Since I’m on a run of Tiki Drinks with awesome names this Tiki Month, I thought it appropriate that I get down and boogie with one of the better names in
music Tiki drinks, Dr. Funk. I love the name, and find it most appropriate for Tiki. Funk is a word I use a lot to describe Tiki drinks, good ones at least. It denotes a kind of entertainingly pleasant wrongness.
The good Doctor was to be had all over the place in the golden days of Tiki. Both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic claimed him, though he set up practice at Vic’s joints much later than Don’s, so which way the thieving went is pretty clear this time.
Except it isn’t.
Unlike most “Polynesian” Tiki drinks, which were really Caribbean in inspiration, the Dr. Funk was actually a genuine South Pacific invention, one which predated the Tiki era by some 30-40 years. Not only that, but it was named after and created by a real Dr. Funk as well. Bernhard Funk was a German ex-patriot living in Samoa. He was a popular physician, as well as a renowned mental health practitioner. And by “mental health practitioner”, I mean mixologist. Among his other claims to fame, Dr. Funk was the deathbed physician for Robert Louis Stevenson (of International Talk Like a Pirate Day Fame). The good Dr. Funk had passed away nearly twenty years before Don ever thought of Tiki.
There are a lot of Dr. Funk recipes. Names this cool seemed to have often been appropriated during the Tiki era by one bar after another, without great regard to the (often secret) recipe of the source. When there are so many choices to be had, it is usually best to turn first to the Apostle Paul of the Tiki gods, Beachbum Berry.
In Remixed, the Bum presents this version of Dr. Funk, gleaned from the Palm Springs location of Don the Beachcomber, circa 1953:
- 3/4 oz. lime juice
- 1/2 oz. grenadine
- 1 tsp. absinthe
- 1 1/2 oz. light rum
- 1 oz. soda
Combine all in shaker, save the soda. Shake well, then add soda and stir. Pour unstrained into pilsner glass, and top with fresh ice.
This is a pleasant little cooler, really. The flavors are light and the color an iced pink. The funk of the absinthe is kind of a background beat that underlies the main citrusy melody. This version is actually pretty delicious, with just a hint of a “what the Hell is that?” undertone to make it Tiki.
Now in general, I prefer Vic’s drinks to Don’s, the Mai Tai being a notable example. So I also wanted to see what kind of medicine the good Doctor practiced when he hung his single in a Trader Vic’s. Here is his recipe which I believe to be from Vic’s 1948 Bartender’s Guide:
- 1/2 oz. lemon juice
- 1/4 oz. grenadine
- 1 whole lime
- 1/4 oz. absinthe
- 2 1/2 oz. dark Jamaican rum
- 1/4 tsp. simple syrup
Combine all liquid ingredients in a shaker with crushed ice. Juice lime into shaker, and add the spent shells. Shake well and “pour the whole mess” into a highball glass. Top with seltzer and garnish with a fresh geranium leaf.
I have no geraniums right now, so I used mint.
In this case, Don beats Vic like a rented mule. Vic’s version is overwhelmingly tart. I went back and added a ton more simple syrup, which made it drinkable and let some of the underlying flavors come out. You could then taste that there was rum in the drink. But the funk is practically dead here as you essentially cannot detect the absinthe at all. Indeed, Vic appeared to know this one wasn’t his best, as he seems to have monkeyed with this recipe a lot. Later recipes show it without absinthe or Pernod at all.
So as to the question of Don versus Vic, the Bum makes the right call, and silly me for doubting him!
But neither of these cocktails, it’s pretty clear, holds much resemblance to the real Dr. Funk’s prescription. In this excellent thread at Tiki Central, much anthropology has been done on the Dr. Funk, and on its namesake. And while there is no written exact receipt for it even there, the various accounts of the original drink are at least primary sources. Consolidating all their hardwork, here is what I’m going with as the original recipe:
- 1 1/2 oz. absinthe
- 1/2 oz. grenadine
- 2 small limes
- 8 oz. soda water
Combine is a glass on the rocks. Consume to “restore self-respect and interest in one’s surroundings”.
I was hesitant to actually mix up this guess at the authentic Dr. Funk because:
- I’m not a huge absinthe fan.
- I already have a more than healthy share of self-respect.
- My current surroundings are Ohio in the Winter. Why should I want to take an interest in them?
But, birds gotta sing. Fish gotta swim. Bloggers gotta blog….
First off, that is a helluva lot of water up there. I’m not sure if ice was a precious commodity on Samoa and the surrounding isles in the late 19th Century. Perhaps it was, and this drink was meant to be made without it. In any case, I used lots of crushed ice myself, left the lime shells in, and used only a bit more than 2 ounces of actual soda.
And damn if this isn’t a much better drink than either Don or Vic’s effort! Much better. It is perhaps not so approachable as theirs, because at 1.5 ounces there is no mistaking the fact that this is an absinthe cocktail. The character of that spirit is right up front. In most cocktails I make using the stuff, it is doled out in drops, so that much absinthe is a helluva lot for me.
But the grenadine and lime and water do a beautiful job of changing the punch in the snoot of absinthe, transmuting it into a refreshing splash in the face. My immediate thought was to compare it to one of my favorite drinks, the Gin Rickey.
Dr. Funk’s concoction seems likely to be just as thirst-quenching as Colonel Rickey’s. And while it may not be quite so easy drinking as the Rickey, for a man with a sour mouth or stomach from over-indulgence, post-indulgence, or just general tropical crud, this drink would likely be much more cleansing to the palate.
Lastly, should you be wanting to initiate a hesitant guest into trying absinthe for the first time, this might be your drink. The cool name, and pleasant pink color, should get them to accept the drink in the first place, and the muted nature should get them to take the time to appreciate the depth of the absinthe without being assaulted by its usual brash nature.
I’ll leave you with two entertaining tidbits found in my Stanley-esque search for Dr. Funk. This first is the comforting news that there were snotty booze snobs long before there were hipster bars and cocktail blogs for them to spout off in. Apparently Robert Louis Stevenson himself was somewhat of one, and another occasional patient of Dr. Funk, Paul Gauguin (the guilt-free sex guy) was even more of a pissant about drinks. He (and Stevenson) are described fabulously so in this quote from Wanderings; A Book of Travel and Reminiscence.
Blow me!cried Pincher, the skipper of the Morning Star.‘E was a bleedin’ ijit. I fetched ‘im absinthe many a time in Atuona. ‘E said Dr. Funk was a bloomin’ ass for inventin’ a drink that spoiled good Pernod with water. ‘E was a rare un. ‘E was like Stevenson ‘at wrote ‘Treasure Island.’ Comes into my pub in Taiohae in the Marquesas Islands did Stevenson off’n his little Casco, and says he,Ave ye any whisky.‘e says,at ‘asn’t been watered? These South Seas appear to ‘ave flooded every bloomin’ gallon.‘e says. This painter Gauguin wan’t such good company as Stevenson, because ‘e parleyvoud, but ‘e was a bloody worker with ‘is brushes at Atouna. ‘E was cuttin’ wood or paintin’ all the time.
I think this passage lends two valuable pieces of advice. First, if you are too much of a booze-snob, then old bartenders, especially crusty old sailor bartenders (Ed Hamilton, anyone?) will think you are a “bloomin’ ass”. Second, regardless of how you act, for God’s sake don’t be French.
And hey! This post is part of Tiki Month 2012 here at the Pegu Blog! Be sure to look around for LOTS more Tiki stuff all February!