RECIPES: French, Haitian Zombies reflect true roots of deadly cocktail’s namesake legend

RECIPES: French, Haitian Zombies reflect true roots of deadly cocktail's namesake legend

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.

Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari
An ad for ‘Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari’ around the time of its original release.

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.

Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) shows off what appears to be a Zombie along with some of his other groundbreaking creations
Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) shows off what appears to be a Zombie along with some of his other groundbreaking creations. (From TheDonnOfTiki.com)

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?

SEE BELOW: New original cocktails
>>> LE ZOMBI
>>> VODOU ZONBI (Haitian Zombie)

But first, here’s a quick history lesson on the mythology and cultural significance of what has become known as the zombie.

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BACKGROUND: Haitian zombie folklore rooted in slavery, French colonialism

The true story behind zombie folklore is scarier and more tragic than a movie.

"Zombies" by Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud, 1953 (oil on board mounted on wood panel). Part of the Haitian Collection at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.
“Zombies” by Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud, 1953 (oil on board mounted on wood panel). Part of the Haitian Collection at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

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.

A zonbi at twilight in sugar cane field in Haiti. (Wikimedia Commons)
A zonbi at twilight in sugar cane field in Haiti. (Wikimedia Commons)

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 Magic Island

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.

Zombi Child

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.

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Cocktail recipe: Secret Santa Flip is festive fun any time of year

Secret Santa Flip by The Atomic Grog

During my recent holiday binge journey through all the cocktails on the Miracle pop-up bar menu, I was inspired to play around with various seasonal recipes in my home bar. I tried several formats, but I was most smitten by the concept of the flip.
See below: Go straight to the recipe

The Gingerbread Flip at West Palm Beach's Miracle on Rosemary from Death or Glory. (Atomic Grog photo, December 2018)
The Gingerbread Flip at West Palm Beach’s Miracle on Rosemary from Death or Glory. (Atomic Grog photo, December 2018)

Traditionally, a flip is a cocktail containing egg, sugar and a spirit. They’re similar to egg nogs but without milk or cream. Originally served hot, flips are now usually shaken with ice and strained into a chilled coupe or wine glass and dusted with nutmeg, according to Difford’s Guide. The first flips can be traced back to England in the late 1600s.

Back in 2015, I created the Demerara Flip for the holidays and was pleased with the results. At Miracle, the delicious Gingerbread Flip was reminiscent. It was a shaken drink featured bourbon, gingerbread syrup, Elemakule Tiki Bitters and a whole egg. It was served in a coupe with a dusting of nutmeg. I understand that the use of a whole egg can put some guests off, hence the drink’s transformation into the Gingerbread Old Fashioned at Death Or Glory’s two Miracle bars that I frequented.

I’m not opposed to eggs in cocktails, but I decided to drop the yolk and keep the white, which is much more common in modern recipes. So the Secret Santa is not strictly a flip, but it has all the same hallmarks. The use of the rich mixes makes up for the missing yolk, and the unpasteurized white adds that traditional foamy head and texture while not imparting any flavor. If cracking an egg to extract the white makes you squeamish, you can find pasteurized egg whites in a carton in most groceries.

The impetus for the recipe was actually the BG Reynolds syrups, particularly the new honey and Gardenia mixes gifted to me by Blair Reynolds after his fall visit to The Mai-Kai. [Photo: Reynolds gets his first Mystery Drink] I’ve always been a fan of his products and have recommended them often in previous posts. Below the recipe you’ll find my quick takes on Reynolds’ newest creations. [Also: Hear Reynolds on the Bartender At Large podcast]

New BG Reynolds syrups are sampled at The Mai-Kai in October 2018. (Atomic Grog photo)
New BG Reynolds syrups are sampled at The Mai-Kai in October 2018. (Atomic Grog photo)

The Gardenia Mix was designed as a one-stop-shop for one of Don the Beachcomber’s most complicated (and messy) mixes (aka Pearl Diver’s mix and Coffee Grog batter). It replaces the butter with coconut, but includes the key honey, cinnamon and allspice flavors. I sought a bit more rich honey and allspice notes, so I also used Reynolds’ new Orange Blossom Honey Mix and his now-retired Tiki Spices (another old Donn Beach ingredient featuring allspice and vanilla, aka Don’s Spices #2).

I posted the recipe on the BG Reynolds’ Tiki Bar group on Facebook, where members discuss the products and share classic and new recipes. The Secret Santa Flip is very flexible, however, and you can make your own honey and Don’s Spices #2 (or simply use allspice dram) if those bottles aren’t in your arsenal.

There’s also an alternate version that uses homemade Pearl Diver’s mix in place of all three bottles. The butter gives it a slightly different flavor, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the holiday spirit (think Hot Buttered Rum).

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Legacy of this classic drink runs deep

Updated June 21, 2015
See below: Our Deep Sea Diver review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Deep Sea Diver, one of the oldest and most distinctive tropical drinks at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai, can be traced back to the 1930s and tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s original cocktail menu. It also features an unusual, rarely used ingredient that remains somewhat of a mystery more than 75 years later.

From a mid-century Don the Beachcomber menu
From a mid-century Don the Beachcomber menu.

Tiki drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s excellent 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, includes a recipe for the Peal Diver’s Punch that you’ll find below as well as an entire chapter on The Mai-Kai’s founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine (1907-1980). Licudine worked behind the bar at Don the Beachcomber restaurants from 1939 until 1956, when he was lured to Fort Lauderdale by The Mai-Kai’s fledgling owners, Jack and Bob Thornton.

Sippin’ Safari remains my favorite of the Bum’s books and perhaps the most influential in fostering appreciation of both the roots of tropical mixology and the history of The Mai-Kai. It details how Licudine took the Don the Beachcomber classics he had been making for years in Chicago and adapted them to The Mai-Kai’s new menu. With the help of Bob Thornton, Licudine tweaked the secret recipes, often elevating them to even greater heights.

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