The Zombie - Gastro Obscura
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Drinks

The Zombie

Donn Beach only wrote the recipe for his famously potent cocktail in secret code.

If you’re familiar with tiki cocktails, you’ve probably heard a tale or two about the Zombie. With a reputation similar to Long Island Iced Tea, Zombies are one of the most alcoholic concoctions in the faux-tropical world. But for decades, no one except their inventor knew what was in one.

Donn Beach invented the Zombie in 1934 at his Hollywood restaurant: Don the Beachcomber. Beach, formerly known as Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, is the father of tiki cocktail culture. He called the Zombie “a mender of broken dreams.” As he did with all his signature cocktails, which were exotically-named and crafted from various rums, liqueurs, proprietary blends, and syrups, he protected the recipe fiercely. Beach labeled unmarked bottles behind his bar numerically, then wrote recipes written in accordance with the numbers. They weren’t just complicated; they were encrypted. Not even staff knew what they were mixing. 

Bartenders at Don the Beachcomber were only allowed to sling two Zombies per customer—the alcohol equivalent of seven regular drinks. Its reputation as a knock-out filled with mysterious ingredients helped put tiki culture on the map. Fans asked for the Zombie at other bars, so bartenders cobbled together hodgepodges of fruity syrups, juices, and rum (lots of rum). Everyone wanted a Zombie, but only one man knew how to make a real one.

Seven decades later, Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry finally solved the mystery. A self-described “tiki drink evangelist” and author of four tiki cocktail books, Berry spent years tracking down recipes—including a black book of encrypted recipes from Beach’s restaurant—and former Zombie slingers to reverse-engineer Beach’s drinks. Donn Beach died in 1989, but Berry keeps his recipes alive. He published the decoded Zombie recipe in his 2007 book Sippin’ Safari: In Search of the Great “Lost” Tropical Drink Recipes … and the People Behind Them. 

In 2014, Berry opened a tiki bar of his own in New Orleans, Latitude 29. He serves Zombies, and Berry claims they’re “only slightly less lethal” than the original.

Need to Know

The Zombie's popularity make it easy to find in tiki bars. But if a bartender lets you order more than two, be skeptical of its authenticity.

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