Until cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed the mystery behind Don the Beachcomber’s classic Zombie cocktail, the true recipe lay buried for more than 70 years. Berry’s discovery and publication of his findings in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari (2007) spurred a revival and greater appreciation of the deadly drink that continues to this day.
Simultaneously and coincidentally, the world of cinema also went zombie crazy, ushering in a renaissance of the modern horror archetype. Of the 30 films on a recently published list of “The best zombie movies of all time,” half were released in the 21st century.
With the precision of a pathologist, Berry dissected and definitively revealed the template that the bootlegger turned Tiki cocktail pioneer used to create what was arguably the most popular drink of the post-Prohibition era. The original 1934 recipe is a groundbreaking masterpiece, combining multiple rums and spices with sweet and sour juices and syrups, bitters, and even a touch of anise. Stay tuned for the upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film (The Donn of Tiki) for the full story of his life and times.
But what inspired the name of the cocktail? We can only assume it was White Zombie, released just a year or two before the drink and considered to be the first zombie film. Starring monster movie legend Béla Lugosi, it’s a far cry from today’s gore fests featuring flesh-eating corpses. The movie is actually fairly faithful to the true folklore, spinning the tale of a Haitian voodoo priest who drugs his victims and turns them into zombie slaves.
In the ensuring years, that origin story has been widely ignored by pop culture. The movie genre traces its modern roots to director George Romero and his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Nearly every movie or TV series since has loosely followed Romero’s template of reanimated corpses mindlessly running amok for no apparent reason, with political and social statements thrown in for good measure.
Back in the 1930s, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach) simply borrowed the name and made no attempt at connecting it to its island of origin. But what if we go back to the roots of the true zombie legend and use it as inspiration for not one, but two new Zombie cocktails?
But first, here’s a quick history lesson on the mythology and cultural significance of what has become known as the zombie.
BACKGROUND: Haitian zombie folklore rooted in slavery, French colonialism
The true story behind zombie folklore is scarier and more tragic than a movie.
Like its sister islands, what is now Haiti was invaded and colonized by a European power. France established Saint-Domingue in 1664, growing it into the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean on the backs of African slaves.
The brutal practice came to a violent end in 1791, when slaves staged a mass revolt and rose up against their oppressors. By 1794, the French government abolished slavery throughout its empire, more than 70 years before the 13th Amendment ended the practice in the United States.
The revolt sparked the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804 with the island’s independence and heroic ex-slave Toussaint Louverture installed as Haiti’s first governor general. It was a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World, distinctive as the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state that was both free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former captives.
The legend of the zombie, or “zonbi” as it was known in Haitian Creole culture, could be considered a metaphor for the horrors of slavery.
The word itself and the concept of zombie-like creatures can be traced back to African origins. Some research has also found a connection to the island’s indigenous Taíno people, known for their shamanist practices. The African slaves brought with them traditions and from their homeland, including the “Vodou” religion.
Haitian Vodou developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, merging traditional religions of west and central Africa with Roman Catholicism. In Haitian culture, a zonbi is a dead body brought back to life by a Vodou sorcerer known as a “bokor.” According to legend, the zonbi is under the total control of the bokor as a personal slave and lacks any will of its own. It’s part of a complex, spiritual belief (“soul dualism”) that a person has two or more kinds of souls.
One soul (“body soul”) is associated with body functions while the other (“free soul” or “wandering soul”) can leave the body. In the belief system of the enslaved Africans brought to Haiti, the afterlife included a return to their homeland, where both souls were reunited. However, if they had offended their voodoo deity, they would remain a zonbi and be a slave for eternity.
The fear of “zombification” was used by slave drivers to discourage slaves from committing suicide. These men who directed the daily work were often slaves themselves and sometimes also practicing voodoo priests, according to scholars. After the revolution, the zonbi became part of Haitian folklore, a stirring reminder of the past in the hope that it never happens again.
The earliest references to zombies in the United States, cited throughout the 1800s, were also closely associated with slavery and connected to African traditions. But the phenomenon went mainstream during the United States’ military occupation of Haiti (1915–1934).
