Hollywood, 1940
YOU WAKE UP thinking you might, in fact, be dead. The world is a strange, wavy place before your bleary eyes, too bright and too dim all at once, and that pounding in your head suggests the tortures of Gehenna itself. But no, you realize; your head is throbbing, and since dead men don’t feel pain, you must be alive, to some degree.

Perhaps you’ve been poisoned. It wouldn’t be the first time in your career for the War Department. Your body certainly feels as if some witch’s brew has been scorching through your veins all night. And because you went straight home after your “assignation” with the actress/possible German double agent you were in Hollywood to meet, you conclude that whatever was slipped into your drink was done at the bar. So you make your way back to that ridiculous, grass-covered establishment with its ridiculous glassware and roast pigs, a bar called “Don the Beachcomber,” to see the eponymous proprietor Donn Beach himself and ask him whether he saw that crafty dame slip anything into your drink the night before.

But after a brief, vehement conversation with the man, you discover: 1. That blonde is neither a real spy nor even a real actress (unless toothpaste commercials count), and 2. No one needed to slip anything into that drink to make you a woozy mess today. The drink did it all by itself.

And according to him, that drink is called, appropriately enough, the Zombie.

The Zombie supposedly was concocted by Beach himself, inventor of the kitschy “tiki” concept and its suite of tropical drinks, and while Beach refuses to share his secret recipe with you, a few dollars palmed to a chatty barback gets you some of the information you seek, leaving you sure that whoever created it was a maniac or a sadist. The recipe involves three kinds of rum, lime juice, falernum, something called Donn’s Mix, grenadine, bitters and Pernod — everything the bartender could readily reach, it seems. The result tasted like drinkable fruitcake, the alcohol masked by the bright fruit juices and sugar, the latter of which is probably the reason for your current agony. The name supposedly goes back to the very first consumer of the drink, who claimed the next day that it turned him into a zombie for days afterward. You sympathize; you certainly feel like an ambulatory cadaver this morning.

Advertising

Because … three rums! In this case, it was Jamaican dark rum, Puerto Rican gold rum and Demerara rum — overkill, you aver. Jamaican dark rum is a funky spirit distilled from a cane mash fermented by wild yeasts, spiced and aged in oak barrels, while gold rum is a lighter drink, bright and classic. That should have been enough rum for one swizzle, but no; the man had to go and add Demerara rum, too, a smoky, complex specialty spirit from the Demerara River in Guyana, distilled in antique wood stills and bringing with it the tangled, fecund flavor of the tropics.

The rest of the ingredients were divulged by the barback only after you’d resorted to threats. Falernum is, apparently, a sweet Caribbean-spiced liqueur (or straight syrup) made with the things you’d find in Jerk chicken (allspice and cloves), as well as ginger, lime and almond — practically a cocktail in itself; just add booze. And Beach’s infamous “mix” is a treacherously heady combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon. (Gads; no wonder that drink tasted like dessert!) The addition of Pernod absinthe adds a little Old World psychedelia to the mix as well, barely detectable through all that almond.

No wonder the recipe is a secret; it could be weaponized in the event your employer Uncle Sam decides to finally enter that European bloodbath the papers are already calling the second Great War. Apparently the reason for the hush-hush is that, unbelievably, other barmen seem to want to pretend they invented it. Someone named Monte Proser tried to take credit for its creation at the New York World’s Fair (although it’s worth noting that the man did steal Beach’s bartender), and yet another bartender, Harry Quin, claims he invented it in Chicago as far back as 1916 to use up a surplus of rum. If you were feeling more up to snuff, you might even bother to investigate which origin story is true. (If you really want to get into the weeds on this, drinks aficionado Gary Gillman has done the digging.

Either way, you will never consume another Zombie yourself, delicious though the drink might be, though you will frequently order them for other people at other bars, particularly when you want their tongues loosened (for the cause, of course). But those drinks will rarely be quite the same as the one you had at Donn Beach’s bar. The fruits will be changed out, the liqueurs switched up, the juices swapped willy-nilly, and sometimes the only remaining link to the original is the array of rums, the lime squeeze and the name. And the overall effect the drink has on the drinker the next day.

But at least the drink almost always comes in an amusing glass with a slice of fruit and a wee umbrella, so your friend can enjoy life for the night even if he becomes a dead man walking in the morning.