Updated Dec. 22, 2013
Our Halloween hangovers have long ago subsided, but one ghoulish remnant of the evil holiday has proven to be a year-round phenomenon. After decades of lying dormant and only occasionally awakening for a tasty feast, the undead have truly lurched into a renaissance.
Recipes: The Undead Gentleman | Frankie’s Tiki Room Zombie | Zombie face-off
Yes, we’re talking about zombies, folks. But not the flesh-eating kind, though the parallels are eerie. Sure, flicks starring zombies exploded in the mid-century, peaked in the ’60s and bottomed out in the ’70s and ’80s. They were later revived by a renewed interest in the finer points of the horror genre, with the current revival showing no signs of slowing down.
But our true obsession is Zombies with a capital Z. The legendary rum-based exotic drink devoured its competition in the post-Prohibition Tiki bar explosion, gained critical mass as Polynesian Pop reached its zenith, then went back underground when its enemies (bad ’70s and ’80s cocktails) gained a foothold.
In the 21st century, the great cinematic zombies have been embraced with gruesome glee by graphic novelists and indie filmmakers. Meanwhile, the great alcoholic Zombies have suddenly become a favorite of some of the most devious minds of both the Tiki revival and the craft cocktail movement.
A professor channels the Zombie zeitgeist
The latter trend, along with an exhaustive look back at the past 80 years of the never-say-die cocktail, is revealed in all its gory glory in a new book, Professor Cocktail’s Zombie Horde: Recipes for the World’s Most Lethal Drink. Lovingly splayed across 193 pages are 86 recipes from 1934 to 2013, including many that have never before appeared in print.
* Buy the e-book and paperback now via Amazon
It was released as an e-book in early October, just in time for Halloween imbibing, and was immediately devoured by cocktail laymen and luminaries alike. Due to popular demand, a paperback version was made available in December.
“Good (Tiki) god! I had no idea there are so many new versions of this potion out there – and most by reputable bartenders,” marveled Sven Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki and father of the modern Tiki revival.
“A great addition to your cocktail library,” according to Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. Said Philip Greene, author of To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion and co-founder of The Museum of the American Cocktail: “A thoroughly researched, dare I say exhaustive, compendium of this immortal (pun intended) and classic cocktail. … Hats off to Professor Cocktail, Corpse Compiler No. 1!”
It all started in Hollyweird
Zombie Horde is dedicated to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the acclaimed author and Tiki drink archaeologist. The watershed moment in the resurrection of the Zombie cocktail was the 2005 discovery and (after much ingredient sleuthing) the subsequent publication by Berry (in the 2007 book Sippin’ Safari) of the original 1934 recipe by Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber. The first Zombie, coincidentally, was served in Beach’s original bar in Hollywood, home of filmdom’s most macabre monsters.
Berry talked about his 10-year quest to find the recipe that launched a thousand imitators in a recent interview with DigiTiki on The Quiet Village podcast. Berry is currently promoting Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them, his upcoming sixth book and the sequel to Sippin’ Safari. The Atomic Grog will feature much more insights into the long-awaited hardcover opus before and after its Dec. 10 release.
* Click here for more info on Potions of the Caribbean and get info on how to pre-order
That Quiet Village episode (No. 62) also features (along with the requisite exotica music) an entertaining live mixing and review of vintage Zombie recipes from Berry’s books. This inspired the reviews and Zombie face-off you’ll find below. It’s no surprise that three of the best are creations of Donn Beach himself: the 1934 original, a very different 1950 version, and an equally potent 1956 update. [Click here for the 1934 and 1950 recipes]
“He just kept monkeying with it, kept changing it over the years,” Berry told Digitiki. “Part of the reason may have been to stay one step ahead of his competitors.” Between Don the Beachcomber changing his recipe and keeping the ingredients in code so none of his bartenders could pilfer it, the competition was left clueless. But that didn’t stop dozens of imitators, many documented in Zombie Horde. The drink was so popular, it was mandatory on tropical drink menus across the country. “It was just everywhere, for years and years and years,” Berry said. “And it really did fuel the Tiki craze.”
