There was enough revelry and hard-core mixology on display this past Monday to wake the long-dead Tiki spirits at the legendary Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.
The evening consisted of three components. First, Tiki drink expert and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s seminar on the history of the Zombie cocktail, then the best contemporary mixologists competing in the “Zombie Jam,” followed by The Mai-Kai’s show and dinner.
When I first heard about this event, I had to pinch myself. Had I died and gone to Tiki heaven? My favorite Mai-Kai drink was being celebrated with a seminar by my mixology guru and a contest that was just beckoning for me to enter. So enter I did.
I had several concepts for a “contemporary” Zombie and settled on a potent little number I called the Atomic Zombie Cocktail. Over the course of a month or so it was fine-tuned and polished and from the initial feedback I thought I had a contender. It took quite a bit of work adjusting the recipe to make 100+ cocktails but I had done this before at Hukilau 2009 in a similar scenario so I wasn’t too worried. But I was the lone “amateur mixologist” in the contest, after all. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
What ended up being the biggest hurdle was the small space and dim lighting, but this was The Mai-Kai after all and I hoped to muster up some mana from the Tiki gods. Had I known whom I was up against (see below), I would have been more worried. But I dove in blindly, confident that my cocktails represented the Tiki and home bartending community proudly. I was happy to have the enthusiastic support of those folks.
We arrived several hours early to set up in The Mai-Kai’s Moorea dining room to the right of the stage and main dining area. We met Lyndon Higginson of the Bacardi UK Tiki Team and several of the other Zombie Jammers. It was an honor to be competing alongside such accomplished mixologists as Tommy Merolla (Botran Rum’s newest brand ambassador and mixologist for the Living Room at the W Hotel in South Beach) and the legendary Las Vegas flair bartender extraordinaire Tobin Ellis (you might have seen him face off against Bobby Flay on Throwdown on Food Network).
After we were all set up and ready to go, we sat down for some delicious Mai-Kai drinks and appetizers and enjoyed an enlightening presentation from the inimitable Mr. Berry. I never miss his seminars – and this was his first-ever presentation of the Zombie – so I made sure to catch as much as I could.
He traced the history of the famous tropical drink from its beginnings in the 1930s at Don The Beachcomber’s in Los Angeles up through the heyday of Tiki and Polynesian restaurants in the 1950s and ’60s. His source material was great, as usual, and included slides of vintage bars and restaurants, matchbooks, cocktail menus and more.
The most fascinating part of Jeff’s seminars are his first-person accounts of dogged investigations to unearth never-before-known recipes and information. The Zombie is a prime example of this. As samples were passed out to the several hundred in attendance, he delved into some of the original recipes in detail, but in a very lively and hands-on manner. He also expertly worked the on-stage bar to make impeccable drinks based on the original 1934 and 1950 Donn Beach Zombie recipes. It’s always fun to watch the master at work, sort of like gazing upon Yoda wielding a lightsaber.
By the way, if you ever need an exhaustive lesson in how to make a proper Zombie, you need to pick up Beachbum Berry Remixed and Sippin Safari, the books that pretty much single-handedly resurrect this long-forgotten drink. In its heyday it was one of the most popular (and imitated) drinks in the world, and you need to taste the originals to understand why.
I’ve tried ’em all, and my personal favorites are the 1950 “midcentury version”, the 1934 original (both by Donn Beach, aka Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt) and the mid-century version from The Tonga Room in San Francisco (most likely a riff on Donn’s 1950 version). Don’s 1956 version is very close behind. And I’d rank The Mai-Kai’s own unique take (no doubt created by the late Mariano Licudine, the former Don The Beachcomber bartender who created The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menu in 1956) right up there near the top as well.
It’s now contest time! After a slow start (it took a little time to get my complex, 15-ingredient little beauty ramped up) the hordes gathered and we served around 80 3-ounce versions of the Atomic Zombie Cocktail.
It was an adrenaline rush not only for the mixologists but also for the more than 100 judges/participants who sampled as many of the six cocktails on display as they could.
I’d like to give a big thanks to my wife, Susan, who provided a huge amount of help and support from the very start. She designed all the great fliers, artwork and signage and will always be my personal inspiration. And I couldn’t have provided such a professional (yet authentically Tiki) bar experience without my right hand, noted South Florida artist and renaissance man Nik “N!” Satterfield. Nik kept the drinks moving and conversation flowing as we entertained some great folks at our station.
Also a big mahalo to everyone who gave us great feedback and loved my drink (you know who you are). My traditional approach may not have been as adventurous as some of the other competitors but I believe the bold flavors and overall aesthetic were right up there near the top.
Finally, much respect to the other esteemed mixologists and congratulations to the winners. After the contest, the attendees and participants packed The Mai-Kai’s Molokai bar for the announcement of the “Zombie Master of Rum Renaissance 2011.” There was a tie for first place, wth Esteban Ordonez and the Don Q Rum team sharing honors with the aforementioned Mr. Ellis, who added another contest victory to his long list of accomplishments.
It was a great opportunity for The Atomic Grog and well worth all the sweat and toil to experience all the rum and revelry that made for an unforgettable event.
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