Extra effort, extra reward: the Pearl Diver’s Punch

Cocktailing is not so very different from cooking or baking—gather ingredients, follow the recipe, enjoy—but while I’ll put up with all sorts of preparation and procedure in baking or in cooking dinner, I find that I value simplicity and off-handed quickness in drink making.

Which leaves me wondering why I pursue Tiki drinks. Why do I put up with Tiki’s annoying, labor-intensive complexity? Of course, it’s mostly because these drinks taste great, and they’re interesting. Great enough and interesting enough to overcome the annoyances of making them.

Up to a point.

Some are just mildly complex, an easy jump from, say, your everyday Daiquiri. An extra rum in the mix, or falernum instead of simple syrup, and you’re good to go.

But some require real planning and effort.

Which brings us to Pearl Diver’s Punch, the most complicated drink I’ve ever made. It’s also one of the lushest, most delicious rum formulas I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking.

But it requires planning, and patience in its construction. It’s sort of like making a complex, delicious dessert. It is quintessential Tiki: it’s fun to drink, it has unusual and exotic flavors, it has a list of ingredients as long as your arm, and it’s labor intensive.

And for this one, you definitely plan ahead.

Don the Beachcomber's Pearl Diver's Punch, photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Don the Beachcomber’s Pearl Diver’s Punch

The Original Pearl Diver’s Punch

I hadn’t paid much attention to Pearl Diver’s Punch until last Fall, when a Cold Glass reader asked if I had tasted it. I had read the recipe, yes; tasted it, no—the formula is long and involved, as you will see, and I had never really found the motivation to whip one up. So many cocktails, so little time.

But the more I looked into it, the more intrigued I became.

It’s the butter.

Buttered tiki: the very idea was strange and unique in my experience, and it nagged at me.

Finally, hot weather returned to Minnesota, genuine tropical drink weather, and I couldn’t resist anymore. Labor-intensive or not, it was time for Pearl Diver’s Punch.

Pearl Diver’s Punch is a Don the Beachcomber creation from the late 1930s. The syrups, multiple juices, and multiple rums are Beachcomber hallmarks, and this one is one shows him at his strange, syrupy, rum-blending best.

Jeff Berry published Donn Beach’s original formula in Sippin’ Safari:

Pearl Diver’s Punch
Don the Beachcomber, c. 1937

  • 1½ oz gold Puerto Rican rum (Bacardi 8)
  • ¾ oz Demerara rum (El Dorado 15)
  • ½ oz gold Jamaican rum (Appleton 12)
  • 1 oz fresh orange juice
  • ¾ oz fresh lime juice
  • 1 tsp falernum (Velvet)
  • ¾ oz (1½ Tbsp) Pearl Diver’s Mix (see below)
  • ¾ C crushed ice

Put everything into a blender, Pearl Diver’s Mix first, ice last. Blend at high speed for 20 seconds. Strain through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a Pilsner glass or Pearl Diver glass, pressing gently on solids to release all liquid into the glass. (Discard solids.) Add crushed ice to fill.

Pearl Diver’s Mix

  • 1 oz sweet butter [clarified]
  • 1 oz orange blossom honey
  • 1 tsp cinnamon-infused sugar syrup
  • ½ tsp vanilla syrup
  • ½ tsp pimento liqueur (Degroff’s)

So let’s talk about Pearl Diver’s Mix.

First of all, we find the astonishing butter. It’s the source of the lush heaviness, the smooth mouthfeel of this drink, and it presents a flavor and odor that is rare in any style of cocktailing. You’ll want to use clarified butter; dairy solids can be unattractive on the sides of your punch glass.

Beach’s original recipe called for orange blossom honey; that may have made a lot of sense to him in California, but here in Minnesota, we have mostly clover and prairie wildflower honey, and that works just fine.

It’s easy to make vanilla and cinnamon syrups, but you can often just buy them if you have a well-stocked grocery or kitchen store.

Pimento liqueur is also known as allspice dram. It provides the classic allspice nutmeg-clove-cinnamon flavors familiar to apple pie bakers around the world. The most common brand in my region is St. Elizabeth; you may also find Bitter Truth and Degroff’s. (And your favorite search engine can help you find recipes for making your own.)

When you whisk all this together, you end up with a mix about the consistency of mayonnaise. You can store it for quite awhile in the refrigerator, but you’ll want it at a nice, soft room temperature for use.

Waring Blendor (detail), photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.As for mixing the drink itself, you’ll need both an ice crusher and a blender. The twenty seconds of blending recommended in the original instructions seems just about right for my Waring blender (or “Blendor,” as Waring would have it), but that may need adjustment for other brands.

Pour from the blender through a moderate sieve to hold back the frozen, buttery froth. Top up with more crushed ice, and serve with a straw.

The Garnish is a bit of a mystery. I’ve only seen a couple drawings of the original Pearl Diver’s Punch presentation, and they show some sort of pointed leaf pierced by the straw. I’ve seen speculation about what leaf that might be, but no definitive identification. I serve it with no garnish at all, just the straw, but I would think that any nice-looking, non-toxic leaf might be a good candidate if you want to tart up the drink a bit.

