It’s true that they were created, in part, to keep his proprietary drinks a mystery not only to his customers, but to his own bartenders and would-be rivals. But it was also the first instance of a bartending technique now lauded for making complicated cocktails more efficient to serve.

The insistence on using fresh citrus in cocktails, another tenet of the modern craft cocktail revival, was likewise a signature characteristic of Gantt’s drinks. Drawing on the produce available to him in Southern California was part of what gave his drinks their distinctive brightness. He was, as Jeff “Beachbum” Berry observes in Sippin’ Safari, the first farm-to-glass bartender. 

By showcasing the bounty of his adopted home of California, Gantt was, in many ways, the godfather of the West Coast style of cocktail. Though the designation is increasingly difficult to define, in the early aughts it was applied to a distinctive style of bartending that was regionally focused, with an insistence on utilizing fresh, local produce and garden-picked garnishes. Yet there’s an unacknowledged through line between the early champions of this approach—Duggan McDonnell, Dave Nepove, Marco Dionysos, and even today’s practitioners like Shawn Lickliter at Republique and Christiaan Röllich at a.o.c.—and what Don the Beachcomber was doing several decades earlier in the same part of the country.

But perhaps his most influential contribution to cocktail culture is his use of multiples—multiple sweeteners, juices and, of course, spirits. Mixing different styles of rum from different countries of origin within a single cocktail was a hallmark of Gantt’s approach, and was unheard of before he put it into practice. Decades later, through the R&D process, numerous bartenders across the country landed on the same idea independently.

“I remember around 2008 and 2009, when Troy Sidle, Kyle Davidson and Stephen Cole were working at The Violet Hour, they would experiment with blending different ryes in a Sazerac to see which combination they liked best,” says Paul McGee, co-owner of Chicago’s tropical cocktail bar Lost Lake. “They didn’t realize they were channeling their inner Don the Beachcomber.”

In fact, only a handful of classic cocktail bartenders had likely even heard of Don the Beachcomber, much less been familiar with his cocktails. During his lifetime, Don’s recipes were closely guarded secrets. It wasn’t until 1998, when Berry published Grog Log—which included the Missionary’s Downfall, among others—that they appeared in print for the first time. (It would be several years before the precise makeup of his “mixes” could be deciphered, unlocking a host of his most coveted recipes, including the Zombie.) Both Berry’s Intoxica! (2002) and Gantt’s second ex-wife Phoebe Beach’s Don the Beachcomber’s Little Hawaiian Tropical Drink Book (2004) would follow, but a true revival was still years away.

“It wasn’t until Brian Miller was serving Don’s original Zombie recipe at Death & Co. around 2007 and Giuseppe González was serving Jungle Birds around 2010 that tiki became respected,” says McGee. Prior to that, tiki seemed to exist as a discrete entity, untethered from the larger cocktail movement, on a timeline independent from that of classic cocktails. By the time Gantt’s recipes entered the public consciousness by way of Berry and Phoebe Beach, bartenders were worshipping at the altar of Jerry Thomas, embracing arm garters, maraschino liqueur and the neo-speakeasy. Against this backdrop, the kitsch world of umbrella cocktails was easily dismissed as unserious.

When the craft cocktail movement finally warmed to tiki in the late aughts, the genre’s contributions, particularly the unsung innovations of Gantt—fresh and local fruit, split bases, multiple sweeteners and citrus—had already been absorbed and put back into practice, credited as achievements of the modern renaissance, rather than the revival of existing techniques. Like a magician, Gantt awed his guests with flash and flamboyance. But the glitz obscured the mechanics of the trick. The complexity of his rum blends lay hidden behind a sculptural mug, provocative name and exotic garnishes. It’s a sleight of hand so successful that we’ve all been led to believe we’re residing in the second golden age of cocktails, when in fact, we’re really living in the third.

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