Like the original drink did in the 1930s, Berry’s publication of Don the Beachcomber’s original recipe has set off a chain reaction. But with much better results. “You can actually go have an original 1934 Zombie in Tiki bars around the world, which is extremely cool,” Berry said on the podcast. And thanks to the coinciding Tiki revival and craft cocktail movement, mixologists have been inspired to make their own Zombies that put most of the past half century’s recipes to shame.
On the hunt for Zombies: Good, bad and ugly
Professor Cocktail’s Zombie Horde: Recipes for the World’s Most Lethal Drink takes the recipes from some of the world’s best bartenders and mixologists from the Zombie’s sordid 80-year history – sometimes gruesome, often creative, always deadly – and packages them into an easy-read, easy-to-use resource. Even if you don’t plan on making all of the concoctions it’s a very interesting read for fans of classic cocktails, particularly tropical drinks.
Zombie Horde includes most of the Don the Beachcomber variations unearthed by Berry, a slew of other classics from Tiki’s heyday, plus an assortment of less-impressive copycats from the dying decades. But most impressive are the dozens of Zombie-inspired cocktails from the current craft cocktail renaissance by some of the most respected mixologists in the business. Professor Cocktail (aka David J. Montgomery) also did a lot of digging, turning up drinks from some unlikely sources. The book includes 10 recipes that have never before seen the light of day in book form, and two concocted specifically for Zombie Horde.
Overview: The chronicles of cocktail history’s deadliest drink
Montgomery is well-equipped for his role of Zombie hunter. He has long mixed his dual loves of booze and history on his ProfessorCocktail.com blog. Zombie Horde is like a doctoral student’s well-researched dissertation. When he’s not chasing down Zombies, the former history professor is a nationally-known book critic and commentator on writing and the publishing industry, plus an author of short fiction. He’s an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and his articles have appeared in such publications as USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs with his wife and two daughters.
Beyond the Donn Beach classics, Zombie Horde includes the handiwork of legendary barmen such as Trader Vic Bergeron, David Embury, Salvatore Calabrese and Dale DeGroff, plus recipes from famous Tiki bars such as the Tonga Room in San Francisco, Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, and the Luau Room in San Diego. The many contemporary recipes include concoctions by Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco), Brian Miller (Death + Company, Tiki Mondays with Miller, New York City), Allan Katz (Caña Rum Bar, Los Angeles), and Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club, New York City).
Zombie Horde also showcases never-before-published cocktails from Jim Meehan (PDT, New York City), Joseph Swifka (La Descarga, Hollywood) and Jack Fetterman (PKNY, New York City), among others. Montgomery also reveals unpublished recipes from Bar Agricole in San Francisco, the Mahiki in London and Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York City.
Zombies come at us in waves
Zombie Horde‘s recipes (and their back stories) are organized in chronological order, which makes it easy to scan different eras. I would love more background (and photos) of each drink, but I understand the limited budget of this endeavor. The book does include a comprehensive introduction and a useful rundown of all the common ingredients.
Looking at the table of contents, the first thing you notice is that the number of recipes roughly mirrors the rise and fall of the drink’s popularity as outlined above. Following Donn Beach’s groundbreaking 1934 original, there are 22 recipes from the next 25 years as Tiki bars flourished. These include not only the 1950 and 1956 Don the Beachcomber classics, but very serviceable Zombies from Trader Vic (1947) and the Tonga Room (1952). But from studying the recipes and sampling a few, it’s clear that, as Beachbum Berry points out, Don Beach’s competitors didn’t have a clue as to what he was putting in his famed Zombie.
One of the most popular (and copied) non-Beachcomber Zombie recipes was introduced by writer Patrick Gavin Duffy in his Official Mixer’s Manual (1940). Though he (like many) also claimed to have invented the drink, it’s telling that it was absent from his 1934 edition. It also includes very non-Beachcomber ingredients (papaya juice, apple brandy and a sprinkling of powdered sugar) that were copied by many other imitators. Note that this is the recipe that Beachbum Berry included in his first book, before discovering the Donn Beach treasure trove. Duffy’s drink isn’t horrible, it’s just nowhere near the balanced bliss you’ll find in versions that are closer to Donn’s spicy and exotic genius.
