If “Name a Tropical Drink” was a question on Family Feud, the number one answer on the board would undoubtedly be the Mai Tai. Number 2 would in all likelihood be the Zombie. And, just like the Mai Tai, the Zombie has been much maligned by the world’s bartenders over the years. Ordering either now will get you, like as not, a random assemblage of fruit juices, syrups, and cheap rums. So don’t bother. Make your own.
I’m sure that no one knows more about the Zombie than Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who devotes an entire chapter to it in Sippin’ Safari, another must-have volume if you care anything about the history of tropical drinks. But here’s the short version: the Zombie was one of the very first “Tiki” drinks (although no one was calling them that yet), invented by Donn Beach (real name: Donn Beach – yeah, he changed it from Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) in 1934, the year he opened Don’s Beachcomber (later to be renamed Don the Beachcomber’s) in a little ex-storefront just off Hollywood Boulevard. It became the Beachcomber’s signature recipe and was instrumental in helping turn what would become Tiki into a national phenomenon. But Donn was obsessed with secrecy, and perhaps for good reason; countless imitators began to open tropical-themed bars serving, for the most part, inferior libations. To ensure their continued inferiority, Donn came up with a coded recipe book and took the labels off all his bottles (replacing them with his own codes), so that even his own bartenders didn’t really know how the drinks were made. And so the Zombie, offered at countless bars and restaurants, eventually had nothing to do with Donn’s original formula, and, even more than the Mai Tai became an overly-sweet, overly-strong, underly-flavored mess.
Berry, after years of research, unearthed this recipe in a 1950 book called Barbecue Chef, supposedly sourced by the author from Mr. Beach himself. Until he came across a later article on Donn, also featuring an “authentic” recipe given to that magazine by Mr. Beach himself…and very, very different from the 1950 one. Further detective work ensued – I’ll let you pursue the details in Berry’s book yourself if you’re that interested – culminating in…inconclusiveness. Is this the authentic 1934 Don’s Beachcomber recipe? Impossible to say, Berry has determined. But it is, in his unassailable opinion, the best version.
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce pineapple juice (unsweetened)
1 ounce white Jamaican rum
1 ounce gold Jamaican rum
1 ounce passion fruit syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
Dissolve the sugar in the lemon juice; then add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with crushed ice. Shake vigorously but not for too long, and pour the whole thing into a collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.
I did not, of course, garnish with a mint sprig, because yuck.
Kind of a lot of work, as many quality tropical drinks are. Is it worth it? Well, yes, if you’re into this sort of thing. After following Berry’s history of the Zombie, which turns the drink (and its debatable authenticity) into a sort of Holy Grail of Tiki mixology, I really wanted to be amazed by this beverage. And it’s quite good. But it comes across as a little too tart for my tastes. That’s my only beef with it. The rums go well together with the juices, and the Lemon Hart 151 adds a noteworthy kick but also some truly fine dark rum flavor notes. There are definitely better tropical drinks out there, but this is a good one, and a remarkable piece of bartending history. Four livers.