There’s always a patient zero. The beginning. That first dot that sprinkles out locally, then flows out regionally and becomes a wave that takes over the globe. And in the case of tiki drinks, patient zero is, fittingly, the Zombie.
Before anyone had ever heard of a Mai Tai or a Piña Colada, the Zombie was, for a time, the world’s most famous, or perhaps infamous, drink. “Notorious would be an understatement,” writes Martin Cate in his pan-tiki book Smuggler’s Cove, referring to it as “Donn’s most famous and lethal concoction.” The “Donn” there is Donn Beach, born Ernest Raymont Gantt, who in the early 1930s repatriated to Los Angeles after years of bumming throughout the Caribbean and the South Pacific. His travels had equipped him with a taste for rum and a sense of how to mix it, along with a few dumpsters worth of flotsam and a quiver full of adventure stories, and in 1934, at the age of 27, he combined all these gifts to open what we now understand as the world’s first tiki bar, which he would call Don the Beachcomber.
Americans had never had cocktails like this—tropical fruit with heavy spice and rums mixed together for cumulative effect—and the Zombie was most popular of them all. But what makes the Zombie so “famous and lethal?” For starters, it was fun and savagely delicious. But more importantly, the quantities of rum were heroic even for a sailor. By most counts there’s 4 oz. of the spirit with one of those overproof. Word of this combustible mixture spread, and Beach, every bit a marketing genius as he was a gifted mixologist, leaned in by appending a small note to the Zombie on his cocktail menu: “Limit of two.”
Never before had three words so captured the imagination of the drinking public. Limit of two! This supposed warning worked magic. People simply had to try this cocktail so strong the bar itself limited your consumption of it, and Don the Beachcomber quickly earned the nickname “Zombie Palace.” Competitors tried everything to deduce, riff or otherwise steal the recipe, and finding themselves foiled by Beach’s anti-theft measures (more on this below), just made up their own version, calling it a Zombie and insisting, on their own menus, customers would be limited to just two each. Tiki as a social craze would crest in the early ‘60s, but already by 1940 writer and epicure Lucius Beebe allegedly noted that there were so many places serving the drink, it would soon “be possible to cross the continent without ever emerging from a Zombie swoon.” Jeff “Beachbum” Berry calls the Zombie “the drink that launched a thousand tiki bars.”
Even the hyper-opinionated grump David Embury can’t fully disabuse himself of the Zombie’s charms. Writing in his Fine Art of Mixing Drinks in 1948, Embury admits that the taste of the cocktail is “not bad at all,” but spends four paragraphs insulting it, offended by that “limit of two” business, which he calls “the cheapest form of advertising.” He wasn’t done. Calling the Zombie “undoubtedly the most overadvertised, overemphasized, overexalted and foolishly feared drink whose claims to glory ever assaulted the eyes and ears of the gullible American public.” But then, after describing the recipe, he can’t help but join in on the fun: “And there, brother, is your Zombie, grandfather of all pixies and great-uncle to the gremlins.”
- 1.5 oz. funky Jamaican rum
- 1.5 oz. mild aged rum
- 0.25 oz to 1 oz. overproof rum (see note, at bottom)
- 0.75 oz. lime juice
- 0.5 oz. grapefruit juice
- 0.25 oz. cinnamon syrup
- 0.5 oz. falernum
- 1 tsp. grenadine
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
- 0 to 10 drops absinthe
If you have crushed ice, add all ingredients to cocktail shaker with crushed ice, shake for six to eight seconds, dump into a tall glass and top with more crushed ice. If you don’t, put it all in a blender with 6 oz. ice and blend on high for five seconds. Garnish with a mint sprig.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Recipe: Beach was famously paranoid about his recipes and hid them from even his own bartenders. He blended his ingredients in secret on his own and then gave them to his staff in code: Ask a Don the Beachcomber bartender how to make a Zombie and he’d reply, “easy, take a bit of Spices #4, mix it with Rum Blend #2…” For this reason, the Zombie was lost, seemingly forever, until being unearthed by tiki-archeologist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in or around 2005. So, all of that is to say we’re pretty sure we know what was in it, but there’s easily a half-dozen Zombies, all very different from each other, and it’s difficult to say what’s correct or not. Above is the best we can say.
Rum(s): This is an unusually difficult drink to get exactly right, and the secret to it is the variety and quantity of rum. If you’re not in the mood for something strong, I advise choosing another drink. Not enough rum and this recipe tastes busy and confusing—enough rum and the planets suddenly align.
Annoyingly, this calls for three types of rum: a light aged rum (something like Plantation 5, Bacardi 8, Don Q or similar), a funky Jamaican rum (Smith & Cross, Hampden Estates or similar) and an “overproof” rum (Plantation OFTD, Hamilton’s Demerara 151 or similar). If the first two are strong enough, you can get away with using less of the latter. My advice if you’re feeling sheepish is to start with a lighter hand and add to taste.
Cinnamon Syrup: Take 4 oz. sugar, 4 oz. water and 1 cinnamon stick that you’ve broken into a few pieces, put it on the stove and stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Simmer for five minutes, then let cool and strain. This can be done with 1 or 2 tsp. of ground cinnamon, but it’ll be gritty and not quite as good. The recipe makes 6 oz. of cinnamon syrup, or enough for a whole groaning troop of Zombies.
Falernum: As noted in our discussion of the Corn N’ Oil, falernum is supposed to be a rum-based liqueur made in Barbados, but falernums can be all over the map, both in spice content (light to extremely heavy) and alcohol content (0 to 35 percent). The one that has all requisite claims to authenticity and also generally seems to taste best in cocktails is John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, which is cheap and relatively available. The only other thing to say about this is that you can make your own, which involves toasting almonds and zesting limes, and if you’re the type of person who gets excited about that, I suspect you have already tried it.
Grenadine: Proper grenadine is made by combining sugar and pomegranate juice, adding a touch of pomegranate molasses and perfuming the whole thing with rose water or orange flower water. That’s great, and if you have it use it, but it’s used in such small amounts here—a teaspoon, to soften the absinthe and give a tart-fruit spin—that you honestly could just to a 1 tsp. of pomegranate juice and call it a day.
Absinthe: It’s incredibly easy to overdo the absinthe here, and this advice is geared for at-home use, so I’m tempted to just tell you to avoid it. How’s this: If you have absinthe or Herbsaint laying around, use it, no more than a half a dash, about six to 10 drops. If you don’t, don’t worry about it.