Travel writer William Seabrook’s book, The Magic Island (1929), revealed “voodoo cults” in Haiti and likely inspired the 1932 film White Zombie. Though it takes place in Haiti, the film twists the legend to appeal to its American audience. I Walked With A Zombie, a 1943 horror movie set in a fictional Caribbean island, further strays from the original legend. By 1968 and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the horror film was cloaked in social commentary and civil rights, leaving Haiti’s zonbi myth to the history books.
The Haitian zombie made a brief comeback in 1985, when anthropologist Wade Davis published his controversial findings in the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which recounted his experiences investigating Vodou cults in Haiti. It was criticized for scientific inaccuracies in regards to its theories about psychoactive drugs, but it was a commercial success and inspired the 1988 horror film of the same name (starring Bill Pullman).
But just when you thought the legend was dead and buried, a more socially aware mindset has sparked new interest.
The 2019 French horror film Zombi Child explores everything from Haitian Vodou culture to French colonialism – to much critical acclaim. It had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and was shown at other film fests around the world.
It appears that you can’t kill the original zombie legend after all.
* The Origins of the Zombie, from Haiti to the U.S. (Monstrum / PBS)
* How the zombie represents America’s deepest fears (Vox)
* The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies (The Atlantic)
* Where do zombies come from? (BBC)
* Nathan S. Kline’s Zombi in Haiti (Duke University)
* Tracing The History Of ‘Zombie’ From Haiti To The CDC (NPR)
* Zombies: The Real Story of the Undead (Live Science)
* The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead (Harvard Magazine)
RECIPES: New Zombies pay tribute to influence of France, Haiti on Tiki cocktail culture
Considering the history of zombies in Haiti and the influence of slavery and French colonialism, it makes perfect sense that we look to France and the island nation for inspiration for two new Zombie recipes.
Donn Beach was inspired greatly by his travels to the Caribbean before and during Prohibition, but it’s not known if he visited Martinique. We do know that he was enamored with that island’s French rums (aka rhum) and he included many on his early menus. The Island of Martinique Cocktail and others displayed his proclivity for mixing with fine French spirits.
France’s influence includes more than just rhum, so we tried to include as many nods to République Française as we could in Le Zombi. At least half of the ingredients have a French connection.
Though Haiti does not have a strong connection to cocktail culture, there’s still quite a bit of rhum and spirits history in the turbulent island nation. In fact, there’s some evidence that Don the Beachcomber himself may have visited early in his life. The son of a Louisiana hotel owner and born Earnest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, he gravitated to the rum-running business during Prohibition.
In Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them (2014, Cocktail Kingdom), Beachbum Berry wrote that “Earnest learned all about rum by smuggling it into the Florida Keys from both the Greater and Lesser Antilles, where he also learned about rum drinks in ‘those old, broken bars Grandpappy loved in Haiti or Havana.’ ” The quote comes from Donn Beach’s uncompleted memoir.
Berry also shares some engrossing tales of life in Haiti during the post-World War II years, when VIPs and adventurous tourists flocked to Port-au-Prince’s Grand Hotel Oloffson, aka the “Greenwich Village of the Tropics.” The hotel’s signature drink was a rum punch featuring the island’s signature Rhum Barbancourt, published by Trader Vic in his 1947 bar guide.
While it doesn’t follow the same standards as rhum agricole, Barbancourt is made in a similar French style. It’s distilled from sugar cane juice and carries with it a rich, cognac-like flavor. We made sure to include two different Rhum Barbancourt products in our Haitian Zombie recipe below, along with a spirit that received only a brief mention in one recipe in Berry’s book.
Named for Haiti’s first president, Pétion (served at the Tourist Bar in Port-au-Prince) features Rhum Barbancourt and Bénédictine (a French liqueur we also featured in Le Zombi). Published in 1949 in Esquire’s Handbook For Hosts, it’s likely one of the first published recipes to call for “clairin,” a Haitian moonshine similar to rhum.
