Zombie alert: 5 crucial things you need to know about the deadly cocktail

Don the Beachcomber's Zombie

November 2013 update: Zombies regaining critical mass: New e-book features 86 deadly recipes

The living dead are enjoying an unprecedented renaissance. From the excellent AMC miniseries The Walking Dead (based on the Robert Kirkman comic book series), to a never-ending stream of books, to “zombie walk” events springing up during Halloween season, it’s clear that we’re fascinated with corpses rising from the dead like never before.

All of this flesh-eating hoopla has done little, however, to popularize a much less trendy and much more misunderstood Zombie: The infamous tropical drink that rose to infamy in the 1930s and was for decades perhaps the world’s most well-known cocktail. True to its name, the classic drink was shrouded in mystery, later becoming one of the most butchered recipes in cocktail history.

But several people and places have kept this powerful rum concoction alive and kicking, and to them we raise a hearty Zombie glass in tribute this Halloween:

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: A near-perfect Zombie, the classic deadly cocktail

A mint-heavy Zombie at The Mai-Kai, April 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated Oct. 31, 2018
See below: Our Zombie review | Ancestor recipes
UPDATES: New secret mix | Tribute recipe 4.0
Related: Zombie Horde book | Zombie facts | Beachbum Berry symposium
Mai-Kai cocktail guide
More recipes: Altered State Zombie | Atomic Zombie | Guyanese Zombie
The Undead Gentleman | Frankie’s Tiki Room Zombie

Few realize that the Zombie – not the Mai Tai – is the drink that kicked off the tropical drink craze. Created in the 1930s by the Dr. Frankenstein of tropical mixology, Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), the Zombie remains his masterpiece.

Zombie

Beach’s mad scientist approach to combining multiple rums, juices, syrups and spices was groundbreaking and set a standard that remains an influential touchstone for today’s bartenders in both the Tiki and craft cocktail worlds. But if it weren’t for cocktail sleuth, historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, we might not have ever discovered that legacy.

Berry rescued the Zombie (and many other Tiki classics) from bad bartending and half-assed attempts to re-create the originals. But his first attempt at the Zombie in his seminal 1998 book, Grog Log, was not a whole lot better than the imitators. By 2002, however, he had begun to unearth some great Zombie recipes, three of which are published in his second recipe book, Intoxica. One of these, later dubbed the “mid-century version” and purported to be a Don the Beachcomber recipe published in 1950, is shown below.

But Berry was just scratching the surface of Zombie lore. His 2007 masterpiece, Sippin’ Safari, yielded the motherlode. An entire chapter, “A Zombie Jamoreee: The Curse of the Undead Drink,” provides the definitive research on the elusive cocktail. There’s more background on the 1950 Zombie, plus a much different 1956 version attributed to the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Waikiki.

Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011
Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011.

The pièce de résistance, however, is Berry’s discovery of a 1934 recipe for “Zombie Punch” in the notebook of 1930s Don the Beachcomber bartender Dick Santiago. The find was considered the Holy Grail of lost tropical drinks, but one frustrating puzzle remained to be solved: the cryptic ingredient listed as “Don’s Mix.” This combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup has now become a common ingredient, but the 2007 revelation was a landmark in the Tiki drink world. Berry and Cocktail Kingdom recently released a 10th anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari, which includes additional recipes, both old and unpublished, plus new ones from the Tiki revival.
* BeachbumBerry.com: More on Berry’s search for the original Zombie

In 2010, Beachbum Berry Remixed continued the tradition of digging deeper into the history of the drink that started it all. In addition to the discoveries in Intoxica and Sippin’ Safari, Berry presented several new recipes, including a simplified version of the complex creation. You can also find Berry’s Zombie recipes in his Total Tiki app for iPhone and iPad, a unique repository of nearly 250 exotic drink recipes from yesterday and today. If you desire a more tactile way to enjoy Berry’s handiwork, pick up a set (or a case) of his signature Zombie Glasses from Cocktail Kingdom, which include the original 1934 and 1950 recipes on the side along with distinctive artwork and packaging. They’re also available at the author’s New Orleans bar and restaurant, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, along with the Bum’s own twist on the vintage recipe.

A contemporary Zombie from "Beachbum Berry Remixed."
A contemporary Zombie from “Beachbum Berry Remixed.”

In addition to his acclaimed books, app and barware, Berry had a profound influence on today’s Tiki and cocktail scenes over the past decade or two by way of his entertaining and boozy symposiums around the world. His first-ever Zombie seminar took place at The Mai-Kai in April 2011 during the Miami Rum Fest. He resurrected that talk at The Hukilau in April 2012, again at The Mai-Kai, with a few additional surprises. [Full coverage]

Of course, The Mai-Kai’s Zombie is a descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s classics. There’s a reason it’s the top-rated cocktail in this guide, and the only one with a perfect rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps its the complex, undefinable flavors. Much like another early 20th-century classic, the Singapore Sling, the Zombie stands out as a true original with its intense flavors and high potency.

But unlike the gin-based Sling, which is a bit of a mish-mash of flavors, the Zombie is in perfect balance. The combination of spices are exotic and unique. The sweet juices and syrups are counteracted by intense anise and sour notes. And the coup de grâce is the combination of three rums in perfect harmony.

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We be Jammin: Rum Renaissance Zombie fest at The Mai-Kai

Zombie Jamboree

Related links
* See our photos from the event | Our event preview | More on Rum Renaissance
* Our recipe (with photos) for the Atomic Zombie Cocktail

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry teaches a graduate course on the Zombie
Jeff "Beachbum" Berry teaches a graduate course on the Zombie.

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 occasion was a collision course of Tiki culture and rum appreciation known as the Zombie Jamboree, the kickoff party for the seven-day Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.

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.

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Photos from the Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai

Zombie Jamboree: The Mai-Kai hosts an event to die for

The Miami Rum Renaissance Festival kicks off today with a “Zombie Jamboree” at the legendary Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale from 5 to 7 p.m.

Invented by tropical drink and Tiki bar pioneer Don The Beachcomber in the 1930s, the infamous Zombie cocktail took the world by storm more than 75 years ago. When the great wave of Polynesian Pop faded in the 1970s, so did the Zombie. Its secret original recipe was seemingly lost forever with only a few remaining Tiki palaces, such as The Mai-Kai, carrying on Don The Beachcomber’s legacy.

Beachbum Berry unearthed classic Zombie recipes
Beachbum Berry unearthed classic Zombie recipes

But then along came the Tiki revival of the 1990s and “cocktail archaeologist” Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. He unearthed long-forgotten Zombie recipes in his seminal books Grog Log (1998) and Intoxica (2002), both recently re-released in the revised and updated anthology Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010).

But it was Berry’s fourth book, Sippin’ Safari (2007), that truly blew the lid off the great “lost” tropical drink recipes and the people behind them. An entire chapter explores the Zombie and its history, finally nailing down the true “original recipe.” The book’s final chapter is devoted to The Mai-Kai, one of the last places on earth making drinks directly descended from the Don The Beachcomber classics.

At the Zombie Jamboree, Berry will present his graduate-level thesis seminar on the original creation of – and the further evolution of – the Zombie cocktail, featuring samples of Don’s classic 1934 and 1956 recipes for guests to taste.

The seminar will be followed by the “Zombie Jam,” demonstrations by notable mixologists – including yours truly – with their own variations of the infamous Zombie cocktail. Guests will be asked to vote for the drink they enjoy most with the winner crowned “Zombie Master” of Rum Renaissance 2011.

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