Tiki cocktails are usually thought as complicated drinks with a lot hard-to-find exotic ingredients, various syrups, and esoteric rum mixes. While this is often true, many of them have a more accessible structure. Take Trader Vic’s Mai Tai for example, his signature drink created in 1944 and composed of six ingredients: aged Jamaican and agricole rums, lime juice, simple syrup, curaçao and orgeat. At the core it’s a daiquiri variation (rum | lime juice | simple syrup), with orgeat and curaçao added as modifiers.
It’s fascinating to see how Don the Beachcomber comes up with something completely different based on a similar structure. When I think of Don the Beachcomber I immediately think of his characteristic use of spice syrups. In his Donga Punch (1937), another Daiquiri variation, he uses lime and grapefruit juice for the citrus, similar to a Hemingway Daiquiri (~1935). This time, though, the sweetening agent, which also acts as a modifier, is the highly aromatic cinnamon syrup, an ingredient that we immediately associate with tiki drinks.
When most tiki cocktails call for a combination of at least two rums to add complexity and layer flavors, this one relies on a single rum, although it’s an exceptionally flavorful one – an aged rhum agricole. Much tamer than a white agricole, aged agricole retains some of the funk that makes the charm of these rums. I love to use Saint James Hors d’Age in this composition. I find that it does not perform very well in a Mai Tai; however it really shines in the Donga Punch. The result is a drink that is much more interesting or subtle than what it looks like on paper.
The Donga Punch features one of Don’s signature combinations, a 2:1 grapefruit and cinnamon syrup mixture that is known as Don’s Mix. Other cocktails use this ingredient that used to be written in code in recipe books in an attempt to keep it a secret; the most notable is the 1934 Zombie Punch.
The Donga Punch is very similar to a modern creation by Jeff Berry, The Ancient Mariner (1994). This time a rum mix is used (aged Jamaican and Demerara) and the cinnamon syrup is replaced by allspice dram (aka pimento dram). Allspice is more clove-forward but has a lot in common with cinnamon due to its eugenol content. Cinnamon and allspice serve the same function by adding spice and a bass note to the drink.
The Ancient Mariner | 1 oz Demerara rum | 1 oz dark Jamaican rum | 3/4 oz lime juice | 1/2 oz grapefruit juice | 1/2 oz simple syrup | 1/4 oz allspice dram | shake with crushed ice | pour into glass | top with crushed ice | garnish with mint and lemon wedge
The Ancient Mariner was invented by Jeff Berry while trying to recreate another classic, Trader Vic’s Navy Grog, itself inspired by Don the Beachcomber’s Navy Grog (~1941). [Have I lost you yet? Keep reading, between the tiki trivia there are more tasty concoctions coming.] Curiously, the cocktail indirectly responsible for the creation of the Ancient Mariner does not use allspice (or cinnamon) but honey syrup as the modifier and sweetening agent. Although it’s a fine drink, it is not the most memorable or distinctive due to the lack of spice.
Don the Beachcomber’s Navy Grog | 1 oz Demerara rum | 1 oz dark Jamaican rum | | 1 oz light Puerto Rican rum | | 3/4 oz lime juice | 3/4 oz grapefruit juice |1 oz honey syrup | shake with ice | strain into glass | top with 3/4 oz soda water
[Shown with ice cubes but traditionally served with an ice cone]
To wrap things up, the Montego Bay by Don the Beachcomber (~1940) continues to play with this theme with grapefruit juice and allspice dram in a 2:1 ratio. Like the Donga Punch, there is only one rum in the mix – this time, an aged Jamaican rum – but there are plenty of additional modifiers that hit all the right notes: honey syrup, Angostura, and Pernod. Once you have figured out the basic structure of these drinks, variations on this theme can be an almost endless source of inspiration.
Montego Bay | 1 1/2 oz dark Jamaican rum | 1/2 oz lime juice | 1/2 oz grapefruit juice | 1/2 oz honey mix | 1/4 tsp allspice dram | 1 dash Angostura bitters | 6 drops Pernod | shake with crushed ice | pour into glass | top with crushed ice