The Story Behind The Don’s Mix

Legendary bartender Don the Beachcomber had many secret ingredients in his repertoire, but few are as famous and versatile as his eponymous Don’s Mix. Similar to how orgeat and falernum function in countless tropical drinks, Don’s Mix lends itself to the iconic spicy-sweet profile of classics like the Donga Punch and the original Zombie recipe from the ‘30s (though many later Zombie iterations don’t include it). And while it’s a surprisingly simple blend of white grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup, it took decades before drink historians and bartenders finally cracked the code to find out exactly what was in it.

If Don the Beachcomber can be considered the godfather of tiki, think of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry as the Indiana Jones of the genre, given that much of his work has gone into decoding cryptic recipes that Don took with him to the grave. In Berry’s seminal 2007 book “Sippin’ Safari,” there are a number of pages cataloging Berry’s search for the truth behind Don’s Mix and Don’s Dashes (labeled 1–9). Berry got his first set of clues when he received a letter from Jennifer Santiago of Richmond, Va., telling him that her late father had worked for Don for 15 years after he was hired as a bartender in 1937. Santiago offered to send Berry a copy of her father’s notebook of Don the Beachcomber recipes, and, of course, he jumped on the opportunity. Once received, Berry stumbled upon the original 1930s recipe for the “Zombie Punch” — the drink that kickstarted tiki culture as we know it.

When Berry discovered the original Zombie recipe, he was dumbfounded by a mysterious ingredient: half an ounce of “Don’s Mix.” On the very last page of the notebook was a slightly helpful, but equally cryptic, recipe for “New Don’s Mix,” calling for two parts grapefruit juice and one part “Spices #4” — the last piece of the puzzle. Thus ensued Berry’s quest to find the formula for the secret spice. After consulting with a few veteran bartenders, he learned that the Astra Company in Inglewood, Calif., was where Don sent his workers to pick up certain ingredients — packaged in bottles simply labeled by number. Alas, the owner of the Astra Company, John Lancaster, had died in the ‘60s, and the business was long gone. Another year went by, and then Berry met bartender Bob Esmino who was familiar with the Astra Company’s offerings, including Spices #4. “It was a cinnamon syrup,” he told Berry. At last, Berry had found the missing link, and was finally able to recreate the original Zombie Punch.

When making your first batch of homemade Don’s Mix, we suggest trying it out in a Zombie to get acquainted with the blend’s profile and application in cocktails, but don’t shy away from incorporating it into your own creations as well. Don’s Mix pairs well with almost any rum, and provides a great jumping-off point for building a tropical modern classic. When sourcing citrus, make sure to use white grapefruits only. “You can get away with using commercial grapefruit juice, as long as it’s 100 percent juice, unsweetened. Just make sure it’s not ‘pink’ or ‘ruby red’ grapefruit juice, which is not only too sweet but will ruin the color of your drink,” Berry notes in “Sippin’ Safari.” He also warns that most commercially available cinnamon syrups are “too spicy to use in tropicals,” so check out the Berry-approved recipe below to make it from scratch.

Ingredients

  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups white grapefruit juice

Directions

  1. Crush the cinnamon sticks.
  2. Add cinnamon pieces, water, and sugar to a saucepan over high heat.
  3. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  4. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and let simmer for two minutes.
  5. Remove from heat, keep covered, and let cool for at least two hours.
  6. Strain the cinnamon-infused syrup into a jar (it should keep for about one month in the refrigerator).
  7. As needed, combine one part cinnamon syrup with two parts white grapefruit juice.

Rate This Recipe:

(23 votes)

Yield: 3 cups
Calories: 40 per ounce
Updated: 2024-05-06

Don’s Mix Recipe Video