Berry wrote that clairin was “difficult to find, even in Haiti,” but much has changed since the book’s release nearly eight years ago. Clairin began to be officially exported to the United States in 2017 and has since gained cult status among rum fanciers in the know. There are multiple brands bottling the intense and pungent unaged spirit that makes even white rum agricole seem tame.
Clairin also carries with it a great cultural significance, which makes it the perfect choice to round out our tribute to the Haitian legend that will never die. Buckle your seatbelt and enjoy these two new additions to the Zombie cocktail canon. Savor the complex flavors as well as the stories behind the original “walking dead.” As usual, be very careful with your consumption or risk ending up in a similar state.
(By Hurricane Hayward, The Atomic Grog)
* 3/4 ounce white grapefruit juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce fassionola
* 1/2 ounce Martinique canne sirop
* 1/2 ounce Bénédictine
* 1 ounce rhum agricole blanc (100 proof if possible)
* 1 1/2 ounces Plantation O.F.T.D. rum (138 proof)
* 3 dashes Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters
Pulse blend with 1 1/2 cups of crushed ice for 8-10 seconds. Serve in a Zombie glass, topped with more ice and mint garnish.
Big, bold and spicy like any great Zombie. The Bénédictine takes center stage with the rums and bitters, creating a familiar yet distinctive flavor profile. There are also rich and sweet undertones, making Le Zombi highly drinkable … and equally dangerous.
Background and ingredient notes
A French influence dominates this Zombie tribute, hence the name.
* Bénédictine is an herbal liqueur invented and produced in France since 1863. (The brand is now owned by Bacardi.) The proprietary recipe reportedly includes 27 flowers, berries, herbs, roots, and spices. In Le Zombi, it fills the role of the traditional anise liqueur.
* Martinique canne sirop is a sugar syrup made on the French island from fresh cane and featured in the traditional Ti Punch. More rich and complex than simple syrup, it adds depth and sophistication to the cocktail. Petite Canne Sugar Cane Syrup, imported by Ed Hamilton’s Caribbean Spirits, is a great option. Martinique rhum brands Rhum JM and Clement also produce their own versions.
* Rhum agricole blanc is an unaged rum distilled directly from pressed cane sugar under strict French government standards on the island of Martinique. It’s a unique spirit, very assertive and grassy. But you could also consider it a distant cousin to the funky Jamaican rums featured in traditional Zombie recipes. Look for a 100-proof bottling if possible (I used Rhum J.M. Agricole Blanc). There are many other excellent choices, including and Neisson, Trois Rivieres, and Damoiseau.
* Plantation O.F.T.D. was launched five years ago by French spirit brand Maison Ferrand, the brainchild of blender and label owner Alexandre Gabriel. It’s a high-proof blend of rums from Guyana, Jamaica and Barbados that also receives additional aging in cognac barrels in France. It was developed with input from some of the rum, cocktail and Tiki world’s greatest minds: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, Paul McFadyen, Paul McGee, Scotty Schuder, and David Wondrich. Combined with the 100-proof agricole rhum, the 138-proof blend brings plenty of firepower and more than makes up for the lack of the Zombie’s traditional 151-proof Demerara rum.
* Fassionola has more of a tenuous French connection, but it does have a link to New Orleans. This intense fruit syrup was featured in many proto-Tiki drinks and popularized at the famous Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter in the classic Hurricane cocktail, circa 1940s. Fassionola was also employed (and some say invented) by Tiki cocktail pioneer Donn Beach (who also has deep family connections to Louisiana). Given the French roots of the area, we feel like this is enough to make this ingredient part of the overall theme of Le Zombi. It brings a much-needed burst of sweetness and fruit flavors to the strong and spicy cocktail. Avoid the commercial Pat O’Brien’s mix and look for one of the new bottled brands, such as BG Reynolds or Cocktail & Sons. I also still like the old standby Jonathan English brand. You can also find many recipes online, including the highly regarded “analog fassionola” from Matt “Cocktail Wonk” Pietrek.