David A. Embury was a practicing lawyer in the 1940s when he wrote an influential book called The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks. His Zombie recipe from 1948 also includes papaya juice and powdered sugar, plus apricot brandy – another ingredient that pops up in inferior versions to this day. Along with a second-rate recipe, Embury includes an amusing diatribe against the Zombie. Perhaps he was a little miffed that Donn Beach never shared his most famous (and popular) recipes.
One other ingredient to watch for is the overproof rum. As Tiki mixolgists well know, Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum is much superior to any other overproof option. Though, curiously, the Zombie recipe that Montgomery included from the Lemon Hart company (circa 1973) features the brand’s dark 80-proof rum and not the 151.
Trader Vic took a different approach with two 1940s recipes, featuring lemon juice, orange juice and orange curacao along with a heavy dose of rums (including Lemon Hart) and other ingredients. These flavors are common to Trader Vic cocktails, and carried through to Vic’s recipes from 1972, 2003 and 2005 (sans the Lemon Hart) also included in the book. I’m partial to his 1947 version, which includes a crucial anise flavor (via Pernod or Herbsaint).
The de-evolution and re-animation of the Zombie
After the initial feeding frenzy, Zombie recipes in the book drastically taper off in the 1960s (only two), ’70s (nine) and ’80s (just one) as Tiki culture (and cocktails) went into a free fall. The book does, however, include some worthy recipes from this era that I plan to try out, such as the Lemon Hart version noted above.
Despite the burgeoning craft cocktail movement, the 1990s saw just a modest six new Zombie recipes, and nothing that broke new ground. Eight recipes are featured from the early 2000s, prior to Sippin’ Safari, but again they were still following the same old, borrowed templates. Versions by Trader Vic and the esteemed Salvatore Calabrese are pedestrian at best.
Then, seemingly, the Red Sea of Zombie mixology was parted by Berry’s revelatory 2007 book, and Zombie recipes exploded. Professor Cocktail was able to scare up an astonishing 37 recipes from just the past seven years, providing many of the book’s highlights. While not a classic Zombie, PKNY’s Guyanese Zombie (2013) is a full-flavored favorite. Several others are profiled below and many are on my to-do list.
Today’s mixolgists have certainly reinvigorated the Zombie with a new enthusiasm not seen since Tiki’s mid-century heyday. Some of the most reverent reinterpretations come from non-Tiki establishments, such as the sweet and potent 11-ingredient Chief’s Zombie (2008) from chef Jon Arroyo at Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C. Or Justin Pike’s 1940s Zombie, a 13-ingredient tour de force that – believe it or not – arose from the Tasting Kitchen, a French-Italian fusion restaurant in Venice, Calif, in 2012. Both feature absinthe, the infamous anise-flavored spirit.
Some go in completely different directions, such The Winchester (2009, Brian Miller of Death + Company) and its three different gins instead of rum. Or the bourbon-based Living Dead, aka Kentucky Zombie (2009), from The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book. Several take the Zombie south of the border with tequila-infused recipes, such as Muertos Vivientos (The Living Dead) from the Voodoo Tiki Tequila brand (2012), or the Reposado Zombie from PNKY (2013).
The award for complexity goes to Allan Katz of Caña Rum Bar, whose Twenty-Eight Days Later (2011) contains a whopping 16 ingredients, including four rums and mezcal. I’m lacking only the mezcal and Tuaca liqueur, so this is near the top of my hit list. The award for off-the-wall bizarreness goes to Martin Cate, whose “Brainwashed Rum” infused with calf brains is the key ingredient in The Zombie Apocalypse (2012). Despite the book’s step-by-step instructions on how to conjure up this ghoulish creation, I think I’ll pass.
Dissecting the Zombies, putting them to the test
So far, I’ve sampled seven post-2007 recipes from the book, with many more to come. The one problem I’m running into – which seems to be a increasing frustration for those of us who want to make home versions of recipes from today’s craft cocktail bars – is the sometimes obscure ingredients. Now, I’m certainly not one of those guys who complains every time he sees an odd liqueur or syrup in a recipe.
