The recent explosion of Tiki bars has brought us the return of one lost cocktail ingredient after another. Phrases such as “house-made orgeat” have become commonplace on cocktail menus, and while velvet falernum sounds like the name of a bad ’90s cover band, it’s actually a go-to bar staple that even casual cocktail drinkers are likely to have become familiar with in recent years.
Not all ingredients have enjoyed the same revival, though, including the likes of gardenia mix. But—you guessed it—it’s gardenia’s time to get in the game.
Cocktails at False Idol in San Diego (image: Brogen Jessup)
What Is Gardenia Mix?
Gardenia mix, or more accurately Don’s Gardenia Mix, combines honey, butter and spices such as cinnamon and allspice and is one of the many flavor-bomb concoctions dreamed up by the legendary Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber. “Gardenia mix is a spiced honey-butter cordial,” says Anthony Schmidt, the beverage director of San Diego’s Consortium Holdings projects, including Tiki bar False Idol.
This ingredient in particular almost faded into obscurity, and while Beach’s secretiveness around his traditional recipes is one reason why, another more practical reason is that gardenia mix is trickier to make, maintain and deploy than your typical bar syrup.
False Idol (image: Zack Benson)
“Traditionally, it was a huge pain in the ass to use,” says Schmidt. “It was essentially butter blended with spices and honey into a thick batter.” Good luck getting that into an enjoyable consistency for cocktail consumption.
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is credited with having resuscitated gardenia mix, as well as a historically accurate version of its raison d’etre, the Pearl Diver cocktail, back in 2006. At Latitude 29 in New Orleans, he continues to serve the Pontchartrain Pearl Driver, billed as an iced buttered rum with passion fruit, lime and Jamaican rum.
In updating the cumbersome but flavorful gardenia mix, Schmidt and his bar team transforms the ingredient into a ready-for-prime-time syrup. “Nowadays, we use stabilizers to keep the substance in liquid form, making for practical use in bars,” he says.
But those who have followed that same path in the past haven’t always stuck with it, as one difficulty or another seems to arise. “It’s tough to use unless you’re nailing your stabilizer blend,” says Schmidt. “We use a blend of xanthan gum and gum arabic at a specific ratio of one to 10.”
Anthony Schmidt (image: Brogen Jessup)
Schmidt credits Dave Arnold’s 2014 “Liquid Intelligence” and its cold butter syrup recipe as being his north star on this journey. “Oftentimes, the things that aren’t in our bars are related to a false sense of impossibility, like liquid butter,” he says. “We just needed someone to shine a light.”
To create the liquefied gardenia, Schmidt only slightly modified Arnold’s process. “We heat butter to liquid form, blend sweet modifiers and while still hot—that’s very important—we add the stabilizers so we can effectively liquefy the powdery initial form,” says Schmidt. “This guarantees consistency. Let cool, then use! Easy peasy.”
At False Idol, classic Tiki libations come paired with a sister drink, a modern riff on the original. So alongside the Pearl Diver, featuring its house take on Don’s Gardenia Mix, is the Polynesian Forty Niner. In the latter, you’ll find orange- and chai-infused bourbon mixed with pear brandy, lemon, orange and gardenia.
Further, while gardenia mix traditionally incorporates honey, cinnamon, vanilla and allspice, there’s no reason you can’t riff on the flavors either. “You can be creative,” says Schmidt.
Polynesian Forty Niner (image: Brogen Jessup)
At Raised by Wolves, the jaw-dropping new bar from CH Projects housed in a Westfield mall in San Diego, the team adds a house-made grapefruit cordial, and bar director Erick Castro enjoys pairing it with lighter flavors, such as Aperol.
There’s really no reason for gardenia to be strictly confined to the world of Tiki either. “Adjust the sweet modifier in the cordial, and you can apply any flavor component needed for whatever cocktail,” says Schmidt. “It adds a desirable richness to beverages while limiting the impact of sweetness. In other words, you can develop texture and richness while maintaining a not-too-sweet beverage balance. It’s highly versatile and adds depth and body when used effectively.”