Cracking the Zombie code unlocks a tiki rum blend
A new spirit from Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry will reanimate your cocktails
It took Jeff “Beachbum” Berry more than a decade to track down the original recipe for the Zombie. The faux-tropical drink was created in 1934 by Ernest Gantt, who founded the world’s first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, in Los Angeles. Later, he legally renamed himself Donn Beach.
A potent mix of three rums, lime, and grapefruit juices, as well as assorted syrups and bitters — nine ingredients in all (recipe below) — the Zombie was a closely guarded secret. Beach famously encoded the bottles at his bar so employees could not give the confidential combination away. But in 2005 a notebook containing the recipe was found in the pocket of an old shirt owned by Dick Santiago, head waiter at Don the Beachcomber. Santiago’s daughter relayed it to Berry, who published the recipe in his 2007 book, Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari.
Like many tiki drinks, even with the recipe, the Zombie remains a challenging drink to master.
Berry says: “People will try different recipes at home and then say, ‘Why didn’t the Zombie come out as well as it could, or should?’” He personally sampled many “godawful” versions in the 1980s and 1990s that tasted like “Hawaiian Punch with a lot of rum in it”. It left him wondering why the drink had once enjoyed such popularity — until he pieced together the original recipe.
His solution: Hamilton Rum’s Beachbum Berry’s Zombie Blend, which combines three carefully sourced rums in one bottle. Expected to be commercially available in early July, it features Berry’s own zombified mug on the label. It was created with an eye towards home bartenders who might be stymied by sourcing multiple bottles, but it might also help busy bars seeking a shortcut to measure and pour one rum, instead of three.
Each rum in a tropical drink contributes something specific, a secret Donn Beach knew well. In his classic Zombie, aged Jamaica rum offers fruit and funk, overproof Demerara rum gives bold brown sugar tones and a wallop of alcohol, and the neutral canvas of gold Puerto Rican rum ties it all together in a 1.5-1-1.5 ratio, respectively. In total, Beach’s version called for a whopping 120ml of liquor, one reason for it being one of the most popular drinks of the 1930s.
It’s such a strong drink, Donn would serve only two to a customer. That added to the mystique.Jeff Berry
“After Prohibition [ended in December 1933], it was like a punch in the face to the Anti-Saloon League,” Berry explains. “It’s such a strong drink, Donn would serve only two to a customer. That added to the mystique.”
The Zombie Rum concept first came about in 2019, at the tail end of the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, when Ed Hamilton, proprietor of Hamilton Rum, settled in at Berry’s bar, Latitude 29, and asked him what he needed. As Berry recalls, he motioned to a bartender preparing a round of Zombies, the second-most popular drink on the menu, and said: “Nobody’s done a Zombie rum blend.”
Spirits are not typically combined and bottled with a single cocktail in mind, but another tiki icon, “Trader Vic” Bergeron, provided a template. “In the 1980s, Trader Vic had a Navy Grog rum and a Mai Tai rum, so you didn’t have to go out and buy a bunch of rums. You could just buy the bottle,” Berry says. “I thought it was genius, and nobody was doing it.”
The two workshopped the Zombie blend during the pandemic, with Hamilton sourcing and mixing distillates and sending them to Berry for tasting and feedback, a process repeated many times. “We traded back and forth until we found a blend we liked,” Berry says.
The final mix incorporates eight distillates: a blend of Jamaican rums of various ages, sourced from Worthy Park; a blend of at least three older Guyana rums aged two to five years, sourced from Demerara Distillers; and a relatively light, column-stilled Trinidad rum standing in for the Puerto Rican component. (“Before 1960, Puerto Rican rums had more character than they do today,” Hamilton says of that switch.)
Before the pandemic, tropical drinks and tiki bars were on the rise, and their celebratory aspect persists. In 2020, rum sales grew 5.9%, or $138m, to $2.4bn, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, with sales particularly robust in the premium and high-end-premium categories (rising 7.6% and 8.7%, respectively).
Berry describes the liquid as possessing “the smoke and charred wood” of a Demerara rum, with “fruitiness, molasses-y-ness” contributed by Jamaica rum, and the milder Trinidad rum serving to “cut the intensity” and smooth it all out. The end result is complex, yielding “teasingly elusive layers of flavours” that serve to elevate the Zombie, much as it did in Donn Beach’s day. By collapsing together three rums into one ingredient, for cocktail enthusiasts “it’s like control-freaking their drinks at home”.
One key difference: only 60ml of the Zombie blend is needed to make the drink. It is still high-octane, clocking in at 119 proof (59% alcohol by volume), but it won’t knock you off your chair, unlike Beach’s original blueprint (120ml of a 49% ABV rum blend). We will save breaking out the calculator — that is almost 40% less alcohol than the original version of the drink. (Berry tweaked his Zombie recipe slightly to compensate for the reduced volume of liquid.) Compared with the cost of three or more rum bottles, the Zombie Blend is expected to sell for less than $40, though that is subject to markups by distributors and retailers.
Zombie Cocktail Recipe (the Original)
By Don the Beachcomber, circa 1934. “We found this in the 1937 notebook of Beachcomber’s waiter Dick Santiago, who had marked the recipe ‘old’”, Berry says. This recipe appears in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010).
- 22ml fresh lime juice
- 15ml Don’s mix (recipe below)
- 15ml falernum
- 44ml gold Puerto Rican rum
- 44ml aged Jamaica rum
- 30ml 151-proof Lemon Hart Demerara rum
- Dash Angostura bitters
- 6 drops Pernod
- Teaspoon grenadine
- ¾ cup crushed ice
Put everything into a blender. Blend at high speed for no more than five seconds. Pour into a chimney glass. Add ice cubes to fill. Garnish with a mint sprig.
Don’s mix: two parts white grapefruit juice to one part cinnamon-infused sugar syrup. To make syrup, combine 1 cup each of water and granulated sugar with three cinnamon sticks in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cool and strain before using.
Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.
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