* Fresh-squeezed lime juice is a must. We prefer white grapefruit juice in our Zombies, but the fresh fruit is not always available. A pure 100% bottled juice (such as Ocean Spray) is acceptable, or fresh-squeezed red grapefuit will suffice if it’s bitter and tart and not too sweet.
* We like to use Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters as a change of pace from Angostura. It works especially well in this Zombie riff, bringing notes of cinnamon and allspice – flavors often featured in Zombie recipes.
* If you’re looking for even more intense traditional Zombie flavors, try reducing the fassionola to 1/4 ounce and adding an equal amount of rich cinnamon syrup. It results in a drink that’s very strong and spicy, with an even more complex flavor profile.
VODOU ZONBI (Haitian Zombie)
(By Hurricane Hayward, The Atomic Grog)
* 1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1/4 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
* 1/4 ounce grapefruit juice
* 1 ounce Haitian Zombie Mix (aka Derelict Mix #2) ***
* 1 ounce Rhum Barbancourt White
* 1 ounce Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star
* 1/2 ounce clairin (100 proof)
* 1 ounce 151-proof Demerara rum
* 2 drops absinthe
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
Pulse blend with 1 heaping cup of crushed ice for 8-10 seconds. Pour into a Zombie glass and top with more ice. Garnish with a healthy amount of mint, a cinnamon stick and a swizzle stick (fire optional).
A rough and tumble Zombie full of bold flavors but also surprisingly balanced between sweet, sour, spicy and funky. The clairin is up front, but not too overwhelming, joining forces with the Rhum Barbancourt to create a dry and boozy punch. The rich and complex Zombie Mix holds the Vodou Zonbi’s disparate elements together and makes it highly drinkable.
Our recent acquisition of a bottle of Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin gave us a chance to experiment with Haiti’s native “moonshine,” a distillation of local sugar cane juice. Many new cocktail recipes featuring clairin have emerged in recent years, but we were most impressed with the classic Pétion, the Haitian-style Daiquiri featured in Potions of the Caribbean and noted above.
The unaged 100-proof spirit blends seamlessly with the 8-year-old Rhum Barbancourt and gives the drink a great grassy note, not unlike a funky Jamaican rum. If it works this well in a Daiquiri, why not try it in a Zombie? The connection to Haitian culture made it a no-brainer.
To complete the trifecta of rhums, we went with both aged and unaged Barbancourt, the legendary brand that dates back to 1862. The distillery remains a family business and a Haitian institution, exporting its unique agricole-style rhums around the world. By using French methods and Haitian raw materials, the rhum produced from cane juice and aged in oak barrels is truly a unique product.
It should also be noted that the Barbancourt company is a longtime ambassador and supporter of Haitian culture and the arts. The Barbancourt Foundation, founded in the late 1990s, is a non-profit organization that works to aid the community through projects related to education, public health, environmental protection, and culture. It recently named its official ambassador, Haitian actor and philanthropist Jimmy Jean-Louis.
Another key element in the Vodou Zonbi was provided by a very different ambassador. Influential New York City bartender and Tiki cocktail evangelist Brian Miller served as brand ambassador for Rhum Barbancourt for many years, traveling to events around the U.S. and creating some tasty cocktail recipes. Like our Haitan Zombie, his Blue Bayou also includes absinthe and the same two rhums featured above.
But Haitian Frolic was the touchstone … the key to making this Zombie possible. The two drinks share six ingredients, including lime, OJ, Angostura bitters, absinthe and Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star. The secret weapon is Miller’s “Derelict Gardenia Mix,” his spin on Don the Beachcomber’s Gardenia Mix (aka Pearl Diver Mix).
The Pearl Diver was a groundbreaking cocktail from the 1930s featuring a distinctive blend of creamy, sweet and spicy elements. We took Miller’s modern version and removed the creamy elements to make it more in line with a traditional Zombie …
Haitian Zombie Mix ***
* 2 ounces honey
* 2 ounces passion fruit syrup
* 1 ounce cinnamon syrup
* 1/2 ounce vanilla syrup
* 1/4 ounce allspice dram
Stir vigorously and use immediately. You can make a larger batch and refrigerate, just be aware that it will thicken. Heat 1-2 ounces in the microwave for 5-10 seconds and it will become mixable.
