There aren’t many perfect secrets left. In a post-post-modern world, where every dumb idiot is holding a device that’s connected to every other device on Earth, the smallest leak in the dam instantly becomes a fatal, ever-expanding crack that can never be plugged. In the 1970s even the Soviet KGB couldn’t damage the reputation of the CIA. In the 2010s all it took was a nerd named Edward and his laptop to bring the CIA to its knees.
Maybe that’s what first drew me to Ray’s Mistake. It seems to be entirely incorruptible.
Any jerk with a beard can roll up his white sleeves, tie those weird black garter things above his elbows, and invent a “secret mixology cocktail” to serve in Los Angeles. Those are everywhere. Okay, you infused basil vodka with spicy-whatever-who-cares. It’s not a real secret. It won’t last. And that was my first reaction when I learned about Ray’s Mistake, the signature drink from the world-famous dive named Tiki-Ti on Sunset Boulevard. It is, apparently, a secret recipe. Sure it is.
Then I learned it had been a secret recipe for nearly fifty years. Unchanged. And has remained that way—utterly, completely, and truly secret—since the day it was invented.
I needed to learn more.
History of a Mistake
“Tiki” drinks, those Polynesian-themed fruity cocktails with a thousand ingredients, were ostensibly invented by a single person, Ernest Gantt, in the 1930s. His Los Angeles bar, Don the Beachcomber’s, changed cocktail culture with its invention and/or popularization of the mai tai, the zombie, and dozens of other Tiki mainstays still served today. Some of his first employees were four Philippino boys who had the right Polynesian look to serve the themed drinks to Hollywood stars. One of those boys was named Ray Buhen. And Ray, after over twenty years of serving and observing the invention of Tiki drinks, opened his own bar in 1961.
That bar, Tiki-Ti, is still open. It has never moved, expanded, or accepted credit cards. As recently as 2015 it allowed smoking inside, being grandfathered out of the state’s non-smoking law, since it only employed family members. It’s a living fossil, and I don’t say that lightly; next to Vin Scully, it’s the single most unspoiled institution, bar or otherwise, I’ve ever seen in Los Angeles.
Best anyone can tell, Ray invented his now-legendary cocktail in 1968, pouring the wrong ingredients for a Tiki cocktail and realizing his mistake tasted better than the one he was trying to mix. Ray’s Mistake has been a family secret ever since. His son was the next bartender, his grandchildren the next two. Their cash-only business on Sunset Boulevard leaves them no reason to sell out, divulge the recipe, or otherwise compromise an establishment unparalleled in its isolation from the outside world. Ray’s Mistake is a perfect secret. And, more importantly, it’s just goddamn delicious.
“Someone on the internet knows”, I said one night at Tiki-Ti, drinking my second Mistake. “I’ll Google it and make one at home. Someone knows.” Except no one on the internet knows. No one. There are a bunch of guesses, of course, dozens of forum pages and hundreds of posters trying to figure it out... But no one knows.
I’ve tried all their proposed recipes. The guessers are mostly on the right track, but nowhere near correct. Exotic and wishful ingredients they mention include maple syrup, almond orgeat, egg whites. Ray’s Mistake doesn’t have any of that shit. For months I’d try to tweak an ingredient or two, combine recipes, or substitute ingredients, thinking I was getting close. Then I’d go to Tiki-Ti, try a real Mistake, and realize every one of those guesses was way, way off. It was getting really frustrating.
That’s right around the time I set my mind on it. I was going to expend the time, money, and sobriety necessary to uncover the secret recipe to Ray’s Mistake.
It was only after months of trial-and-error, observing how Ray’s grandchildren make the less-secretive drinks that they pour with the same ingredients, and finding a clue in an overlooked Tiki reference book that I was able to replicate the cocktail. That book led me to a totally overlooked syrup that, the first time I tasted it, was a revelation: I’d finally found the right ingredients to make a Mistake. I wish I had a plucky little story about the first moment I realized I had done it... But I already had a few experimental drinks that night and honestly can’t remember it.
So, sidestepping the anticlimax, here it is. Here is how to make a Ray’s Mistake.
The base of the drink, and one of only two ingredients that Ray’s family ever divulged, is passionfruit. An overpoweringly tart, exotic flavor that gives the drink its golden-orange hue, finding a decent passionfruit syrup is seemingly impossible. After trying a few brands, it became painfully obvious I’d have to make my own.
Finding passionfruit pulp can be quite difficult, depending on where you live. I’ve finally been able to track down the frozen stuff at a tiny Mexican corner store in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Be prepared to walk into some unfamiliar territory, and I’d recommend bringing cash. Your results may vary.
To make a passionfruit syrup with the right sweetness, color, and consistency: Combine one part frozen passionfruit pulp with two parts water and two parts white granulated sugar. Stir in a pot over low heat until it just begins to simmer. Leave it lightly simmering, stirring often, for about 25 minutes or so. Remove from heat when your mixture has about the same consistency as simple syrup. Pour it into a container (beautiful color, right?) and chill it overnight. It’ll keep for about three days.
Congratulations. You’ve made your first ingredient. Start your drink by dumping ¾oz of the syrup into your blender.
2. Bitters and Falernum and Pineapple Juice
The next three ingredients are comparatively easy to find, but require a careful ratio, as they all have very powerful flavor profiles:
—Bitters, three dashes, Angostura: When added to the passionfruit syrup, they give it a rich red tint. If you’ve ever watched a real Mistake being made, you’ll immediately realize this is the clay-red hue in the first “mystery bottle” the bartender pours from. You’re on the right track.
—Falernum, less than ⅛ oz (a dash?), John D Taylor’s Velvet. A cola-nutty, vanilla-y flavor comes from this oldest of Tiki mixers. Find the brand above, and add the very restrained ⅛ oz to your mix. Err on the side of caution here.
