On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy breaks down the Zombie with spirits educator, author, and tiki expert Shannon Mustipher. The classic tiki cocktail consists of three rum styles, but despite its name and lengthy list of ingredients, this drink is nothing to fear.
Thanks to the spread of tiki flavors around the United States, the Zombie’s popularity has grown in recent years and decades. Mustipher shares the cocktail’s beloved history, the exciting practice of blending rums, and tips on how to concoct a Zombie for any occasion. Tune in to learn more.
Shannon Mustipher’s Zombie Recipe
- 1 1⁄2 ounces aged rum
- 1 1⁄2 ounces pot still Jamaican rum
- 1 ounce 151-proof rum
- 6 drops absinthe
- 1⁄2 ounce falernum
- 1 teaspoon grenadine
- 1⁄2 ounce Don’s Mix
- 3⁄4 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1 dash of Angostura bitters
- Combine all ingredients in a shaker with cubed ice.
- Shake until cold and strain into a Collins glass or vessel of your choice over crushed ice.
- Garnish with mint, a lime wedge, and an orange twist.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy. Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” We are in the VinePair studio today with Shannon Mustipher. It is a wonderful pleasure to be here with you, Shannon. Thank you so much for joining us.
Shannon Mustipher: Oh, Tim, thanks for having me. You know I’m a big fan of the VinePair crew, so it’s great to be here with you and chatting about one of my favorite drinks.
T: I cannot wait to get into it. I was telling you before we started as well, this is a slightly nervous one for me. I feel like this is an iconic drink within the tiki and tropical sphere. It’s a drink that I love ordering. I’ve never made it at home. I don’t have the ingredients. But I feel like after our conversation today, I’m going to be out there probably buying 10 bottles, going home, and experimenting. So, let’s get into it.
S: All I got to say to put you at ease, I mean, this is tiki we’re talking about. It’s meant to be fun and light. I think it’s a good time to be making a Zombie because in contrast to three or four years ago, or even six years ago when I opened up Glady’s Caribbean, it wasn’t easy to find rums that would really work in this cocktail. Now, there are many options, which we’re going to unpack. That being said, when you’re all said and done, I do expect you to go home, make that Zombie, and report back.
T: I absolutely will. If it’s good enough, I might even take a photo and tag you on Instagram or whatever.
S: I love it. I’ll be looking for it.
T: If you don’t see that on my feed, you’ll know that it was a complete disaster. But I’m sure that will be completely my own fault.
S: I’m here for guidance, advice, and support. Don’t hesitate.
T: There’s a lot to unpack, in a good way, about the Zombie. There’s a ton of history to get into. Before we do, though, can you just tell me what makes this a notable drink? What makes this such an iconic drink?
The History Behind the Zombie
S: This is based on my research of Don the Beachcomber’s early restaurant in Los Angeles in the late ’30s. Via reading biographies about Beachcomber, I think this is a drink that really put his restaurant on the map to the degree that it would inspire imitators who also were doing copycat tropical and exotic bars. But they realized that the Zombie had something special to it. So within the course of a year, almost any copycat bar had a Zombie on its menu. Were these authentic recipes? Probably not. But there was so much buzz and good marketing around it that I think it was one of the drinks that really legitimized tropical and exotic cocktails, and later what we call “tiki.” I don’t know how popular the genre would have become without this particular cocktail being in the mix.
T: That’s incredible. Regardless of whether that’s tiki or not, or any other style of cocktail, that insane popularity almost from the get-go doesn’t happen very often. Even today with things like the internet and social media, it’s not that often that a drink will take off like that.
S: I think that there’s a couple of reasons why it did: a) it’s a fantastic drink, and we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of why that is. But b) you have to remember that Don the Beachcomber started off as an adventurer before opening bars. He grew up in New Orleans; it’s rumored that his relatives or one of his uncles in particular, was involved in rum-running. There’s a good chance that he was involved in some of the rum-running going on during Prohibition, in addition to visiting the Caribbean as a teenager. He chose to take the money that his parents offered him to either go study at college or to travel the world and he said, “Screw college. I like beaches and I like islands.” So he spent some time in the Caribbean, later spent some time in the South Pacific, and loved them to pieces. That’s where his fascination for South Seas culture and Polynesia began. This began to give him that vision that would eventually come to fruition in his bar programs. It’s important to note that, in Polynesia, there is no such thing as tiki drinks. There is a culture of using juices to make mixed beverages, but cocktails didn’t exist. So Don’s innovation, generally and overall, was to take Caribbean rums and the Polynesian decor and vibe and then put them together in this cultural fantasy that was his bar, Don the Beachcomber.
