Quick history on a walking dead classic
By Tony Cross
In my selfish quest to explore the myriad rums out there — drink the myriad rums out there — I’ve actually figured out a way to tie it into October with a brief history lesson on the Zombie cocktail and its original 1934 recipe. There have been many different specs for this drink, and many bartenders (myself included) have built and served it incorrectly. That’s all changed now, thanks to one man, and his never-ending search for the earliest recipe.
I first read about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry years ago when my newfound love for rum began. His recipes were in Imbibe magazine, and I’d seen his name pop up in references from other bartenders across the U.S. Berry graduated from UCLA film school but, after minimal success, found himself committing full time to bartending and uncovering lost recipes from the early to mid-1900s. He’s opened a bar, Latitude 29 in New Orleans, and written a handful of books with extensive coverage on beach drinks. And if that’s not enough to make you break out in a hula, he recently developed an app for your phone, Total Tiki, that makes cocktailing easier, especially when you’re on the fly.
Berry’s search for the authentic, original Zombie recipe began with the man responsible for its creation, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, otherwise known as Donn Beach. In 1934, Beach opened up Don the Beachcomber’s in Hollywood. The tiki craze began. All of Beach’s creations were the real deal: fresh juices, intricate syrups, and different rums. Fifty-plus years later, Berry was having quite the time hunting down the Zombie ingredients. Apparently, Beach kept his creations a close secret, and it seemed next to impossible for Berry to unearth the original specs.
“In 1994 the Beachbum began a quest to track down Donn’s original Zombie recipe. Ten years and several blind alleys later, he was still none the wiser. But then the gods finally took pity on him. In 2005 their messenger, in the form of Jennifer Santiago, appeared with the drink recipe notebook that her father, Dick, had kept in a shirt pocket during his 15 years at Don The Beachcomber’s. Several of the notebook’s recipes had been reworked, renamed, or cut altogether from the Beachcomber’s menu by 1940 — proving that Dick’s notebook dated from the 1930s, possibly 1937, the year he was hired. Which meant that the notebook’s Zombie could very well be the original 1934 version.
“O cruel Fate! But there, on the last page of the notebook, scribbled in Dick’s own hand, was a recipe for New Don’s Mix: two parts grapefruit juice to one part . . . Spices #4″? Another code name!
“Bowed but not broken, the Bum asked Mike Buhen of the venerable Tiki-Ti bar if he’d ever heard of Spices #4. Since Mike’s dad, Ray, was one of the original Beachcomber’s bartenders in 1934, if anyone knew, Mike would. ‘Ray would go to the Astra Company out in Inglewood to pick up #2 and #4,’ Mike told the Bum. ‘A chemist would open a safe, take out the ingredients, and twirl some knobs in a big mixing machine, filling up a case while Ray waited. Then they’d close up the secret stuff in the safe. Ray took the bottles — marked only #2 and #4 — back to Don The Beachcomber’s.’ All well and good, but what did #4 taste like? ‘I have no idea,’ Mike shrugged. ‘Astra was owned by a guy named John Lancaster, who died of cancer in the ‘60s. The company’s long-gone.’
“And so the original Zombie Punch recipe sat, Sphinx-like, the solution to its riddle so close we could almost, well, taste it. Months went by. A year went by. And then the Bum made the acquaintance of a veteran Tiki bartender named Bob Esmino. Did he know what #4 was? ‘Oh, sure, from John’s old company,’ chuckled Bob, who hadn’t thought about the stuff in 40 years. ‘It was a cinnamon syrup.’”
Berry used to say that he’d never serve his guests more than two of his prized prescriptions at a time. That’s marketing at its finest, true or not. Though there’s more than one way to create this cocktail (Total Tiki has six different recipes that range from the 1930s to 2007), I’ll leave you with the original. You’ll see that a few of these rums are hard to obtain locally. May I suggest ordering online? As for glassware, there’s always cocktailkingdom.com. More recently, I stumbled upon a shop in Oregon that creates unique and beautiful tiki mugs: munktiki.com. The Zombie is a high-test treat; imbibe responsibly, and be even more careful if you’re playing host. Playing babysitter shouldn’t have to be a prereq in your party syllabus.
1 1/2 ounces Gold Puerto Rican Rum (I use Bacardi 8, flavors of tropical fruit and spice)
1 1/2 ounces Gold or Dark Jamaican Rum (I use my trusty Smith & Cross. That being said, Smith & Cross is Navy Strength, clocking in with a 57 percent ABV. I use 1/2 ounce. Otherwise, I’d use Appleton Estate Reserve.)
1 ounce Lemon Hart 151-proof Demerara Rum (distilled in Guyana, this big boy is a must-have ingredient for this cocktail; flavors of vanilla, caramel, and dried fruits)
1/2 ounce Falernum (a syrupy, very low-proof liqueur with flavors of clove, lime,and almond)
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Don’s Mix (two parts white grapefruit juice and one part cinnamon syrup*)
1 teaspoon grenadine (Rose’s Grenadine is not grenadine, it’s corn syrup — Google it)
6 drops pernod or absinthe (I opt for the latter)
1 dash Angostura Bitters
3/4 cup crushed ice
*Cinnamon syrup: Create a simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar) and add 10 ounces of syrup to a blender along with 8 grams of cinnamon sticks. Blend on high for 20 seconds. Pour into a container, sealing it, and leaving in the fridge over night. The next day, fine-strain out bits of cinnamon. Keep refrigerated.
Blend all ingredients for 3-5 seconds. Pour into a tall glass (again, very cool Zombie chimney glasses that Berry created are available online), and add ice if needed. Garnish with mint. Put on a “Cramps” record, and go to town.
Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.