Rise of the Zombie: the monster cocktail that couldn't be stopped

The Zombie kickstarted the tiki movement, and when inventor Don the Beachcomber tried to prevent people copying his recipe, it went viral and took on a life of its own. If it bore less and less resemblance to his original recipe, bar owners and drinkers alike didn't seem to care, and their seemingly insatiable thirst for this monster of mixed drinks bore all the hallmarks of a rampaging beast.

It all began, said tiki expert and cocktail historian Jeff Berry, in the 1930s, an era when tiki was not the kitsch, tongue-in-cheek revival it is today, but the epitome of aspirational living. The Polynesian restaurant craze lasted for 40 years and manifested itself through multi-million dollar, palatial, immersive, Polynesian drinking and dining experiences. And its signature drink, the Zombie, was a veritable 'bender in a glass'.

"Delicious and very strong, it was the most popular drink in the western world for 20 years," says Jeff. The Zombie kickstarted post-Prohibition drinking, brought rum back into arena of fine cocktails, and their highly profitable bottom line helped fuel tiki through to the 1980s. Hard to imagine today, but a restaurant where there was no wine list and each course of cheap Chinese food had been cleverly given a Polynesian name and was accompanied by cocktails of astounding complexity was the norm.

Three rums better than one

While Don the Beachcomber had singlehandedly created the tiki movement, his drinks were serially copied when rival restaurant owners would employ his former bar staff and get them to recreate his drinks, perhaps renaming them but otherwise plagiarising his work. The complexity of Don's recipes - three rums were always better than one, why use one liqueur when you could use two, or just one citrus when you could use three - were such that they became the arsenal in these itinerant bartenders' demands for pay rises as they went from bar to bar. And so the Zombie spread.

Don successfully sued a rival restaurant for peddling his proprietary recipe but could not stem the number of imitators. The rise of the Zombie was relentless and it took on a cultural significance. There were bottled Zombies, during World War Two airmen would paint Zombies on their aircraft, there were Zombie-related cartoons printed on cocktail napkins and more bars named after their favourite drink than you could shake a stick at.

In response, Don tried to close down the ranks and prevent bartenders taking his recipes. He moved all his bartenders to a service bar behind the scenes, but this just fuelled the exodus as they couldn't receive tips unseen from the public.

Next, Don his his recipes in secret codes, sometimes cunningly changing the spelling of an ingredient ('munrelaf' for 'falernum') and at other times creating a series of pre-mixed batched ingredients known only by number. Finally, he succeeded in containing the leak, and he would take the secret of the ultimate Zombie recipe to his grave.

Holy Grail

But that didn't stop people guessing, and over the decades increasingly disparate recipes all claimed to be the true Zombie. That inspired Jeff Berry to embark on a search for the Holy Grail of tiki - Don's actual recipe.

Amid a plethora of bad-tasting wannabes, he thought he had lucked out with one particular
recipe from a 1950 book that attributed it directly to Don, which he reproduced in his own 2002 book Intoxica. It contained 1oz lemon, 1oz lime, 2 barspoons of brown sugar syrup, 1oz pineapple, 1oz passion fruit syrup, 1oz white rum, 1oz gold rum, 1oz 151 proof Demerara rum and a dash of Angostura bitters, shaken with ice and strained over crushed ice.

Then he ran across a quite different recipe, containing maraschino, grenadine and Pernod, from a 1956 edition of Cabaret Quarterly, claiming to be Don's top secret recipe. And things were even more confused when he discovered a 1930s handwritten notebook owned by a former bartender who had worked for Don.

Written in 1934, this was definitely the earliest mention of the Zombie recipe Jeff had discovered. But while it was specific about most of the recipe - 3/4oz lime juice, 1/2oz falernum, 1 1/2oz gold Puerto Rican rum, 1 1/2oz aged Jamaican rum and 1oz 151-proof Demarara rum, dashes of Angostura, Grenadine and Pernod - the final ingredient was in code, listed as 1/2oz 'Don's mix'.

A stroke of luck led Jeff to find a further note in the book that suggested 'Don's mix' was a 2:1 mixture of grapefruit juice and 'Don's mix #4' - another code! Eventually, unpicking the clues, he concluded the mysterious ingredient was grapefruit and cinnamon syrup, with the recipe refined to include a teaspoon of grenadine, dashes of Angostura Bitters and Pernod, and a precise 6oz of crushed ice.

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