T: We’re really getting into the early history of the drink here in the foundation. I’d love to hear more about that. Are there any tales, or is there one generally accepted tale of how the Zombie came about? Don, of course, is the creator of this drink. How does that come about? How does the popularity spread, like you mentioned before?
S: Here’s the thing about Don: He’s an entertainer. He opened his bar when Hollywood was emerging as a scene. In fact, his restaurant was very popular among the Hollywood set. Probably, in part, because he did work as a consultant on South Seas films and probably got a lot of his props from that work. Do we believe the story behind it, or do we just accept it as another bit of entertainment and fanfare? One anecdote says that he had a regular that came in with a hangover one evening, and the gentleman was asking for something that would perk him up. Sometimes, if you’re in a bad state, for better or worse, you need something a little extra to bring you back. This is a very hairy dog. So he made the drink for this guest, and the guy felt better, so to speak. But then he came back the next day and he was like, “I feel like I died and came back.” That kind of inspired this idea of the Zombie, as something that will put you under and bring you back, ready for more. The brilliant touch, apart from the recipe itself, was the disclaimer that he put on the menu: only two allowed per customer. I’ve never tried to have more than two, so I don’t know if he put that there as a real safety measure. The cynical part of me thinks that it was a bit of a marketing ploy, because when you limit supply, people want more and more. There are even people that would go so far as to pay somebody to go get them another one. So it really worked, but you were like, “I can only have two? It must be really good.”
T: How many people won three from that, like you say, just to say they did? It’s a wonderful piece of marketing. Even if that wasn’t the intention, it definitely did have that effect.
S: I don’t think it was an accident. No.
T: There’s other drinks out there, like you said, that you maybe haven’t tried to have two. People say that about a Martini as well. You shouldn’t have more than two. I’ve occasionally done more than two, but I’ll tell you, two is definitely the good place to stop. Even if you’re moving on to other cocktails, that’s a good place to stop. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed my third Martini that much, and certainly not the next day.
S: If you’re on Martini No. 3, you might as well just be pulling a chilled bottle of vodka from the freezer. If that’s what you want to do, let’s just call it what it is.
T: Let’s be honest here. I’d seen something that the year after, or in subsequent years, this recipe was also published for the World’s Fair. Is that something from the story that you’ve come across as well or not?
S: I have to admit, I haven’t looked too deeply into that. I’m a little more concerned with how it showed up in tropical bars and what it did to spread the message. But being at the World’s Fair certainly didn’t hurt it.
T: From my understanding or my research, and this is the history of drinks, you’ve got to take everything with a pinch of salt. But the person who apparently put the recipe on there was not Don, and was trying to claim the drink as their own. So it’s good that we can forget that part, because we don’t want people taking credit for something they haven’t done.
S: That’s why I’m saying, I’m not surprised that they put it on there. I think that they recognized that it did have a big marketability factor, otherwise why would they be bothered? I can’t think of another American drink trend prior to the Zombie that inspired that much press outside of, say, the Mint Julep. Right? I recall a passage in the preface to “The Ideal Bartender” where there was mention of a libel suit. President Roosevelt claimed that he only had one sip of Tom Bullock’s Julep and then somebody called b.s. on that like, “No, no, no, no. Tom’s Juleps are so good, there’s no way you can only have one sip.” That drink did get a lot of press, as did the Sherry Cobbler. But outside of that, you didn’t really see the press spending a lot of time talking about any particular cocktail. And they did with the Zombie.
T: We mentioned the great marketing genius, intentional or otherwise, of the two-drink limit. Is there another factor of this drink that adds to its notoriety, which is the recipe? Is this a cocktail where the recipe has been known throughout time? Don comes up with it. People know it, people make it. Or is this a drink with some sort of mysticism around it?