My home bar is stocked with nearly 350 items, including (at last count) 55 liqueurs, 44 syrups, and a rum collection that just topped 100 [Update coming soon]. I’ve spent 10 years accumulating ingredients to make more than 260 of the concoctions in Beachbum Berry’s five books to date. On The Grogalizer, a wonderful resource featuring reviews and ratings of drinks from those books, I’ve checked off 175 of the 185 ingredients in the database.
Yet I’m still missing crucial items to make 13 Zombie recipes, all from 2009 and beyond. I’m a huge supporter of the craft cocktail movement and love sampling new flavors, but it might be a while before I pick up some of the obscure bitters, liqueurs, wines and even juices (has anyone seen fresh pomelo lately?) required to make some of these cocktails.
But this is not to diminish the book and any way, shape or form. Only 13 out of 86 recipes is probably a very good percentage these days. Another notable cocktail book that landed on my desk recently and awaits review will probably have a much higher missing-ingredient rate.
A well-mannered modern Zombie from a master mixologist
From the creative mind of Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, this is a standout among the modern versions of the Zombie in Professor Cocktail’s book.
* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice (white or pink)
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 1/2 ounce cinnamon syrup
* 1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
* 1 1/2 ounces aged Jamaican rum
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake and fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass that has been rinsed with absinthe blanc. Garnish with a lime and grapefruit twist that have been twisted together.
This is my favorite so far among the contemporary Zombies in the book, a relatively simple cocktail (in Zombie terms) that still packs a punch. The cinnamon is a little heavy, so dial that back depending on the intensity of the syrup you’re using. I much prefer white grapefruit, since that’s the classic juice used in the Zombie, but pink may be worth a try. Beyond that, it’s all classic ingredients here, presented in elegant manner. In lieu of the fruit, I garnished with a cocktail demon in honor of Halloween.
Martin Cate is the mastermind behind Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and one of the best Tiki mixologists in the business. This is his alternative to the regular Zombie he serves at his bar (Don the Beachcomber’s 1934 recipe). Coincidentally, The Atomic Grog also launched a sophisticated Zombie in 2011 that’s served in a cocktail glass. The Atomic Zombie Cocktail, one of the competitors the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival’s Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai, is quite a bit more complex than The Undead Gentleman but also highly recommended.
Related: The Atomic Grog interview with Martin Cate
Putting Tiki back on the map in Vegas
One of the most popular Tiki bars of the modern revival is Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, which opened in late 2008. It has survived where others have failed with a commitment to well-crafted drinks, lavishly presented in a vintage atmosphere just off the famous Strip.
FRANKIE’S TIKI ROOM ZOMBIE
(From Liquid Vacation: 77 Refreshing Tropical Drinks from Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, Stephens Press, 2013)
* 2 ounces pineapple juice
* 1/2 ounce white grapefruit juice
* 3/4 ounce lime juice
* 1/2 ounce grenadine
* 3/4 ounce Appleton Special gold Jamaican rum
* 3/4 ounce Myers’s dark Jamaican rum
* 1/2 ounce Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
* 1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
* 1 drop Pernod
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Build over ice in a 14-ounce double old-fashioned glass, then pour contents into a cocktail shaker. Shake, then pour into the glass. Garnish with pineapple and cherries.
A heavy dose of maraschino liqueur (lifted from the 1956 Don the Beachcomber recipe) gives this Zombie a refreshingly dry character. Flavorful rums add a nice kick, yet it doesn’t taste overtly strong like many Zombies due to its nice balance. Someone definitely studied the classics when they created this. It shares traits with Donn Beach’s more accessible 1950 Zombie, but it also boasts the complexity of the 1934 original [see recipes]. Overall, a fine reinterpretation for modern tastes.
In addition to Zombie Horde, this recipe appears in the wonderfully illustrated hard-cover book Liquid Vacation: 77 Refreshing Tropical Drinks from Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, published earlier this year. It features 60 original recipes plus 17 takes on classic Tiki drinks by the Frankie’s mixologists, an overview of Tiki in Vegas, plus great photography and design. Once we track down a few more of the unique ingredients (see pet peeve above), we’ll have a complete review on this blog.