—Pineapple juice, slightly less than ¼ oz, canned. I suppose you can use fresh pineapple juice, but Tiki-Ti doesn’t, so why bother? It won’t taste any better. You’ll have to be sure not to over-pour this ingredient. Too much pineapple gives this drink an entirely different taste; but, be sure not to under-pour: Pineapple is responsible for the all-important froth at the top of the finished product.
3. White Rum and Cheap Gin
Maybe the most surprising discovery in all this reverse-engineering is that the core liquors, rum and gin, seem to be the least important factors in the final product. Maybe that’s why the bartending family members take no great pains to hide them, pouring them out of branded bottles in plain view of the bar. They seem to use a rather cheap brand, Barton, of both rum and gin. Add 1 oz of each and, if you substitute another brand of cheap white rum or dry gin, I don’t think one could tell the difference. Their subtler notes are completely covered up by the rest of the concoction. On reflection, that’s probably why this drink gets you hammered so quickly. You hardly taste ⅔rds of the alcohol at all.
4. Soda, Lime, and Ice
The Tiki-Ti uses Canada Dry soda water, and the family bartenders simply eyeball the amount to use. I’m not that good, so I find 2 ¾oz of soda is about the right amount.
Maybe the simplest and least finicky ingredient is lime juice. Add just about 1 oz of lime juice to the mix. I haven’t found a difference between the different kinds of limes or their relative freshness. You can also slightly under- or over-pour this and still be okay. The secret ingredient will cover it up anyway.
Ice is, in my opinion, the make-or-break ingredient. It’s also the one you’re most likely to say “eh, it’s not that important” and completely fuck it all up. Without exaggerating, I can say the difference between a great drink and one that’s underwhelming is whether it uses the right ice.
Add crushed ice, and only crushed ice. Finely crushed, freshly crushed. If you don’t have an ice crusher, you’ll have to crush it yourself. The best way I’ve found is double-Ziploc bagging, covering with a pillowcase, and pounding over carpet with a mallet. You’ll need a shitload of ice, too. Twice the amount you think you need. Make 12 oz per drink, and then use about 8 oz. (I say make 12 oz because if you try to make 8 you won’t make enough.)
5. The Secret Ingredient: Honey Syrup
This was it. This was what the entire internet missed, and what you’ll instantly realize is the secret flavor at the heart of the Mistake. Honey syrup. I didn’t realize this was even a thing until I found an old Tiki-Ti recipe—one of the few they’ve ever released—in a copy of Beachbum Berry’s Intoxica, where the Buhen clan reveals one of their other drinks, the Puka Punch, uses “Honey Syrup - 1 part honey, 1 part water”. This was the key to unlocking the Mistake.
Mix one part clover honey (from the squeezy-bear-thing is fine) with one part nearly-boiling water and stir until smooth. Let chill for at least half an hour, then add ¾oz of it to the mix.
You’ve now got all the base ingredients for a Ray’s Mistake ready to be served.
6. Serving, and the Holy Grail of Rum
Serving is difficult, but at least it’s straightforward. Combine all the above ingredients and aerate (blend) on high speed for between 3 and 5 seconds. Tiki-Ti uses a commercial spindle blender, but I find a regular old blender with a high speed aerate mode gets pretty close to the original.
Then, ice and all, pour about 90% of it immediately into a tall glass. Needs to be tall! Then, use a strainer to pour in the last 10% of the mix.
And here’s the kicker, the only other ingredient Mr Buhen ever divulged, and maybe the hardest ingredient to locate: You have to float about an ounce of Coruba Dark Rum on top of the drink. Locating Coruba is no easy task for most of the country. In Los Angeles I was able to track down a single warehouse that distributed it. In New York, I had to agree to buy an entire case for a wholesaler to sell it to me. Coruba is a revelation. There are simply no substitutes for its wholly unique flavor and, without it, you’re nowhere near a Ray’s Mistake. Once again, good luck.
The final note to serving this legend is the dressing: Pop in a slightly-wider-than-average plastic straw (straw comes after the Coruba float), and garnish with a toothpick speared through a pineapple wedge and nasty maraschino cherry. The straw is vital, the pineapple and cherry maybe not so much. The straw is vital because without a straw you’re just drinking the Coruba float... The fruit isn’t because, at Tiki-Ti, almost everyone just tosses aside the fruit before drinking it anyway, so it’s probably not vital to the experience.
And that’s it. If you followed every step, you’ve just made a Ray’s Mistake at home. I’d say “go enjoy it”, but if you made it this far, you don’t need some idiot on the internet to tell you it’s time to drink.
Get Ready to Fail
If you try to make one at home, you’ll mess it up the first few times. And it won’t be something obvious, like a forgotten ingredient or overzealous blender. It’ll be something subtle, like a syrup being too thick, too much time elapsing between aerating and pouring, or the straw being too thin to suck up the ice crystals. And these aren’t unimportant details. Tiki-Ti isn’t a soulless Applebee’s, where the directions are checklists designed for any first-day employee to be able to get “close enough”. It takes time to learn how to make this drink. This bar and this drink are specifically non-viral, uniquely incorruptible, and impossible to franchise, to their core.
It’s not lost on me that writing this article might seem like an attempt to compromise exactly what makes this drink special. To tell the last perfect secret. But believe me, I don’t have it all right. There’s some nuance I’m missing, maybe some aspect of the timing or the prep or the bitters ratio, there must be something I can’t replicate. It might be close, but it’ll never replace experiencing the original.
So save the recipe card and give it a try yourself; even if we can’t be perfect, we can have some great mistakes along the way.