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Mastering the Pearl Diver With Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

In “Masters of Tiki,” we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry on resurrecting the Don the Beachcomber original, the Pearl Diver.

Few can claim mastery of the Pearl Diver quite like author and tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. After all, when he embarked on his decade-long quest to resurrect the Don the Beachcomber original, the drink’s very existence, let alone the recipe, was known only to a small handful of collectors.

“It wasn’t on anyone’s radar at all,” explains Berry of the drink, an unusual blend of citrus, rum and spiced butter syrup, famously served in a distinctive ribbed glass that now bears the same name. It was the glass, in fact, that initially drew Berry in. A self-proclaimed “thrift store junkie,” he first encountered it on an illustrated Don the Beachcomber menu he chanced upon at a yard sale nearly 30 years ago. Realizing he’d never seen the glass “in the wild” (nor online even with the advent of eBay), Berry became intent on uncovering the mystery behind the drink that it held.

But the years to come would present a series of challenges and false starts. “All the Don the Beachcomber recipes were very valuable trade secrets that nobody ever published, including Donn [Beach],” says Berry, who had made countless encounters with Beachcomber diaspora across Los Angeles throughout the ‘90s. He’d managed to track down Ray Buhen, an original Don the Beachcomber bartender and founder of the iconic Tiki Ti, but it offered little headway. “Nobody would tell me anything” remembers Berry. “They still kept those secrets close to their chest.”

His lucky break came in the form of a handwritten recipe taken from a notebook belonging to Dick Santiago, an original Beachcomber Maitre d’. Written in code, a measure taken to prevent employees from pilfering the prized recipes during the initial tiki craze, the notebook had been gifted to Berry by Santiago’s daughter, Jennifer, after her father’s death. “It took a solid two years from the time I got the recipe to decode it,” recalls Berry. (He also used the book to decode other original formulas from the Zombie to the Nui Nui, in addition to the Pearl Diver.)

While much of the recipe was relatively straightforward—Puerto Rican rum, Jamaican rum, Demerara 96-proof rum (no longer in production), plus both orange and lime juices and falernum—there was one component that stumped Berry for years: “It said ‘three-quarters ounce mix’” says Berry, who asked himself, “What the hell is that?”

Mastering the Pearl Diver

Through additional research, Berry came to understand that the mix in question contained some combination of honey, butter and two proprietary components known simply as #2 and #4. But it would take a conversation with Bob Esmino, a veteran tiki bartender, to learn that #4 was actually cinnamon syrup and #2 was something akin to spiced rum.

With that information, Berry finally set about trying to recreate the cocktail. “I bought a whole bunch of spiced rums to try and reverse engineer the flavor profile,” recalls Berry. After a number of trials, he ultimately settled on a mix of honey, butter, cinnamon and vanilla syrups and allspice dram, yielding a sweetened compound butter, now better known as Don’s Gardenia Mix.

But there was still a problem: Berry had to figure out how to incorporate the semi-solid “mix” into the cocktail. “You can’t shake the drink,” explains Berry. “It’s not going to dissolve… it’s not going to permeate the drink, so obviously it was a blender drink.” After eight or nine tries, each using different amounts of crushed ice, Berry settled on a final measure of three-quarters of a cup, which offered enough ice to break up the mix without over diluting the drink.

After straining the cocktail through a medium mesh kitchen strainer, rather than a fine mesh bar strainer (to ensure a “velvety mouthfeel”), Berry, in 2006, was finally able to taste a genuine Pearl Diver—or, as close as anyone had gotten to the recipe since tiki’s midcentury heyday. “I feel some sense of ownership of this drink just because it took me many, many years to get right,” he says.

When Cocktail Kingdom began manufacturing a commercial version of that long lost Pearl Diver glass in 2014, just in time for the opening of Berry’s bar, Latitude 29, it was simply the cherry on top. Or, as he puts it, “the orchid on top.”

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