Dipsology - Beyond the Basics: the Mysterious History of a Ghoulish Classic, the Zombie

Happy Day Of The Pumpkin

Of course on Halloween, there need to be some themed elixirs to pour over, and one rises to the top with prominence and both longstanding stature and contemporary significance. It is a revered classic that has been popular for generations, and it touches on our current culture, where entertainment has been consumed with the subject matter in still expanding ways.

I am talking of course, about — The Zombie.

This is a drink that nearly every single sipper is at least familiar with, and at the same time, very few know what it is comprised of, if you challenged them.

This is not a flaw in the drinker. The Zombie is such that you could go to five different drinking emporiums, and the likelihood is you will get five different results after ordering the drink. You will get some kind of rum and fruit concoction, to be sure, but the actual makeup of the cocktail will differ. This is by design; not to have interpretational creations, but because the drink was a proprietary protected species.

In the early 1930s, just a prohibition was peeled back, in Hollywood, a bar owner began experimenting with rum. Likely inspired by trips to the Caribbean with his father, Ernest Beaumont Gantt began creating a growing list of original cocktails for his newly opened emporium, Don The Beachcomber’s. 

Gantt noticed a growing interest in exotic locales in various forms of entertainment, so he created his own oasis, and in the process crystallized the elements in a way that launched America’s tiki culture (which I explored in a prior column).

The bar became so popular that Gantt legally changed his name to Donn Beach, and he also inspired more than flattering imitators. Tiki bars flourished in a wildfire fashion, and Donn soon saw people were not only copying his idea, but they were also literally stealing it.

His plethora of drinks were not just being recreated but copied, because, in many instances, these new competitors were hiring away Donn’s bartenders and having them compose his original creations under their new, thatched roofs. He had to come up with a method of protecting his intellectual potable property.

One of the most popular cocktails at Beachcomber’s was The Zombie, and Donn had built a mystique around it. The highly charged drink was such that he had a decree on his menus — customers were limited to only two of these signature drinks per visit. The restriction created a demand, and the concoction was a hit.

But he needed to protect this prized potable. He had to go beyond having a secret recipe; he had to keep it hidden from his own mixologists, who were prone to be lured away and dispense his formula elsewhere.

This Oct. 1, 2015 photo shows a taqueria and a giant head over a tiki bar on Fourth Avenue in downtown Tucson, Ariz. The funky street houses vintage clothing shops, a food co-op, and st


But at the same time he needed these hooch-slingers to still compose the drinks, so he hit upon a method. He came up with a recipe that would incorporate up to 10 or more secret ingredients — in a way for his bar-backs to still be able to mix. It would read in a fashion, “One part #1 / 2 parts #3 / 3oz. #5…” etc. Donn had his various ingredients stored in bottles behind the bar, each unlabeled and only designated with a number. This way, his bartenders followed a coded recipe.

To further make the contents of the drink opaque, he used some ingredients which were of his own blending, made in secret. Even if a pourer could discern a particular rum, let’s say, some of the other components were never revealed to them, so the entire concoction was not a solvable riddle. One story even had Donn getting an employee to visit another proprietor, who mixed things in private and would sell the premixed mystery bottles made to order.

As a result, the competition, never able to glean the actual recipe, ended up selling their own version of The Zombie in their bars, and this only ended up making the true composition of the cocktail a deeper mystery that went unsolved for generations.

To unlock the mystery it would take an intrepid amount of investigation, with travels and discoveries no less intrepid than those employed by Indiana Jones. In the modern tiki community, there is one name held in high esteem and who has the means to solve this cocktail conundrum — Beachbum Berry.

                      Eric Risberg

Jeff Berry is the modern version of Donn Beach. A bar owner himself, Berry has written numerous books on cocktail lore and history, been profiled in numerous publications, has his own line of bar goods and glassware, and is a revered figure throughout the tiki realm. Berry spent years investigating the recipe behind The Zombie, a quest that he detailed in his book, Sippin’ Safari.

After more than a decade of sleuthing, things still were not totally revealed. But then Berry meet a daughter of one of the bartenders from Don The Beachcomber, and she had his original bartender’s notebook. In it Berry found many a solution — and still more mystery.

Some of the ingredients were said to be mixed with particular spices, but like the colonel of KFC fame, these, too, were a guarded secret. It took a visit with the progeny of another bartender to tip Berry off about the now-closed business that mixed the spices, and another, long-in-the-tooth tiki bartender to discern this last component.

After a quest of nearly 15 years, Beachbum Berry had essentially locked in on the Original Zombie recipe. As is frequently the case with the tiki cocktails of yore, particular elements need modern modifications or acceptable replacements, but you will be as close as ever to sipping on the drink as Donn Beach intended.


The Classic Zombie

For the final discovered component — Don’s Mix — you need to make Cinnamon syrup.

Here is the basic method of making Simple Syrup, with added components. In a pan add equal parts 1 cup sugar and water. To this include two cinnamon sticks crushed, and a full vanilla bean, split. Bring to a boil and then turn heat to Low, until the sugar is fully dissolved. Cool, refrigerate ingredients for 48 hours, then strain into a serving vessel.

To make Don’s Mix combine 2 parts Grapefruit Juice and 1 part Cinnamon syrup.

  • 3/4 oz. Lime Juice
  • 1 shot Falernum (there are syrups versions, or rum-based. Some substitute with Orgeat)
  • 1 shot Gold Rum (Puerto Rican originally)
  • 1 shot Dark Rum (Puerto Rican originally)
  • 1 oz. 151 Rum (Demerara originally)
  • 1 tsp. Grenadine
  • 6 drops of Pernod
  • 2 Dashes Bitters (Angostura)
  • 1/2 oz. Don’s Mix

Place Ingredients in a blender with crushed ice. Blend only a few seconds, NOT to a smooth consistency. Pour into Collins Glass, garnish with sprig of mint.


For some simpler Halloween options, with some more readily available ingredients, here are a couple of themed drinks, you can craft for the adults tonight, as they deal with adolescent goblins running amok and amped on confections.

Witch (Credit: Brad Slager)

The Witches Cauldron

A great-looking mixture that actually has layers of flavors

  • 1 shot Dragonfruit Vodka (other fruit flavors acceptable pending availability)
  • 1 oz. Coconut Rum
  • 3/4 oz. Melon Liquor
  • 1/2 oz. Key Lime Cream Liquor

Add ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake well. Strain into a martini glass rimmed with black sugar. As you sip, the sugar will melt into the mixture.


The Candy Bag

This is a nice combination of sweetness to find in your glass after a candy haul.

  • 1 Shot Whipped Cream Vodka
  • 1 oz. Chocolate Vodka
  •  3/4 oz. Butterscotch Liquor
  • 1/2 oz. Rumchata

Mix ingredients in a shaker, strain into a martini glass rimmed with orange sugar.

Candy Bag (Credit: Brad Slager)

Magic Potion

Inspired by my cohost on our podcast, The Cocktail Lounge. For the holiday, @AggieRican conjured this spooky potable.

  • 1 shot Dragonfruit Vodka
  • 1oz. Blue Curacao
  • oz. Banana Liquor
  • 1 tsp. Lime Juice

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice, strain into a martini glass rimmed with black sugar.

Potion (Credit: Brad Slager)


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