Minimalist Tiki

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:

The Mai-Kai's Zombie1. The Mai-Kai’s Zombie has roots that go back to the original.
One of the best and most authentic Zombie cocktails anywhere in the world is available at Fort Lauderdale’s venerable Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant. If you’ve browsed The Atomic Grog’s guide to the Tiki temple’s 50-plus legendary concoctions, you’ll know that it’s at the top of our ratings, 5 our of 5 stars. And with good reason. The Mai-Kai’s Zombie, which dates back to the restaurant’s opening in 1956, is a descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s original secret recipe. Click here for our review, plus two of Donn Beach’s classic recipes and our own tribute recipe. These three Zombies are likely the best you’ll ever taste.

Beachbum Berry's Zombie symposium at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau in April 2012
Beachbum Berry’s Zombie symposium at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau in April 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

2. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry almost single-handedly saved the Zombie from extinction.
The author of five books on historic Tiki cocktails (with a sixth due in 2013), Berry is the man who doggedly pursued the original Don the Beachcomber recipe after being disappointed by so many second-rate knock-offs. His research led him to bartenders who used to work for Donn Beach himself and is lavishly documented in an entire chapter of Sippin’ Safari (2007). The book includes many early recipes, plus stories of the men who helped create the first wave of tropical drinks. Highly recommended. And if you’ve had the pleasure of attending one of Berry’s symposiums on the Zombie, you’ve seen the author bring his book to life with a multimedia slideshow, live cocktail demos and a few surprises. His most recent presentation was at The Hukilau in April at The Mai-Kai (see photo) and also included a memorable intro, special guests, and new stories. Be sure to catch Berry when he returns with a new symposium at The Hukilau 2013.

3. Without Lemon Hart 151 Demerara Rum, there is no proper Zombie.
And without Ed Hamilton of the Ministry of Rum, there might not be any Lemon Hart in the United States. Be leery of any Zombie recipe that doesn’t include this crucial ingredient. It’s a distinctive, flavorful, potent rum from Guyana that was in danger of losing distribution in the U.S. when Hamilton stepped up and ensured its survival.
* Click here for more on Lemon Hart and its return to The Mai-Kai

Beachbum Berry demonstrates how to make a proper Zombie at The Mai-Kai during his symposium at The Hukilau in April 2012
Beachbum Berry demonstrates how to make a proper Zombie at The Mai-Kai during his symposium at The Hukilau in April 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

4. How many drinks have their own glass named for them?
The tall, chimney-like Zombie glass was named for the drink, of course, and has become a popular vessel for many other Tiki cocktails. It’s similar to a Collins glass but tends to be a bit narrower and often holds more fluid ounces (14 for Zombie vs. 12 for Collins).

5. The Tiki community embraces the Zombie with ghoulish glee.
The great undead masses of the Tiki revival cannot be underestimated in keeping many classic cocktails, including the Zombie, at the forefront. From creating lavish home bars to demanding their local watering holes make their drinks the right way, these fans of Polynesian Pop are a viable force. They gather throughout the year at events such as The Hukilau and Tiki Oasis, and their online home is Here you’ll find the saga of John-O’s Zombie Road Trip, in which one fan traveled across the country to sample real Zombies at real Tiki bars. Now that’s dedication.

Bonus: Zombie punch recipe
If you’re having a party, making dozens of authentic Zombies for a thirsty horde can be daunting. They’re complex and time-consuming to make, but don’t be tempted to cut corners. Simplified versions tend to be lower in quality and taste. Though Don the Beachcomber’s original drink was called Zombie Punch, it’s difficult to find a serviceable batch recipe. Here’s one of the best we’ve seen so far, based roughly on Beach’s classic.

