It was 1934. Prohibition was over and the country rejoiced with a renewed vigor and interest in legal libations.
One of the greatest innovators in spirits hospitality at this time was Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gannt, popularly known as Donn Beach. With ingenious foresight, he opened Don The Beachcomber Bar and Restaurant, the world’s first Tiki Palace, starting the tropically decorated bar craze that same year.
As a former bootlegger, Donn faced a challenge. How do you get an eager population of American whiskey drinkers, martini lovers and old-fashioned cocktail enthusiasts to consume wild, fruity potions filled with rum from exotic destinations? The answer was revealed serendipitously.
One fateful day at Don The Beachcomber in Los Angeles, the great tiki cocktail master mixed a potent rum drink for a regular customer heading on a short business trip. As the story goes, it was so delicious that the man eagerly enjoyed three of these mystery cocktails before heading to the airport. When he sauntered into the bar several days later, he asked Donn: “What was in that drink?” He said he felt like a complete zombie for the last three days. And thus the legend of The Zombie cocktail was born.
With more than seven ounces of rum and liqueurs mixed with delicious fruit juices, it became the most controversial, the most talked-about and eventually the most popular cocktail of the day. His business boomed as customers flocked to try his dangerous, infamous concoction. Donn instituted a strict limit of two Zombie cocktails per customer. Many considered this a bold challenge. Word spread wildly about Donn’s “tropical paradise” and his demon drink and the tiki bar vacation without leaving home fad was an overnight sensation.
To keep the competition at bay, Donn never revealed the exact recipe of his original Zombie cocktail. He mixed his own syrups and unique special ingredients so that even his own bartenders could not reproduce the drink exactly. Thus, many iterations of the Zombie were created over the years. Donn never quite finished perfecting the drink, always endeavoring to improve on his original and make it easy for novices to master. Then in 1956 during a magazine interview, Donn revealed a modified version of his monstrous tipple, now referred to as the 1956 Zombie by tikiphiles. Although a bit simpler to make, the new version was true to the original concept – fruity and delicious and as potent and powerful as ever.
1956 Zombie Fizz Recipe
- 1 oz. Light Rum
- 1 oz. Gold Rum
- 1 oz. Demerara 151 Rum
- 1 oz. Passion Fruit Syrup
- 1 oz. Lemon Juice
- 1 oz. Lime Juice
- 1 oz. pineapple Juice
- dash of Angostura bitters
Preparation: Shake all ingredients (except rum) with ice and strain into a Collins glass. Float the 151 proof rum on top.
To this day, no two bartenders make The Zombie exactly the same way. I’ve made it my life’s work to test them all and that’s why I love it.
Fun Fact: Donn Beach and Victor J. Bergeron of Trader Vic’s were rivals for many years. Each claim to have created the Mai Tai, which translates to “good” in Tahitian. The rum, Curacao liqueur and limejuice tiki drink was the popular drink in the film Blue Hawaii starring Elvis Presley.