It was a top-secret recipe, and guests were only allowed two—so it’s no surprise Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie was a sensation from the moment it appeared on menus in 1934. As with all of Don the Beachcomber’s drinks, the ingredients of this particular creation were a tightly guarded secret, now known to us only through the dedication and research of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. The two-drink limit was a reasonable policy, considering the original recipe contains four ounces of rum, outnumbering the nonalcoholic ingredients by a ratio of two to one.
Though many modern bartenders have dialed down the volume of rum, the selection remains of paramount importance to any successful Zombie. On this front, the tasters—myself and bartenders Paul McGee, founder of Chicago’s lauded and now-closed tropical bar Lost Lake, Orlando Franklin McCray of Nightmoves in Brooklyn, and Garret Richard of Sunken Harbor Club, also in Brooklyn—were looking for an assertive blend, one able to toe the line between prominent and overbearing. You need to be able to taste the rum, but not taste just rum.
The other elements of the drink are not inconsequential, though. A Zombie “needs to have some bright citrus from the grapefruit, some herbaceousness from the absinthe, and a finish with cinnamon and clove from the bitters and falernum,” according to McGee. If any one element is out of alignment, the drink becomes a muddled mess. Richard draws a surprising but apt tech analogy: “Microsoft products can have several components fail and the product will still run; with Apple, on the other hand, if one part fails, the whole thing fails. Tiki drinks are like Apple.”
The panel tasted eight drinks (mixed by Nightmoves bartender Lavender Chanell), each of which contained more than 10 ingredients. Our most ambitious tasting to date, the kitchen sink recipe necessitated the preparation of 20 unique syrups and the acquisition of 19 different rums. From the submitted recipes, first place went to Anton Kinloch of Fuchsia Tiki in New Paltz, New York. His Zombie recipe was the only one of eight in which the grenadine was perceptible—something McCray in particular had been searching for—thanks to the fact that Kinloch acidifies his syrup to make it pop, even when a mere tablespoon is used. For the rum, Kinloch is true to the hard-hitting nature of the original: He blends one and a half ounces each of Havana Club Añejo Clásico Puerto Rican rum and Hampden Estate 8-year Jamaican rum with an ounce of Hamilton 151-proof Demerara rum, which shone through the most. “[Demerara rum] should be at the top, with everything else surrounding it,” said Richard. “You can taste the layers,” McGee agreed.
Coming in second was Chris Coy’s Zombie from The Inferno Room in Indianapolis, Indiana. Though the rum profile—a blend of Plantation O.F.T.D., Worthy Park 109 Jamaican rum and Hamilton 151-proof Demerara rum—was not as assertive against the nonalcoholic components, Coy’s recipe stood out for its rich, velvety mouthfeel, an exceedingly difficult quality to achieve in a drink prepared via spindle blender, which can easily overdilute a drink and make it feel thin. To thank for that is a rich honey syrup that complements the requisite cinnamon syrup and falernum. “It’s so hard to get the texture right with this drink, and this one nailed it,” said Richard.
Third place went to Chantal Tseng, a Washington, D.C.-based bar consultant whose recipe was bold and spice-forward, with a thoughtful, theatrical and aromatic garnish: An inverted lime shell was filled with overproof Demerara rum, topped with a few drops of absinthe and Angostura bitters, and then ignited, dusted with nutmeg and poured over the drink. Tseng was the only bartender to opt for a measure of rhum agricole—a half-ounce, which she paired with overproof Jamaican and Demerara rums. Though the absinthe—a full quarter-ounce, compared to the drops and dashes of most other recipes—tilted the drink away from the archetype, it still stuck in our minds after tasting (and re-tasting) the lineup. As Richard summarized, “It’s a weirdo—a lovable weirdo.”