With National Rum Day just past, but the taste of the spirit still lingering on the tongue, it's worth turning our attention to one of the most famous — and infamous — rum cocktails of all time. The Zombie, the drink that single-handedly started the tiki craze. For those in the know, the name raises an “I've been there” eyebrow; for those unaware of the drink's perils and pleasures, it piques interest with an “I'll have one of those.”
Well, newbie Zombie drinker beware — the name alone should give you an idea of its potency. When Donn Beach, owner of the famous tiki hot spot Don the Beachcomber, created the drink in the 1930s, he proved his marketing savvy by refusing to serve any customer more than two of the tipple in one evening. Such was its legendary bibulous wallop. For many decades after Beach first offered his fruity, rum-based beverage, frustrated imitators offered ersatz versions of the original as no one could get access to Beach's coded recipe books.
Finally, however, several of those dog-eared recipe books made their way into the hands of tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who gamely deciphered Beach's code-worded ingredients list to piece together what most consider to be the definitive modern version of the Zombie. Along with 4 ounces of various rums, the drink included falernum, pernod (an anise-flavored liqueur), grenadine, and what Berry termed “Don's Mix” — a once-secret blend of grapefruit juice and cinnamon-infused syrup.
See also: Top 5 Tiki Bars in Los Angeles
The product of this recipe — and modern variations on the theme by various bartenders — is a concoction of subtle balance betwixt ingredients. It is a thing of beauty, as any well-engineered tiki drink can and should be. At the 1886 Bar at the Raymond, the tiki menu offers up a Zombie based on Beach's recipe via Berry and features often hard to find Lemon Hart 151, Beach's overproof rum of choice.
Various spots around L.A. also offer the Zombie; the Spare Room holds a monthly summer tiki night, and the classic tropical watering hole Tiki-Ti, which was opened in 1961 by one of Beach's former bartenders, uses its own Donn Beach recipe. A new incarnation of Don the Beachcomber even opened in Huntington Beach in 2009.
As to the name, which was likely inspired by the 1932 film White Zombie (the first full-length zombie movie, natch), the Zombie's moniker has apocryphal roots, tending to make drinkers feel like “a zombie” after drinking it. (Don't scoff, this is truly heavy-duty stuff.)
1886 barman Greg Gertmenian has some further observations: “Though tiki drinks and tiki culture took off like wildfire in the Hollywood of the 1930s and '40s, there was some male resistance to the bright colors, ornate fruit garnishes and mini umbrellas that typified the Polynesian-inspired libations. Creating a cocktail that was infamously strong, giving it a gruesome name and warning on the menu that the drink was limited to two per customer was one way Donn Beach was able to engage a male audience that would otherwise be socially wary of sipping something brightly colored through a long straw.” (Clearly, ladies had no such issue with said ornamentation, as fruity drinks are still one of the most popular choices of the female barhopper.)
So, gentlemen, start your engines and don't be afraid of the umbrella. After all, there is a sort of badge of honor to be earned when you drink a cocktail that, like the flesh-eating zombies of Haitian lore, can likewise devour your brain if restraint is not exercised. So, that said, two to a customer, please.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.