The Atomic Zombie Cocktail is served at the Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai in April 2011
The Atomic Zombie Cocktail is served at the Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai in April 2011. (Mai-Kai photo)

Extra bonus: The Atomic Zombie Cocktail (batch recipe)
Back in April 2011, we answered the challenge and entered a cocktail contest called the Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai as part of the annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. It followed Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’ symposium on the history of the cocktail and featured top mixologists from around the world. Click here for a complete recap and photos of the event. Though The Atomic Grog didn’t win, we feel we made a pretty good showing with our modern spin on the classic called the Atomic Zombie Cocktail. Click here for a step-by-step guide on how to make this intense 15-ingredient, 5-ounce cocktail. If you have the time, we urge you to try one of these with all the bells and whistles, including the absinthe rinse and Demerara sugar rim. But if you’re facing a staggering herd of thirsty party guests, we suggest you whip up a bunch of Atomic Zombies with the following recipe, which we used to crank out around 80 in an hour for the contest. Using a jumbo cocktail shaker, you can make around 10 drinks at a time.

(Copyright 2011, Hurricane Hayward and The Atomic Grog)

* Small plastic cocktail glasses or champagne saucers (approximately 4 ounces).

The Atomic Zombie Cocktail awaits the judges
The Atomic Zombie Cocktail awaits the judges at the Zombie Jamboree in April 2011. (Atomic Grog photo)

* Extra large shaker with strainer (60-ounce capacity)
* Muddler
* Wire strainer

Ingredients (per shaker; makes approximately 10 drinks)
* 6 large sprigs of mint
* 3 ounces fresh squeezed lime juice
* 3 ounces fresh squeezed lemon juice
* 3 ounces high-quality light rum (Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4-year-old from Nicaragua preferred)
* 3 ounces premium aged rum (Ron Zacapa Centenario 23-year-old from Guatemala preferred)
* 4 1/2 ounces dark Jamaican rum (Coruba preferred)
* 4 1/2 ounces Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum (no substitutions)
* 3 ounces St. Germain Elderflower liqueur
* 3/4 ounce falernum (John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum Liqueur preferred)
* 1 1/2 ounces rich demerara sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part of water cooked into a syrup over heat, then chilled)
* 1 1/2 ounces Don’s Mix (2 parts grapefruit juice to 1 part cinnamon-infused sugar syrup; B.G. Reynolds makes a nice bottled version)
* 15 dashes Peychaud Bitters
* 2 1/2 teaspoons absinthe
* Lime wedges and ground demerara sugar (for rimming glasses; use food processor or spice grinder to reduce coarse grains to a finer texture)

Making the cocktails
* Place mint in shaker and bruise with muddler for 15-20 seconds, coating bottom and sides of shaker with oils from mint.
* Add remaining ingredients to shaker and fill to around two-thirds with fresh ice cubes.
* Shake vigorously for at least 20 seconds.

Serving the cocktails
* Strain drinks through shaker/strainer plus wire mesh strainer into a chilled pitcher (straining out mint leaves). Make several pitchers at a time if serving a large group.
* Optional: Moisten rims of glasses with lime wedges and dip in ground demerara sugar.
* Use pitcher(s) to pour drinks into glasses.

Guaranteed to wake the dead.

* Click here for background on the drink, plus more mixing tips

4 Replies to “Zombie alert: 5 crucial things you need to know about the deadly cocktail”

  1. I love the original recipe Zombie but often find that it has a bit too much alcohol for me. Is there any similar drink or alternative which has the same flavor profile but less alcohol?

    1. Beachbum Berry has published a “simplified Zombie,” which you can find in his books and app. I’d also recommend the Zombie Horde book from Professor Cocktail, which contains tons of Zombie recipes, not all of them super strong. I wrote a review of it back in 2013 …

      Also, you can check our new A-Z recipe guide on the blog for more Zombie recipes:

      I’d recommend our Mai-Kai Zombie tribute recipe, the 1950 Donn Beach recipe and Martin Cate’s Undead Gentleman. All are much more approachable than the 1934 original.

      If all of those are still too strong, you might want to give the Planter’s Punch a try. That’s the classic Donn likely used as a template. Again we have several versions on the site …

      Okole maluna!

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