The Zombie is the twentieth century’s most storied cocktail, with its invention becoming the touchstone for the first wave of Tiki cocktails in the middle of the last century. As best told by Tiki cocktail historian Beachbum Berry,
“Don the Beachcomber invented the tiki bar after Prohibition, where he also invented his most famous drink, the Zombie. Legend has it that he whipped it up one day to help a hung-over customer get through an important business meeting. When Don later asked how the hangover cure worked, the customer said, ‘I felt like the living dead–it made a zombie out of me.’ ”
And since the original’s exact ingredients remained a mystery until just a few years ago, innumerable knock-offs were served for decades, many of which became “standard” versions in their own right. With the help of Professor Cocktail, Isla Palenque’s F&B Supervisor Benny Olmos and I recently gave ourselves the (admittedly arduous) task of finding the best recipes to serve at Isla Palenque’s beachfront bar, Las Rocas.
After some research, taste testing, and experimentation, we realized that most (or at least most of the best) of the myriad zombie recipes over the decades broke down into three basic types, so devising our “zombie cocktail menu” really became a matter or honing those basic types. And while we were at it, we decided to invent our own version as well. So here we present four zombie recipes, just in time for your Halloween party and the new season of The Walking Dead.
The original truly is the best. While I’d known about this version for some time, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I was able to actually get all the ingredients together to make a true version; I always had to substitute one or more ingredients, based on what I could get my hands on. These versions were good, but it was hard for me to see what all the fuss was about. Finally tasting the correct version, however, was an absolute revelation. The secret is overproof Demerera rum, which (in addition to imparting a massive amount of alcohol to an already strong drink) has a complexity of flavors including molasses and smoke that simply can’t be replicated any other way.
- 3/4 oz lime juice (as always, there’s no substitute for fresh-squeezed)
- 1/2 oz falernum (a ginger-lime syrup; we make our own, but it’s also available pre-made from Fee Brothers, among others)
- 1/2 oz Don’s Mix (2 parts grapefruit juice and 1 part cinnamon syrup; make your own or buy it from BG Reynolds)
- 1 tsp grenadine
- 6 drops (1/8 tsp) pastis (such as Pernod) or absinthe
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 1-1/2 oz gold rum (we use Mt Gay from Barbados, but most any will do)
- 1-1/2 oz aged Jamaican rum (we use Appleton SPecial)
- 1 oz Lemon Hart 151-proof Demerera rum (I can’t imagine a substitute that would do this drink justice)
- 6 oz crushed ice
Mix in blender, and blend for just 5 seconds; pour into a tall glass (or tiki mug if you want to be super cool), and fill with cubed ice if needed; garnish with a small handful of large mint sprigs and include a straw.
You’ll note that in addition to having 10 ingredients, many of which are hard to find in the US (and impossible in Panama), this drink has 4 ounces of alcohol, one of which is overproof, so it is equivalent to a really stiff double. Don used to limit his customers to two. While I am sure that was mostly a marketing ploy, be careful with it: while finishing the first always makes me want a second, I have found I often regret the second one. And the few times I’ve had three I have felt terrible.
Also, if you are making these for a party or bar, or find that you love it so much you want to frequently make them, you can pre-mix everything but the rum and lime juice and reduce your preparation time by at least half. Just put in 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 ounces of the mix in with the lime juice and rums and you are ready to blend.
In 1940, Patrick Gavin Duffy’s The Official Mixer’s Manual included a recipe for the Zombie which was somewhat similar to Don the Beachcomber’s. My guess is that this was an attempt to replicate Don’s Zombie, but without having access to Don’s jealously guarded secret recipe. This recipe seems to have become the most common base for many, if not most, of the versions of Zombies that are out there. It’s a solidly good drink, though it’s missing that “je ne sais quoi” that makes Don’s so extraordinary.
Our recipe is a very slight variation on Duffy’s original, though (unlike many versions) we have kept in all of the three fresh fruit juices: I am pretty certain that the papaya juice is what makes this drink work, even though I know you are tempted to leave it out.
