Day 61: Ground Control to Major Donn
In the world of athletes, a discussion usually takes place over who was the greatest. This can refer to the toughest boxer, the best baseball player, maybe even the fastest runner, but it's always becomes a heated discussion. The same goes for the world or food and beverage. Chefs sit around talking about the greatest chefs and their defining moments in culinary history, when things changed the most. Bartenders do this too, but the histories of drinks can be just as foggy as the discussion. In my mind, there is no discussion, simply an answer.
Welcome to month number three, my thirsty readers. It seems we've gone all around with these cocktails over the past sixty days. We've talked about rum runners, movies, songs, musicals, politics, and even works of art. Yesterday, I was having one of those "greatest" discussions, and it "dawned" on me, "I haven't talked about Donn!"
When the bars shut down for the first time, meaning Prohibition, the country had to power through thirteen years without a proper night out. I guess that makes two months not seem like such a big deal after all. When the doors opened, bars looked pretty much the same as they did thirteen years earlier. They were full of the same people, drinking mostly the same kinds of drinks, just as they had before. An innovator was needed to give our "night-out" a bit of a makeover.
When talking about the great drink-makers of the world, I can't imagine a conversation that doesn't include Donn Beach. I can't think of another person, responsible for more original recipes, using flavor combinations before anyone else, creating a fully immersive world like nobody had ever seen, can you? Don't worry, I'll wait. Not only did he create this whole escapist genre we today call "tiki," but he introduced guests to complex cocktails with an attention to detail, the world had never known.
Born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, and ever the showman, he later changed his name officially to Donn Beach. Mr. Beach led an early life of adventure. He traveled places most Americans, at that time, could barely dream of going. As Prohibition lifted it's ugly veil, he brought what he'd collected from his own adventures into a space for the public to enjoy. This had to be a world to escape the worries of the everyday grind, and that place would become the original "Don the Beachcomber."
Located in star-studded 1930s Hollywood, "Don the Beachcomber" was a far departure from the illegal "speakeasies" Americans had made due with over the past thirteen years. This was a new experience. Filled with bamboo, tropical decor, and treasures collected by Donn over the years, this was a space where the outside world no longer existed. He provided guests a tropical adventure, even though international travel was financially out of reach for most at that time. He operated by the motto "If you can't get to paradise, we'll bring paradise to you."
All of this said, the true genius of Donn's work had to be what he did with the drinks. His style of cocktails, or "Rhum Rhapsodies," had never been done before. He used ingredients many people had never even seen before. He blended different spirits, different spices, and different fruits. What he created was an entire genre of cocktails, without even realizing. On menus around the world, you can still find the Zombie, Navy Grog, QB Cooler, Missionary's Downfall, Test Pilot, just to name a few. Donn wasn't the first person to use rum in a cocktail, but he may have been the first to elevate them to the level of art.
When war broke out, many of our most creative minds were called upon to serve. Donn's military service becomes pretty apparent, when you look at the names of his drinks. During WWII, Donn served in the Air Force. Throughout the war, he was awarded medals, had a plane painted in his honor, and achieved the rank of Major. That's right, he was a Major, Major Donn.
to Major Donn
1oz Aged Antigua Rum (English Harbour 5 year)
.75oz Aged Jamaican Rum
.5oz 151 Proof Demerara Rum
.5oz Don's Spices #2 (equal parts allspice dram and vanilla syrup)
.5oz Passion Fruit Syrup
.75oz Lime Juice
1.5oz Pineapple Juice
5 dashes Absinthe
Tiki Mug (Space man if you have it!)
Whip shake and pour unstrained.
Top with crushed ice.
Top with Angostura Bitters.
Garnish with pineapple fronds, flower, and clove-studded orange peel.
I don't really want to imagine a world without Donn's drinks. It's a world, much less bright, and much less fun. When the pandemic subsides, and a "night-out" becomes commonplace once more, I imagine we'll all need an escape from the everyday. That's all I can hope to provide. Until that day comes, let's stay healthy in preparation for the glorious party to come. Until tomorrow, keep shaking.