S: Well, I think it certainly has mysticism because he was the first mixologist or bartender that would put two or more rums in one cocktail. But when you look at the bones of the template, there is a precedent found in the Planters Punch. Which he likely encountered while visiting Jamaica, be it as a guest at their Myrtle Bank Hotel or perhaps the Hotel Titchfield. It wasn’t uncommon for resorts at that time, between 1910 and the 1930s, to have a house punch. This was a play on the planters, and they each had a different recipe. But when I look at the Myrtle Bank Hotel rendition, it’s not a stretch to say that he saw that and built upon it. He made this a more extravagant or baroque example that was unique to him. It was also something that couldn’t be imitated because he never made the rums that went into his blends explicit. Sometimes, the bartenders would touch one bottle and it would say Zombie blend, as using this example. They didn’t know what the rum components were; that came to light later on as a result of Jeff Beachbum Berry’s research. So on one hand, it’s based on a simple idea, but he kind of took it to the max.
T: And we had to discover those proprietary ingredients or blends, like you say, over time. That comes through the work of Jeff Beachbum Berry, as you mentioned. Can you tell us about that?
S: Jeff Beachbum, also from California, got his start working in Hollywood as a screenwriter and doing adjacent projects. So the apple didn’t really fall far from the tree. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he fell in with a crowd of tiki and exotica enthusiasts in South California. They include Sven Kirsten, who is a scholar that has written numerous books on the topic of tiki culture, art, artifacts, and design. People like Otto and Baby Doe von Stroheim, who founded the first festival around tiki. That eventually became Tiki Oasis, which is held twice a year now in two locations. They were spending a lot of time together, and Jeff Beachbum became really fascinated with trying to find these classic recipes. Sometimes, you would open up a Trader Vic cocktail book and sometimes you would try to make them, but it didn’t always add up. He would go to different bars in L.A. that were still open and serving tiki, and he would ask, “So what’s in this drink?” I’ll use Tiki-Ti as an example. Some of the bartenders working there had worked for Don or Vic prior, but they were all sworn to secrecy. That was the culture of tiki bars. Everything was in code, and the only way to learn the recipe was to poach the bartender. The answer he got was something like “rum and juice.” He was very persistent and meticulous in his research over the course of 10 or 12 years to come up with “Grog Log,” and all these different books. He was just slowly chipping away at getting some insight into what was going on in these cocktails.
T: That’s incredible and really adds to this story. Maybe it’s more the writer and journalist in me, of having to piece together different things and going to different people to bring everything together as one. As drinkers and bartenders today, we are enjoying the fruits of that, knowing and understanding the true ingredients of Don’s original recipe.
S: Yeah, there’s that. Also consider that, when a lot of these original exotic or tropical cocktails were conceived, the selection of rums available on the U.S. market was very different compared to what you can find in most markets in the 1980s and 1990s. That had a lot to do with relationships that the United States established with Puerto Rico and BVI and subsidies of those islands. They were receiving incentives to produce rum in an untaxed situation. So retailers were more inclined to bring in those rums, but they only constitute a sliver of the arsenal of rums that you would need to be able to make tiki cocktails. I would say it’s only in the last five to eight years that, in most major U.S. markets, you can reliably find high-essence Jamaica rums. Or the Guyana rums without added sugar, and other elements that you can use to make drinks that are very close to the original recipes. Before that, I think people were taking shots in the dark and maybe falling a little short. That might be the reason why tiki cocktails became a little less popular, because they just didn’t taste that good.
T: Because the ingredients weren’t there.
S: They weren’t there, unfortunately.
The Ingredients Used in the Zombie
T: We are going to dive into those ingredients very shortly. But before we do so, I always ask our guests this. What are you looking for from a perfectly executed version of this drink? Whether you’re making it yourself or someone hands it, what are you expecting from it?
S: This is the stereotypical answer regarding any cocktail: I want it to be balanced. I want to be able to discern the flavors and aromas of the rum. I want the rum to still shine, but I don’t want it to feel like an overly boozy or aggressive drink. That’s the dangerous part, because it doesn’t come across that way if it was made properly. What you’re really getting more of is the flavor, as opposed to heat. I want the citrus to not be so overwhelming. I don’t want it to be very sour, but it still needs to be very bracing and crisp. There should be a subtle herbaceous element. And that’s going to come courtesy of your pastis or absinthe or whichever element you decide to use. It just needs to be very punchy and bright, and something that you could easily down. You looked and you’re like, “Oh, I need another one; time to slow down.”