- 3/4 oz pineapple juice (fresh is best)
- 3/4 oz papaya juice (fresh is best)
- 3/4 oz lime juice (guess what’s best?)
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
- 1/2 oz apricot brandy
- 2 dashes pastis or absinthe
- 1 oz white rum (we use Panamanian seco, but Bacardi will work)
- 1-1/2 oz gold rum (we use Abuelo, but any aged rum will do)
- 1 oz dark Jamaican rum (we use Myers’s)
- 1/2 oz Lemon Hart 151-proof Demerera rum
Put everything except the Demerera in a blender with 6 ounces of crushed ice and blend for 5-10 seconds. Pour into a tall glass, add cubed ice if necessary, and float the Demerera on top. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge.
Note that this drink, like the original, is effectively equal to two, so drink with caution… Also, and in contrast to Don’s Zombie, I’m not certain that the Demerera is critical to this drink, so if you can’t get it, just leave it out. (But don’t skip the papaya…)
The Haitian Zombie Cup
Don invented his zombie sometime in the early- to mid-thirties. If you recall from our previous post, at about that same time our lush friend Charles Baker was traveling the world and writing his cocktail-ogue, The Gentlemen’s Companion (Jigger, Beaker & Flask).
One drink in this book was the “Zombie Cap-Haitian”; while quite distinct from Don’s Zombie, the original recipe was actually quite flat and uninteresting. It did, however, spawn a few variations over time, some of which are quite good. We’ve modified one of these modifications ourselves:
- 2 oz cognac (we use Hennessey)
- 1 oz Haitian rum (we use Barbancourt 4-year)
- 1-1/2 oz coconut milk
- 1/2 oz coconut cream
- 1/4 oz maraschino liqueur
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake with 3 ounces of crushed ice and pour unstrained into a rocks glass or tiki mug. Add crushed ice if necessary to fill the glass. No garnish.
With a relatively small number of ingredients (by Zombie standards), and without any requirements for fresh tropical fruit, this is the easiest of our recipes to make. And while it is also the only one with a typical amount of alcohol for a cocktail (about 3 ounces), it still tastes quite boozy.
The World War Z
This is a recipe we created on our own, though it’s really more of a simple mashup between the original Zombie and another legendary tropical drink, the Rum Runner. The Rum Runner is a cocktail invented by “Tiki John” Ebert in the early ’70s Florida Keys (shades of Jimmy Buffett, anyone?), allegedly from leftover ingredients. While it (of course) has other ingredients, the genius of the Rum Runner is in the equal parts mix of banana and blackberry liqueurs, much as (most of) the genius of the original Zombie is in the three rums, which marry so well.
We replaced the two drinks’ lime juice with passionfruit, which is readily available on our island and which works much better with the fruity liqueurs, and removed everything but the passionfruit and the geniuses. We’ve named it after the fast, running zombies of the movie World War Z. It’s quite good (if we do say so ourselves), and well worth trying if you can get your hands on some fresh passionfruit.
- 1 oz passionfruit juice (blend a passionfruit’s innards — seeds and all — and strain; add just a little sugar syrup if needed, to balance the fruit’s tartness)
- 3/4 oz blackberry liqueur (substitute with creme de cassis if necessary)
- 3/4 oz banana liqueur
- 1-1/4 oz aged Jamaican rum (Appleton, for example)
- 1-1/4 oz gold rum (we use Flor de Cana, but most any will work)
- 1/2 oz Lemon Hart 151-proof Demerera rum
Put everything in a blender with 6 ounces of crushed ice and blend for 5-10 seconds. Pour into a hurricane glass, and add crushed ice if necessary to fill. Garnish as desired, and add a straw.
We hope you enjoy making these recipes at home; if you don’t want to bother buying a ton of new ingredients for your bar, however, feel free to stay at Isla Palenque whenever you want and enjoy them with us. Besides, what better place to survive the zombie apocalypse than a private tropical island?
(And, by the way, if you do survive your own night of trying all our recipes, check out more of our island cocktail series.)