While Professor Cocktail’s site includes a great batch recipe for “Party Zombies” (and my Atomic Zombie can also be batched), I took a different approach this year while hosting a Day of the Dead party.
With this review still taking shape, I took the opportunity to mix up a couple of Zombie Horde recipes that were new to me, and pit them against a couple tried-and-true classics. With the lights dim and the first three episodes of Season 4 of The Walking Dead queued up on the DVR, it was time to unleash the Zombies …
Dale DeGroff’s Zombie (2008) vs. Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie Punch (1934)
Known as King Cocktail, Dale DeGroff is considered the godfather of the craft cocktail movement by virtue of his groundbreaking work over the past three decades as a James Beard award-winning mixologist and author (The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail). If anyone has the chops to topple the mightly Donn Beach from the top of the Zombie heap, it’s DeGroff. The recipe in Zombie Horde, from The Essential Cocktail, even comes with the claim of “improvements” over the Don the Beachcomber classic that was unearthed by Beachbum Berry in 2007’s Sippin’ Safari.
In this clash of the titans, DeGroff comes up short. His is not a bad Zombie, but hardly an “improvement” over Donn’s classic. Compared head-to-head, it falls short in both flavor and overall punch. In my opinion, the 1 1/2 ounces of orange juice is a bit too heavy handed, and though the lighter dose of rum is probably more socially responsible by today’s standards, it takes away from the drink’s impact. The other flavors (including Jamaican and Demerara rums, falernum, Don’s Mix, lime, Angostura bitters and absinthe) are spot-on, however, to DeGroff’s credit. This version could perhaps compete with Beach’s 1956 Zombie, but the 1934 original eats it alive.
Drink’s Zombie (2009) vs. The Mai-Kai’s Zombie (2011 tribute)
Since anything goes in Zombie warfare, I brought out a ringer for round 2. Though it doesn’t appear in Zombie Horde, I consider the Zombie served at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale to be one of the all-time best. The recipe, introduced in 1956 by Don the Beachcomber alum Mariano Licudine and still held to the same high standards today, is a closely guarded secret. But I believe my tribute recipe captures its essence.
So the Zombie from the Drink gastropub in Boston never really stood a chance. Acclaimed as one of the best craft cocktail bars in the country, Drink introduced a very traditional Zombie in 2009 that features such classic ingredients as Lemon Hart 151 rum, falernum, Herbsaint, grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup. It’s not a bad attempt, just not as well balanced as the classics. Rhum Barbancourt was an interesting addition, yet it doesn’t get a chance to shine amid all the other somewhat muddled ingredients. The winner, hands down, was The Mai-Kai Zombie tribute.
Professor Cocktail furthers an ongoing field of study
Despite (or perhaps because of) the dedicated work of David Montgomery, it’s now clear that even more research is needed into every dark corner of Zombiedom. If that means subjecting myself to more recipes from Zombie Horde, so be it. It’s a scary job, but somebody has to do it.
I just hope that I can some day graduate from the ranks of student to join the professor in furthering this frightening field of study, founded by a humble Bum with nothing more than a thirst for vintage cocktail knowledge.
* Official website | Zombie Horde overview | Download a free excerpt
* Buy the book on Amazon.com
* How to read Zombie Horde without a Kindle
* Making Zombies for your Halloween party
* 1934 Zombie recipe | Video: The Mahiki Zombie
* Official website | Pre-order Potions of the Caribbean and buy past titles
More Zombies on The Atomic Grog
* Zombie alert: 5 crucial things you need to know about the deadly cocktail
* Mai-Kai cocktail review: The theory of evolution of the Zombie
* Beachbum Berry digs deep to unearth vintage Zombies, more ‘Potions of the Caribbean’
* We be Jammin: Rum Renaissance Zombie fest at The Mai-Kai
* Recipe: The Atomic Zombie Cocktail
More Zombie resources online
* Video: Robert Hess shows you how to make a Don the Beachcomber 1956 Zombie
* Tiki Central: Zombie Horde discussion | Zombie recipes