Masters of Mixology: Don the Beachcomber

Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, born 1907, was raised in New Orleans and grew up to become a restless world traveler. The tradewinds fetched him to Los Angeles just as Prohibition was drawing to an end, and in 1934, he rented a tiny 25-seat bar. He decorated it economically with the flotsam he’d gathered in the South Pacific, along with driftwood and fishing floats washed up on California beaches.

Gantt stocked his bar with inexpensive West Indies rums, which were available in absurd abundance after Repeal, and invented an array of faux-tropical drinks, using fruit juices and unfamiliar liqueurs. His philosophy was simple: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

He called the place Don the Beachcomber’s. And with that, Gantt—who legally renamed himself Donn Beach—started the tiki-cocktail trend that has, remarkably, survived eight decades.

Beach soon inspired Victor Bergeron, who launched Trader Vic’s in Oakland, which made tiki haute and, in turn, inspired hundreds of thatch-roofed imitators serving overly sweet umbrella concoctions.

But few tiki cocktails were as remarkable or complex as those initially created by Beach, including the Missionary’s Downfall and the feared and fearsome Zombie. Among his innovations, he recognized that a judicious blend of rums would add intrigue to an otherwise uncomplicated drink.

He eventually sold his bar and name to his ex-wife, who expanded it into a successful chain, and retreated to Hawaii, where he presided over a low-key restaurant that often featured musician Martin Denny and a myna bird trained to shout, “give me beer, stupid!” Beach spent the rest of his life in Honolulu and passed away in 1989 at the age of 81.

Beach and Bergeron were the Stanley and Livingstone of mid-century American tropical culture. But remember that it was Trader Vic who discovered Don the Beachcomber, the first explorer to arrive at the dark heart of tiki.

So hoist a Zombie tonight, and join me in toasting him.

Zombie

Contributed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

INGREDIENTS:

  • .75 oz Fresh lime juice
  • 1 oz White grapefruit juice
  • .5 oz Cinnamon Syrup*
  • .5 oz 151-proof amber rum
  • 1 oz dark Jamaican rum

Garnish: Mint sprig

Glass: Highball

PREPARATION:
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a highball glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a mint sprig.

*Cinnamon Syrup

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup Water
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 3 Cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces

PREPARATION:
Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for 2 hours. Strain, and refrigerate until cold.

What some consider debauchery, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry considers research. He’s studied the history of the Zombie more thoroughly than Enrico Fermi studied the atom. This is his streamlined, “simplified” Zombie recipe as featured in Beachbum Berry Remixed.

Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. He is also host of the site Slowcocktails.com.

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Comments

  1. Suzanne Sund Peters says

    Fun to read this on your site, as that “ex-wife” of Don’s was my Aunt Cora Irene “Sunny” Sund! ;-)

    • Nancy (Hansen) Lopes says

      I remember those days so well, Hawaii was a wonderful place then, we didn’t feel we had to lock our doors and everyone was friendly and happy. Life was good. Did your aunt also model in Waikiki (fashion) I think I remember her. We had a friend in common. Very nice lady. Best regards…Nancy (Hansen) Lopes
      njlopes@yahoo.com
      Aloha.

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