I never paid much attention to Tiki drinks because of all the hokey trappings—you know: the faux South Seas ambience, the silly mugs, fake idols, umbrellas and overwrought garnishes, the ingredient lists as long as your arm…

Then a friend served me a properly-made Mai Tai—no goofy mug, no garnish, just an icy rum drink on a hot Minnesota day. Tiki became interesting. Without all the trappings, a well-made Tiki drink provides a tall, balanced glass of hokum-free refreshment, with the added culinary intrigue of complex aromas and flavors.

My current favorite?

The Zombie, originally called Zombie Punch, and arguably the drink that put Tiki concepts—including hokum—on the map.

What is Zombie Punch?

A properly made Zombie is a complex, tall drink of fruit juices, spices and rums, a carefully balanced blend of flavors and aromas anchored by a heavy payload of Puerto Rican and Demerara rums.

“Properly made”—there’s the rub. The Zombie is more a concept than a recipe, and as such it is a mishmash of uninspiring inventions. Donn Beach, the Zombie’s inventor (and the “Don” of Don the Beachcomber fame) is primarily to blame. Beach laid claim to mixing the Zombie close on the heels of Repeal, somewhere around 1934. But while he was a great self-promoter, Beach was also a very secretive businessman. Fearful that his employees would sell his secrets, he wrote his recipes in code, and premixed ingredients so even barmen wouldn’t have any idea what they were serving. And of course, neither would we.

Beach’s drinks were good—in the case of the Zombie, very good—and very popular; lots of competitors did their best to duplicate them, but usually their best was a far cry from the original. As Jeff Berry puts it in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010):

“…over time these inferior knock-offs became the norm. That’s why when you order a Zombie today, you get the cocktail equivalent of pot luck: whatever fruit juices and syrups happen to be behind the bar that night, spiked with an equally indiscriminate mix of cheap rums. Not even a binge-drinking frat boy would risk his fake I.D. on the result.”

Fortunately, Berry cares about Tiki drinks. It is his research that has saved the original Zombie from oblivion.

Zombie Punch (1934), photo © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Zombie Punch (1934)

Why the Zombie is important

The original 1934 Zombie Punch represents an evolution of the punches of the 18th century. The original punches were basically citrus, spirits, sugar and water (or occasionally tea), and often nutmeg as a garnish; the Tiki concept expands on that, with additional tropical fruits, more complex spices and sweeteners, and careful selection and blending of multiple spirits. Punch on steriods, you might say.

The Zombie was not the first “Tiki” styled drink, but it is certainly the one that made the idea famous. It was apparently the most famous, and most popular, of the Tiki punches for ten years, until the advent of Trader Vic’s Mai Tai in 1944.

Making the original Zombie

We’re completely dependent on Jeff Berry’s research for this recipe. He tells the story of its deciphering in his Sippin’ Safari (alas! out of print.) Here’s his decoded version:

Zombie Punch (1934)
Donn Beach, via Jeff Berry

  • ¾ oz fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz Don’s Mix*
  • ½ oz falernum
  • 1½ oz gold Puerto Rican rum (Bacardi 8)
  • 1½ oz aged Jamaican rum (Appleton 12)
  • 1 oz Lemon Hart 151 demerara rum
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 6 drops (⅛ oz) Pernod (Kübler absinthe)
  • 1 tsp grenadine
  • ¾ C crushed ice
  • mint to garnish

Add all ingredients to blender and blend at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into chimney glass. (Alternatively, shake all ingredients with ice, then strain into a tall glass filled with crushed ice.) Top up the glass as needed with ice cubes. Garnish with a mint sprig.

*Don’s Mix: 2 parts fresh white grapefruit juice to one part cinnamon syrup.

Cinnamon syrup: dissolve one cup of fine sugar in one cup of boiling water. Add 3 crushed cinnamon sticks, turn off heat, and let steep for 2 hours. Strain out the cinnamon and store the syrup in the refrigerator.

No two ways about it: Tiki ingredient lists are long and detailed. (It appears that Donn Beach acknowledged that this is a drawback for the home bartender; there are some simplified Zombie recipes that Berry attributes to Beach. I’ve tried a couple of them, and they’re…okay. Generally fruitier, and generally less subtle in both flavor and aroma. For now, I’m sticking with the original; the details are worth it.)

If you don’t have access to the Lemon Hart 151, I recommend that you stick with the demerara style, rather than substitute some other 151-proof rum. Lemon Hart makes an 80-proof demerara, and the El Dorado 12 works nicely, too. The lower-proof rums don’t have the richness of the 151, but they do work in this drink.

(If you do have the 151 available, an interesting variant is to use it as a float on top instead of mixing it with the rest of the ingredients.)

Zombie (detail), photo © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Which brings us to the blender. I recommend that you have a very light hand when it comes to blending the Zombie—my blender turned my first attempt into a slushy in no time. (Believe me, you don’t want a slushy—hard to drink, drastically reduced flavor, and no aroma at all.) Five “pulses” might be a better way to describe what’s needed, and it’s really more like three pulses on my machine. Fortunately, I’m blessed with a nice ice crusher, and I much prefer the ice from that device; I shake the drink with cube ice as usual, and strain into a tall glass of separately crushed ice.

What does the Zombie taste like?

There is a reason that Beach provides such a long list of ingredients, and in such varied proportions. Many of the elements are used the way you’d use herbs and spices in cooking; each contributes to the whole, and it is easy to use too much or too little.

In this case, the cinnamon provided by the wee bit of “Don’s Mix” is all about aroma. As you lift this drink, there is a breeze of the mint garnish and cinnamon. The sip is initially about the rum, brightened by the citrus, particularly the grapefruit. Finally, the earthier flavors appear, the clove of the falernum, the herbs of the absinthe, and the faint, funky smokiness of the demerara rum.

One more thing to keep in mind: don’t drink this too fast. Beach didn’t name it “Zombie” for nothing…