T: I love how you described it earlier as a very hairy dog. Also with the idea of the alcohol not coming through, we could maybe describe it as a well-groomed, very hairy dog.
S: That could very well be true.
T: You mentioned some of the ingredients there, but let’s dive into those now. Let’s start with rum, obviously. Tell us about the rum — or rums — component of this drink and what you’re looking for yourself when you approach making it.
S: Before I get into the individual rums that are utilized here, I think it’s important to preface that, when Don was looking at rum components in his cocktails, he was looking at the way some wine producers would blend different grapes. He’s looking at the flavor profiles and texture that each component will contribute to the end result. Don’t think of it as, “Oh, this guy just wanted to put a bunch of rum in the drink.” The intention is not rum for rum’s sake, for this idea that there’s so much alcohol in it. That’s not what he’s after. What he’s after is really getting the best aroma, the best mouthfeel, the best flavor, the best texture, the best finish. There aren’t that many rums that can supply that on their own. So he had the foresight to think of it almost like a wine, where you pick out the grape that has a really nice nose on it. There’s that soft mid-palate component that kind of carries everything and wraps it up. Then, there’s an element that gives you a gravelly finish, or a fruity finish, or a very dry finish. That’s the thought process behind what he put in here. With that being said, let’s look at these individual rums that are traditionally called for. The Jamaican rum is carrying most of the drink. And it’s important to consider that the Jamaican rums that he was likely sourcing at that time were probably predominantly pot still as opposed to column still. For those of you who are a little less familiar, the major distinction that you’ll find between these two approaches is that column still is the first method of distillation. It takes place in one chamber. Depending on how that liquid has been fermented prior, in the case of Jamaica it’s traditionally a longer fermentation, so you have a deeper, richer flavor profile that you can then concentrate and preserve in amber. That means floral notes, dried fruit to a degree, sometimes some grassy notes. There is also this signature funk, or haut goût, that people love about this classic style of Jamaican rum. So that’s going to give a lot of aroma on the nose. The second component is the 151 rum from Guyana. That could be a combination of pot and column. I’m guessing that at his time and where he was sourcing from, it was mostly pot. But I have to admit, I haven’t looked that far into it. I tend to use the pot still rum from Guyana for this. What you get in the case of this style rum is that the Demerara Valley is known for having very rich alluvial soils. As a result, the sugar cane has a muskier flavor element to it. I love it, because to me, it’s like the Côte du Rhône of rum. It’s fruity and peppery and has concentrated black currants, blueberries, and things like that. So it’s fruity, but not sweet. It can have white pepper and be really dry, which I love. I think that gives it some heft as well. It is a higher proof. And again, don’t think of higher proof as more alcohol. Think of it as a more concentrated flavor, because once you start to proof a liquid down, then you also lose flavor and aroma. So it’s just a very intense flavor. Maybe it’s helpful to think of it as a glaze. If you cook, and you’re familiar with the glaze, it’s kind of like the glaze in the blend.
T: Or if you’re taking your chicken stock and you’re reducing it down. Like a demi-glace, too, which obviously stems from the word “glazed” like you’re talking about there.
S: Exactly, something like that. I hope the rum people don’t come for me for that.
T: No, I think that’s a wonderful way of explaining it.
S: Right on. Last but not least, the Puerto Rican rum. Those tend to be written off by some as not having as much character as Jamaica rum, in regards to aroma. Or maybe it doesn’t have as much fruit as a Demerara rum. But it doesn’t have to, because this is what gives it a softer, rounder, creamier edge. It’s important to note that Puerto Rican rums, at that time — or, he was probably using Cuban rums, let’s face it — they could be vegetal and a little bit dry, depending on how they were aged. I’m under the impression they weren’t aged as long. It wasn’t a neutral base, it had character and body. But I think it was meant to be a vehicle.
S: Merlot, I think, is fair.
