Saturday, April 17, 2010

Exhibit #28: Curse of the Undead - The Zombie!

Cocktail Museum Sundays, 9pm-close, at the bar
Exhibit #28: Curse of the Undead - the Zombie!

This week only!

Zombie Punch (1934) $13 1956 Zombie $13
Each drink serves two to four people and contains the equivalent of approximately three servings of alcohol in total. Don Beach's original, authentic recipes. Each contains a variety of rums, including the definitive high-strength 151 Demerara component, lime and grapefruit juices, pomegranate syrup, absinthe, falernum, and Angostura bitters. Unique to Zombie Punch is the presence of a cinnamon syrup, while the '56 Zombie drops the cinnamon, adds pineapple juice and nutty Maraschino liqueur and uses darker rums. The '56 also has a higher ratio of juices to liquors. Both are served with crushed ice and mint, contain 10 to 11 ingredients and are of similar alcoholic strength. Unfortunately, the recipe cannot be reduced - Mt. Everest cannot be made into a gentle, rolling hill! Your best bet is to split the drink with a friend or three, then you can all try both versions.

Sunakora $6.50
Not all of Don's drinks were strong. This one has but one ounce of rum (3 parts dark Jamaican to 1 part amber Barbados) and was created for his ex-wife Sunny, the lynchpin of the Beachcomber operation and whose nickname was "Sunakora, Queen of the Beachcombers." Eminently drinkable. Lime, orange, grapefruit and pineapple juices, falernum, honey, Angostura bitters, two rums, club soda and crushed ice.

The Zombie is easily the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned drink in all the canon. Yes it is strong, very strong, but also a Cistine Chapel of booze art, with depth for days and cascading levels of flavor whose character changes as you work your way through the glass. Created by Don the Beachcomber in 1934, the Zombie was an instant sensation and put Don's place on the map. Early on, when imitators were opening their own Polynesian-themed restaurants every other month, some Beachcomber bartenders passed Don's recipes on to those new employers. Don's answer was to start using unmarked bottles and to write his recipes in code so that not even his own bartenders knew what was in his recipes. For instance, the Zombie Punch contains a half ounce of "Don's Mix." What could that be? Well, that's two parts grapefruit juice to one part "Don's Spices #4." So even when some of the code could be broken, there was always yet another mystery lurking within. (#4 was a cinnamon syrup, by the way).

It's hard to describe at this late date what a sensation the drink caused when it first appeared. Within a few years pre-mixed bottled Zombies hit liquor store shelves and bars of all stripes were fielding requests for the drink. But nobody knew how to make it. As a result much improvising ensued, so that if you ordered a Zombie at a dozen different places you would most likely get 12 very different tasting drinks. The only thing any of them had in common was a high alcohol payload and that is the source of the drink's notoriety. Even to this day most current recipe books mistakenly reprint a questionable 1950 recipe from a small celebrity cocktail book published by Louis Spievak. That iteration does actually make a fine drink, and is what you would most likely be served in even a decently-stocked bar, but it is not a Beachcomber Zombie, sharing only half the ingredients of the originals, and adding another five ingredients not present in the two authentic recipes presented tonight.
So with all the sleuthing modern enthusiasts have done to de-crypt Don's recipes, will the Zombie Punch taste just like what you would've been served at the Beachcomber's in 1934? Very very close... but it's ultimately impossible. For starters, we can't use exactly the same expressions of rum as back then, they simply don't exist. And then there's the absinthe. A mere 1/8th of a teaspoon, but yet a significant part of the recipe. Absinthe was still illegal, and it is quite likely that Don used the substitute Herbsaint. But Herbsaint changed their formula significantly in the early 1970s. Short of investing in many vintage bottlings on the secondhand market, it's just not possible to do it perfectly. My assumption is Don would've used real absinthe had he been able (and probably did in private, Don was well-traveled and not exactly respectful of laws and such), so that's what we'll do, though we'll use a teeny bit less to compensate for the more pronounced flavors. Overall, I think both of these drinks would be easily recognized as correct, though with some very subtle differences, to a Beachcomber regular.

The '34 recipe comes from an ex-Beachcomber bartender's notebook discovered by his daughter a couple years ago, while the '56 was published in the men's magazine, Cabaret. The two authenticate one another. They are very closely related, with the '56 being an obvious refinement and update of the original, with just a couple new ingredients and some changes in measures. Don was forever tinkering with his recipes, not just in pursuit of perfection, but to keep throwing rivals off his scent. While perhaps understandable at the time, that same secrecy is also to blame for the drink's ill repute. But taste one and you'll know - this is booze artistry of the highest order.

A Beachcomber's Creed
Our number one prerequisite,
Never stand when you can sit,
And if you can - lie down a bit.

Relax - no matter what you do
Enjoying life is up to you
The world is just a point of view.

When day is done - and comes the night
No pastime makes the stars so bright
As greeting dusk with Rum's Delight.

Of ALL life's pleasures deeply drink
At every worry give a wink
It's MUCH MUCH later than you think!

1 comment:

  1. Regarding Herbsaint, it is possible now to get the 1930s version of Legendre Herbsaint, the Sazerac Co. has brought J.M.Legendre's original formula back as Herbsaint Original.

    The Herbsaint Original is a well done revival of old Herbsaint, and has the same flavor profile as the vintage bottles of Herbsaint in my collection.