Gardenia Mix was one of the many inspired creations of Donn Beach, whose Don the Beachcomber bars helped fuel a decades-long craze for the faux Polynesiana that came to define tiki. An essential ingredient of the Pearl Diver cocktail, Gardenia Mix is an unusual amalgam, consisting of honey, butter and spiced syrups. And it flirted with obsolescence, due to the secrecy Beach (born Ernest Gantt) maintained around his recipes; in his lifetime he never published a cocktail book, and the bartenders who worked for him learned the builds of his original drinks in code. Only he and his most trusted deputies fully knew their ingredients.
Year of the Rat
In terms of maintaining market share during the initial tiki craze “this worked really well,” says tiki historian and bar owner, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. But it also threatened to undermine his legacy as a talented mixologist and a major contributor to the greater cocktail pantheon. When Beach passed away, in 1989 at age 81, “His recipes died with him,” Berry says.
Thanks in large part to Berry’s research over the past few decades—documented in such books as Sippin’ Safari (2007) and Potions of the Caribbean (2013)—a lot of Beach’s best work has been brought to light, despite his obfuscation.
It was in Sippin’ Safari that Berry first published his best guess at the recipe for Gardenia Mix, which he calls “the most groundbreaking” and “complicated” of Beach’s original mixes (which includes the more popular Don’s Mix and Don’s Spices). Berry surmised that Gardenia Mix—which likely took its name from the Mystery Gardenia, another Beach drink that included it—was a blend of unsalted butter, honey, cinnamon syrup and vanilla-allspice syrup. (A Don the Beachcomber bartender simply knew the sweetening agents as bottles labeled No. 4 and No. 2, Berry says.) The Pearl Diver, the most celebrated drink to feature Gardenia Mix, was essentially Beach’s iced take on the Hot Buttered Rum. “The mouthfeel on that drink,” says Berry, “is just unbelievable.”
Yet despite Gardenia Mix’s unmasking, it remains a precious sight—almost surely due to how intractable it can be. Ft. Lauderdale’s 60-year-old tiki mecca, Mai-Kai, is the rare venue that’s kept Gardenia Mix from extinction; since its opening—in 1956, under the aegis of former Don the Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine—the bar has offered a Pearl Diver riff, called the Deep Sea Diver. “When made right, [Gardenia Mix] has a consistency of a thick maple syrup, and keeping it cold makes it even thicker,” says Kern Mattei, Mai-Kai’s current bar manager. Berry, meanwhile, cautions that Gardenia Mix can easily gum up in a blender, and lovingly calls the stuff “a pain in the ass.”
Still, a small number of bars of more recent coinage have been charmed, developing their own house Gardenia Mixes and employing them in new drinks. At Berry’s own Latitude 29, in New Orleans, they serve the passionfruit-laced Pontchartrain Pearl Diver, made with his interpretation of Gardenia Mix. At Detroit’s Sugar House, bartender Alex Kirles crafted an adapted Gardenia Mix (including half-and-half, black pepper and corn syrup) for the Year of the Rat, a cocktail Kirles describes as in between a Pearl Diver and a Zombie. (Kirles also cites hot applications for Gardenia Mix, like the Tom and Jerry.) The bar at New York’s NoMad hotel has also embraced Gardenia Mix; bar manager Pietro Collina says he uses their version (which consists of honey, butter, cinnamon and vanilla syrups and allspice dram) in his Dos Gardenias cocktail, a “wintertime Sherry Cobbler.” He also likes Gardenia Mix paired with bourbon (“think, buttered popcorn”).
Whatever you do, just remember to hold on tight. “If you don’t properly clean your tools after making a drink [with Gardenia Mix], the butter will leave a oily residue on your tins and create havoc during service,” says Collina. “There is nothing more entertaining, and frightening, than seeing a tin flying out of a bartender’s hand, into a crowd of people because it wasn’t cleaned properly.”