Recently, PUNCH reached out to learn more about an ingredient used in one of the seasonal menu cocktails created by head bartender Alex Kirles.  We went and dug a little deeper.

That Gardenia is a Tiki Kind of Guy

By Billy Scott

Thanks to the resilience of piquant ingredients and attractive garnishing, tiki bars have had a bit of a resurgence in recent years. The first tiki bar of its kind was created by a former prohibition era bootlegger Donn Beach, in Los Angeles 1933; called Don the Beachcomber. Carried by the popularity of other establishments such as Trader Vic’s, tiki bars experienced robust popularity from the 30’s all the way through to the 1950’s. However, its attractiveness slowly faded as the sixties brought about a new age of popular culture and trends.

The era of the tiki bar has inspired so many amazing cocktail innovations that one could never truly gauge its effect. However, the list certainly does not fall short from the city of Detroit. Thanks to Donn Beach, we have been able to experience a taste of something unforgettable right here in Corktown. Sugar House’s own, Alex Kirles has remastered and revamped an obscure (almost forgotten) ingredient, and it is oh so sweet.

As head bartender, Alex Kirles is always on the prowl for new and innovative ways of tantalizing his patron’s palates. While researching the history of Caribbean cocktails, he stumbled upon a real gem in the book Potions of the Caribbean, by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. This remarkable resource was Winner of the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for best new cocktail book. Inside, Jeff Berry uncovered 77 vintage recipes, 16 of which were “lost” and 19 that were never before published. This is where Kirles discovered an interesting ingredient called Don’s Gardenia Mix. It was comprised in a Donn Beach original cocktail, The Pearl Diver. In an interview we had with Kirles regarding this, he said,

“I read that [recipe] in Potions of the Caribbean and I said “Wow that sounds delicious.” I made it and I immediately found how difficult it was to work with, but it tasted so good I didn’t really care.”

The original gardenia mix is essentially a butter syrup with vanilla, spices and honey. However, the recipe was slightly tweaked to assert a distinct kind of flavor, representative of the undeniable Sugar House charm. With that, Kirles added half-and-half, black peppercorns, whole cloves and corn syrup. The difficulties mentioned lie in the viscosity and consistency of the mix itself, as well as the oily residue that it leaves inside jiggers, shakers and tiki mugs. Concerning this, Kirles explained,

“Regardless of how well you make it, in my opinion, it will always re-solidify to some point when it gets cold enough. You have to be very careful with your bartools (your tins that shake butter, gardenia mix) because it will leave oily residue, which is kind of hard to get off.”

This sweet and savory concoction was used to comprise one of the best-selling cocktails on the seasonal “Chinese Zodiac” menu at Sugar House; the Year of the Rat. This drink recently gained national notoriety after Punch featured it on their popular website According to Kirles, the Year of the Rat is a marriage of two Don the Beachcomber original cocktails, the Zombie and The Pearl Diver;

“I wanted to showcase the gardenia mix as the focal point of the drink. From there, I looked at my favorite tiki drink, the Zombie, and then I looked at The Pearl Diver. I drew similarities. I took some ingredients out and I sort of married the two drinks together, and that’s how I came up with the Year of the Rat.”

As fantastic as this drink is, it won’t be around forever. The new seasonal cocktail menu is set to be released on May 1st, so time is of the essence. If you haven’t already, it may be a good time to visit the Sugar House and give the Year of the Rat a try, while you still can!


Year of the Rat

  • 1oz Plantation OFTD overproof dark rum

  • 1oz Aquavit (Long Road)

  • .25oz Raspberry liqueur (St. George)

  • .5oz Gardenia Mix

  • .5oz Falernum simple syrup

  • .5oz Pineapple juice

  • .5oz Grapefruit juice

  • 1 Dash absinthe

Garnish: Orchid and torched cinnamon bark


  1. Dry Shake ingredients first to combine. Then lightly shake over pebble ice to avoid chilling the Gardenia Mix to a solid state.

  2. Frappe into a tiki mug, then top with more fresh pebble ice until heaping.

  3. Garnish with an edible orchid and torched cinnamon bark.


Gardenia Mix:

8 grams Whole cloves

8 grams Cracked cinnamon

8 grams Whole black peppercorn

8 Sticks (2 pounds) unsalted butter

8 ounces Raw honey (by weight)

2 ounces Vanilla syrup

2 ounces Allspice dram

1 ounce Light corn syrup

8 ounces Half-and-half

Heat the first three ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Then add everything except the half-and-half. Once the butter has completely melted remove from heat, strain the spices off and add the half-and-half. Use an immersion blender to incorporate. Bottle and chill until ready for use.


Once ready to use, you will need to heat the bottle until the mix becomes a consistent liquid form. Putting your bottle inside a large tin with hot water seems to do the trick.