We like to call this Derelict Mix #2 since it takes Capt. Miller’s take on Don the Beachcomber’s mix into a new realm. Miller replaced the butter with passion fruit curd, but we went with a standard syrup to avoid making our Zombie too creamy. Otherwise, we closely followed Miller’s template, creating a very rich and flavor-packed mix that could have many future uses.
The spirits of Haiti give the Vodou Zonbi its unique twist, but we had to include 151 Demerara rum to make this a respectable Zombie. The signature rum from Guyana (Hamilton 151 and Lemon Hart 151 are the best options) provides an overproof punch and smoky notes that boost the complexity and provide a dangerous edge.
* Click here for our deep dive on 151 Demerara rum
Rhum Barbancourt has been a staple in our home bar for many years, so we’re happy to finally make it the featured rum in a signature Atomic Grog cocktail. Like the original Zombie, we wanted to blend rums of different ages and styles, so combining the unaged white rum with the premium 8-year-old (aka 5 Star) makes perfect sense.
The 86-proof white rhum, which is aged from six months to a year, stands in for the Zombie’s traditional Spanish-style base rum. The slightly higher proof and grassy notes add to Vodou Zonbi’s danger and allure.
The 8-year-old Reserve Speciale (aka 5 Star), also 86 proof, brings some sophistication to the table. It has an oaky and cognac-like profile that leans more toward the rich flavors of a molasses-based rum. It works nicely here, filling the flavor gap between the straight-forward white rum and the bold overproof rum.
Last but not least, clairin is the rum that gives this drink its foundation flavor and link back to Haitian culture. I’ve been fascinated by the spirit, and the Saint Benevolence brand in particular, since I first tasted it at Miami Rum Congress in February 2019. I was bowled over by the over-the-top flavors as well as the altruistic motivations. All profits from sales of the rum fund charitable efforts in Haiti.
Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin is distilled from sugarcane organically grown and farmed in the fields immediately surrounding the Dorcinvil Distillery, a third-generation family operation in Haiti.
There are other clairins on the market, but we have a soft spot in our heart for the 100-proof Saint Benevolence and the work being done on behalf of the struggling Haitan people. In its homeland, clairin is known as “the rum of the people,” produced by 500 to 600 micro distilleries across the island. They each have their own taste and terroir, leading some to liken it more to a mezcal than a rum.
In our experience with Saint Benevolence, we find it very rich and pungent. It’s more like a cachaca (Brazil’s national cane spirit) meets agricole rhum, with a dash of overproof Jamaican rum. The perfect combo for a deadly Zombie.
More mixing tips
* We tried some simple citrus combos (lemon/grapefruit, lime/orange, etc.) but none could hold up to the onslaught of spirits, spices and syrups so we settled on a four-juice blend that manages to do the trick. If possible, use all-natural and fresh-squeezed juices to bring the maximum acid and tartness.
* The slight whisper absinthe is very subtle, but that’s intentional. Unlike other Zombies, we recommend keeping this element restrained in this cocktail to let the many other elements take center stage. Same goes for the Angostura bitters, though adding a second dash would be fine if you find the drink in need of a little more spice.
PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!
The atrocities of the colonialization of the Caribbean should certainly not be celebrated. Nor should the current troubles in Haiti be ignored. But we hope the recipes and back story above pay tribute to Haiti (as well as France) while respecting the culture and explaining history in a way that provides broad awareness and education in addition to some tasty cocktails.
2021: THE YEAR OF THE ZOMBIE
The Zombie recipes above are the fifth and sixth celebrating The Atomic Grog’s 10th anniversary. Look for more in the coming months. Previous recipes:
* The Final (Destination) Zombie
* Tiki Trail Zombie
* Revenge of the Atomic Zombie Cocktail
* Hamilton Zombie
>>> More Zombie recipes, news and history
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