Late in 1933, just as Prohibition ended, an enterprising Texas native by the name of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened a bar in Los Angeles. Decorating the place with bric-a-brac he’d collected on trips to Hawaii and the South Pacific, Gantt came up with a set of sweet, rum-based “exotic drinks” to match the decor, and thereby became the creator of what is now called the tiki bar.
That bar was called Don the Beachcomber (Gantt eventually changed his legal name to Donn Beach), and it quickly spawned imitators all over the country, largely thanks to its most beloved cocktail, the Zombie. “The Zombie was the Cosmopolitan of its day—the most popular, most-written-about, most-joked-about drink of the 1930s and 1940s,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a historian and expert on tiki cocktails and culture who’s written seven books on the subject since 1998 and opened New Orleans tiki bar Latitude 29 in 2014.
Because of all of those imitators, Don the Beachcomber had to be cagey about its recipes, so they were written in code: Only a handful of managers were trusted to mix up secret syrups and rum mixtures; bartenders would pour from bottles labeled with vague names like “spices #2” and “Don’s mix”. As a result of this secrecy, the original Zombie recipe was lost—until Berry managed to track down the 1937 notebook of a longtime Don the Beachcomber waiter and decode its secrets, publishing the recipe for the first time in 2007 in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari (which was recently republished in a 10th-anniversary edition).
With its long list of ingredients, the Zombie is not a simple cocktail to make. But that’s the point. “A tiki drink is a Caribbean rum drink, but squared or cubed,” Berry explains. Whereas a classic Daiquiri combines just lime juice, simple syrup, and rum, the Zombie uses two juices, three spice and fruit syrups, and three styles of rum. “The mix gets you a combination of flavors you can’t get otherwise,” Berry says. “You’d never mix three bourbons in an Old Fashioned, but you do that with rum in the Zombie.”
Making a proper 1930s-style Zombie is a commitment, so put on a Martin Denny album and invite some friends over. For the rums, you want a dark Jamaican one for its intense molasses taste, a lightly aged Puerto Rican one for delicate floral notes, and a high-proof one in the Guyanese Demerara style for smoky oak flavors. (Berry recommends Coruba or Myers’s for the first, Don Q Añejo or Bacardi Gold for the second, and Hamilton 151 Overproof for the third.) Falernum is a syrup flavored with almond, lime, ginger, and spices that’s been used with rum in Caribbean drinks since the 1800s. Several bottled versions are available, including Berry’s own Latitude 29 Formula Falernum. (If you can’t find that, Berry also likes Fee Brothers.)