The flavor is all about butter and rum. The spices and fruit are certainly there, but they play a supporting role. Pearl Diver’s Punch doesn’t come across as a sour, but as a fruity rum drink. The balance is delicate, especially with so much citrus in the mix, but the butter seems to protect the palate from the sour attributes of the hefty dose of juice, and it seems to soften and blend the rums’ attributes, too.

Followed by the Pearl Diver

Lewis bag and mallet (detail), photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.According to Jeff Berry, Don the Beachcomber opened his Waikiki bar in 1947 with a slightly smaller version of Pearl Diver’s Punch called the Pearl Diver. Berry refers to it as a “stripped-down version,” but it merely cut out the Jamaican rum and substituted Angostura bitters for the falernum, so it wasn’t really much simpler to make overall, it just had less rum in it. I’m guessing the change was all about profit margins, but who knows?

Pearl Diver
Don the Beachcomber, 1947

  • ½ oz fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz fresh orange juice
  • ½ oz Demerara rum
  • ½ oz Pearl Diver’s Mix
  • 1½ oz gold Puerto Rican rum
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 4 oz crushed ice

Blend and serve the same way as Pearl Diver’s Punch: Put everything into a blender, Pearl Diver’s Mix first, ice last. Blend at high speed for 20 seconds. Strain through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a Pilsner glass or Pearl Diver glass, pressing gently on solids to release all liquid into the glass. (Discard solids.) Add crushed ice to fill.

It was certainly one of these formulas that inspired a movie drink, the “Polynesian Pearl Diver,” which appears in a supporting role with Anne Baxter and Raymond Burr in The Blue Gardenia. (“A telephone operator ends up drunk and at the mercy of a cad in his apartment…”, as IMDB describes it.) Baxter, in classic film noir what-could-go-wrong style, works her way through half a dozen Pearl Divers; it seems a pleasant enough way to get drunk. Burr’s short-lived character has an interesting philosophy on Tiki:

“These aren’t really drinks. They’re trade winds across cool lagoons. They’re the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They’re a lovely maiden bathing at the foot of a waterfall.”

Nice. I like that.

And maybe it goes a long way to explaining why every once in a while I cast minimalism aside, lay in extra fruit, make a batch of spiced syrups, line up all my rums in a row, crush a lot of ice, and start mixing tiki.


19 thoughts on “Extra effort, extra reward: the Pearl Diver’s Punch

Add yours

    1. It’s anybody’s guess. The pictures and descriptions I’ve seen suggest that the leaf was spade- or heart-shaped, but that’s about all I know about it. I’ve also seen speculation that the leaf might have been a Galax leaf, but its native range doesn’t seem to coincide with Don the Beachcomber’s. I’ve never seen either plant.

        1. When Pearl Diver’s Punch is topped up with crushed ice, there is hardly any nose; this would be s fine addition to the drink. Thanks!

          >

  1. Great read and nicely explained, some of these recipes are long forgotten (oh school, now I envy not paying attention :) ). I dropped you a follow cause this is very interesting ! I hope I can interest you with my blog as well it’s about wines (wonderfultasting.com).

    I hope to see more of you soon :)

    / Michael

  2. First of all I have to say this is a wonderful site -a pleasure to read and get updates from.

    Doug I’m really stunned you didn’t seem to have trouble making this drink! I’ve made it 7 or 8 times but only got it ‘right’ on a couple of those occasions – and this using the same ingredients/ methods each time.

    It is a fantastic drink done right – however the frustration of getting there was well documented by Rick from Kaiser Penguin:

    http://www.kaiserpenguin.com/mxmo-orange-pearl-divers-punch/

    PS was the leaf a Gerenium – the Skin Diver uses one of these as garnish.

    1. Well… in fact, there were a few preliminary runs to get the formula tuned up and the technique settled down.

      Geranium, I’ll go with that. And it’s convenient that the garden is full of them in the summer. Thanks!

  3. I’m currently clarifying butter to make the Pearl Diver’s Mix. I had this cocktail on my to-do list for quite a while, but shied before the effort you have to put into it. Your article convinced me that it’s worth the try!

    1. Yeah, it’s not like you’d go to the trouble to make this every day, but it would be a shame to miss out on it, too. I’m thinking I’ll do up a batch of butter and make this my tiki treat for this weekend. Have fun!

  4. Is it possible to not make a batch of the mix, and just use a proportional amount of each mix ingredient in the cocktail itself? If yes, how much? And I love the blog. Thanks, Mark

    1. Mark, I would say it’s possible, but not practical. That batch of Pearl Diver’s Mix is enough for 3 drinks with a little left over. The math tells us that we’d be measuring about 1/6 tsp each of the vanilla syrup and the liqueur, and about 1/3 tsp of the cinnamon syrup. The butter and honey would come in at about 1/3 oz each. Under normal drink-making conditions, these are pretty small amounts to measure accurately, and, in my opinion, sort of a pain compared to scooping out a dollop of the premade, semi-solid mix. (Not to mention that it takes a bit of time to make this drink, and it’s a lot more fun to drink than to make!)

      Interesting question, thanks.

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