Cocktail Spotlight: The Zombie

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Cocktail Spotlight: The Zombie

Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.

There are a lot of famous cocktails out there, but relatively few of them that are renowned, first and foremost, for how devastatingly strong and intoxicating they tend to be. Sure, you can roll into practically any bar and the bartender can whip up something of crippling potency, but in most cases these types of drinks are more likely to elicit reactions of “Uh, is that guy alright?” They’re not the kinds of drinks that are revered as classics of the mixology world, in other words. You don’t see the Long Island Ice Tea revered and celebrated by cocktail geeks particularly often. But the Zombie? Well, the Zombie is the exception that proves the rule. It’s one of a handful of quintessential tiki cocktails that any home mixologist should know, although it’s on the more challenging end of the spectrum for the fact that it really requires a very large number of ingredients, relatively speaking. But if you assemble everything you need to make a classic Zombie, you’ll be glad you did. If you remember the experience afterward, that is.

The Zombie is one of the earliest tiki originals to flow forth from the mind of the legendary Donn Beach, who reportedly created it in 1934 at his ur-tiki spot, Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. From the start, it became one of his signature creations, and it might very well have been the first cocktail effectively marketed by limiting how many a customer was allowed to order–Donn’s locations always imposed a maximum of two Zombies, for obvious reasons. There’s simply too much that can go wrong, when you’re dealing with rum in these quantities.

That’s what the Zombie is, at the end of the day: A rum delivery vehicle, but one that is formulated to hide its potency despite how prodigiously strong it actually is. And granted, there are a whole lot of strong, rummy cocktails in the tiki canon, as that is an expectation of the entire tropical cocktail genre. But few can compete directly against the Zombie in terms of units of ethanol actually involved in its creation.

Consider this: In the standard, classic Zombie recipe, there are four ounces of rum. And it’s not just standard, 80 proof rum, either, because one ounce of that is meant to be 151 proof demerara rum. Couple that with some other alcohol ingredients in the same recipe (falernum, absinthe, etc.), and you’re looking at a drink that is probably roughly equivalent to at least 5 oz of standard strength, 80 proof spirit. That’s more than three “standard drinks” worth of booze, in one cocktail. Is it any wonder the Zombie developed such an infamous reputation?

And yet, the beauty of the Zombie, and the skill of Donn Beach that it demonstrates, is that the drink is never really meant to taste over-the-top boozy in its flavor profile. It’s not even a particularly sweet drink, either–instead, the Zombie strives for beguiling balance. It’s certainly very rum-forward, there’s no doubt about that, but everything is meant to be brought into harmony. A well-made Zombie will drink far easier than it has any seeming right to drink.

What are the keys to achieving this? Well, Donn balanced his drink in three primary ways:

Citrus: The Zombie uses the fresh-squeezed lime juice you would probably expect to see, but is then further brightened up via the use of grapefruit juice. This is not a particularly common addition in tiki canon, but is considered essential to the Zombie. In Donn’s own original version of the drink, the grapefruit was delivered via the secret “Don’s Mix,” which we now know as a combination of cinnamon syrup and grapefruit juice, just one of many ways that the creator tried to keep his recipes proprietary. Today, it’s more common to simply combine separate juice and syrups.

Spice: The Zombie gets infusions of spice in a few key places, and together these impressions help lead the palate away from the all-encompassing rumminess of the drink. First, you have the aforementioned cinnamon syrup, which adds a little sweet warmth to the cocktail. Then you have the Bajan staple of falernum, which contributes subtle flavors of lime, ginger and allspice. And finally, Donn tops off the drink with some ubiquitous Angostura bitters.

Absinthe: And finally, the secret weapon of the Zombie: The relatively small amount of absinthe Donn added to each drink. In terms of modern versions of the Zombie cocktail, this is probably the ingredient most likely to be overlooked or left out by a careless bar or a home mixologist, and that is a big mistake that all too many have made. The function of the intensely herbal, bitter and anise-flavored absinthe is to add one more unmissable layer of flavor to the drink, while cutting its sweetness with the impression of bitterness that even a few dashes or a barspoon of absinth provides.

And there you have it. This is the complete Zombie recipe, or the best facsimile we have of the original version:

— 1.5 oz Jamaican rum
— 1.5 oz Puerto Rico rum (or any aged column still rum)
— 1 oz 151 proof demerara rum
— .75 oz lime juice
— .5 oz grapefruit juice
— .25 oz cinnamon syrup
— .5 oz falernum
— 1 teaspoon grenadine
— 1 barspoon absinthe
— 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients (yes, all of them) in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well to chill, then strain into a tall Collins glass or hurricane-style glass with more cracked or crushed ice. Drink with a straw.

Suffice to say, making a Zombie at home for the first time means making sure you’ve put together all the necessary ingredients, which may require trips to the store for items such as falernum, grenadine or some of the rum. Some of the ingredients, like the cinnamon syrup, are honestly easiest to just make at home, while a bottle of absinthe will likely last you a very long time while being instrumental in making these types of cocktails. In general, you can think of assembling everything necessary to make a Zombie as an investment in your future mixology options.

Of course, there is the strength of the cocktail to consider. For some, even a single Zombie is going to simply be too much alcohol. There should be no shame in this–some of us just don’t want to drink quite that much at one time! Thankfully, one can still replicate the flavor profile of the more famous Zombie by instead making one of the numerous variants and rip-offs that proliferated throughout the golden era of the tiki cocktail craze. Perhaps the most well known is the Jet Pilot, which is more or less a Zombie in everything but name, simply having a lower proportion of rum in the final blend (2.5 oz vs. 4 oz), and being a bit less comically potent as a result.

When you really need to wake the dead, though, the Zombie is always there for you. Respect it, fear it, enjoy it–the classic cocktails will never die.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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