The Story Behind The Pearl Diver
One of the few cocktails to have a glass named in its honor, the Pearl Diver is a classic tiki drink in the sense that it hosts an ensemble of rums and juices, but one of its ingredients — Don’s Gardenia Mix — dips its toe in the future. The spicy honey butter mixture adds a bounty of texture to an otherwise archetypal tiki cocktail, and even though the drink was invented in 1937, it feels more like a product of modern mixology than post-Prohibition cocktail culture.
When Donn Beach created this cocktail at his Don the Beachcomber Bar in Hollywood, Calif., it was called the Pearl Diver’s Punch. Legend has it that Beach would put a real pearl in one out of 10 Pearl Diver’s Punches he put out, leaving a prize for the lucky 10th customer. By the time he had opened up his Waikiki outpost 10 years later, the drink had gone through some recipe tweaks and was redubbed “the Pearl Diver.” Since Beach never publicly revealed his recipes, the drink’s spec — and signature glassware — got lost over the years. However, it was unearthed decades later when bartender and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry was gifted a 1948 recipe book written by Dick Santiago, a former Donn the Beachcomber bartender. In the handwritten book, there were a number of long-forgotten recipes of iconic tiki drinks, like the Zombie, the Coffee Grog, and the Pearl Diver. Berry would go on to publish these recipes in his 2007 book “Sippin’ Safari.”
For a while, the Pearl Diver glassware was nothing more than a memory living on through illustrations on vintage tiki bar menus. It fell out of production during the ‘70s, presumably when the Tiki-Ti — a Los Angeles tiki bar founded in 1961 — stopped using them due to staggering accounts of breakage and customer theft. But in 2014, Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom polled a group of bartenders and asked if there was any tiki glassware that needed reviving, and Bum sent scans of old Pearl Diver illustrations. A year later, it became available for sale.
The cocktail itself is essentially a tropical cold buttered rum, and it’s not a particularly easy one to master. The biggest hurdle is getting the consistency of the Gardenia Mix right (recipe below). Make sure to keep it over low heat so as not to burn the butter, and keep it at room temperature. Otherwise, it won’t blend properly, and chunks of butter will end up in the pour. But don’t let that be a deterrent, as the fruits of that labor are well worth the trial and error. Some modernized versions of the Pearl Diver incorporate Angostura bitters and dial down the rum, but we went with the original, pulled from Santiago’s 1948 recipe book. Put on your wetsuit and dive in.
Don’s Gardenia Mix Ingredients
- 1 ounce unsalted butter
- 1 ounce orange blossom honey
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon syrup
- ½ teaspoon allspice dram
- ½ teaspoon vanilla syrup
Don’s Gardenia Mix Directions
- Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over low heat.
- Whisk until melted and smooth.
- Let cool to room temperature before using.