T: Yeah, we’re blending with Merlot. I was about to say, it’s approachable, rounded, but it carries everything else as well.
S: Exactly. There’s nothing about it in and of itself, that you would go, “Yes, I want to sit here with this.” But I don’t think that you will want to isolate any one of these components and go with that either. Unless you have a predilection. Mine is for Jamaican rum, but I know that’s not for everybody. That’s not the way Jamaica rum was historically used. Historically, it was incorporated into blends. Think of the British Navy or different merchant bottlers in Europe. It was uncommon to sell Jamaica rum on its own. It was kind of like salt and pepper.
T: The seasoning, wonderful. It’s funny because blending rums, especially for these styles of cocktails, is something we’ve spoken about quite a bit before on the show. But we’ve never gone into it quite in that kind of direction and also that much depth. So thank you very much for that.
S: It’s something I can’t help, and it’s something I’m surprised that we don’t hear more about. Just for a little background for those listening in, prior to opening the program at Glady’s and starting to taste and learn about rum, I’d worked with wine. I worked as a buyer. I’ve worked in different restaurants and shops and wine bars. So when I was trying to make sense of how to arrange a back bar and how to explain our selection to the guests, it was a natural idea to arrange it by geography. As I learned more, I began to see that maybe it is helpful to think of it as different types of grapes or different types of wines.
T: I really do love that wine analogy that you use there. Increasingly these days, folks don’t just stick to one lane, like spirits, wine, or beer. Increasingly these days, people enjoy all different categories. The analogy that you used will help break that down and make it so much more approachable for a lot of people.
S: It helped me.
T: The second ingredient here of many, where would you like to go?
S: Well, let’s talk about the Don’s Mix. That’s where you can have a lot of fun, especially at this time of year. Don’s Mix is a compound syrup. And by compound syrup, I’m talking about something that is not just an infused syrup. In an infused syrup, it would be a mint syrup or a rosemary syrup. When we talk about a compound, we’re going to incorporate something that’s outside of the sweet. In this case, it’s grapefruit juice. But another compound syrup can be a syrup that has butter incorporated into it, like Gardenia Mix. That’s another topic. But Don’s Mix is really cool, because if you source the right kind of cinnamon, it can add a lot of bright aromatics to the element. With the right type of grapefruit, I would suggest white grapefruit over Ruby Red, there’s room for all kinds of variation. If you can get your hands on pomelo or Buddha’s hand or some other types of citrus to put in there, it’s all fair game. Let’s bear in mind, in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s not like you could source all of these exotic foods from all over the world. I’m sure that if Don and the other bar operators could have, they would have. So I like to maintain an open stance. White grapefruit is the threshold, but I encourage you to go wild with it. It’s a little punchy, but it’s not as acidic as lemon or lime, but it also has more of that floral aroma that those other citrus fruits don’t offer. That’s the role it plays when you introduce it to cinnamon.
T: Nice. That’s grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup?
S: Correct. What you do is combine them and you can lightly, I would say, simmer. I wouldn’t cook it. I wouldn’t want to turn it up too high. But you do want to simmer it for about 10 to 15 minutes in order to be fully integrated. Obviously, you want to strain out the pulp prior to adding the juice to your syrup. And, of course, fresh is better than store-bought.
T: When it comes to a bar perspective, or for folks making it at home, what’s the shelf life on something like that? Does it very much depend on the bar program you run? If you have the Zombie on the menu, is this something you have on hand? Or are there going to be bars out there that might have, for example, cinnamon simple syrup and fresh grapefruit, and they can make this? What’s the thinking there for those two things?
S: Once you’ve combined it and made it into syrup, the shelf life on paper is seven to 10 days. But again, citrus always varies. With the grapefruit that you bought last week, who knows how long it was at the store for?
S: I would just say to use it as quickly as you can. In regards to Don’s Mix, there are two reasons why he would make the compound syrup. It’s more efficient in the pickup because it’s a very fast-selling drink. Also, it adds more mystery to the recipe. It’s not cinnamon syrup and grapefruit. No, he had to obscure what it was. So it might serve both purposes. There are some bars where they don’t really have enough tiki going on to justify making a Don’s Mix, because it is very specific to this recipe and maybe a handful of other applications, unless they’ve come up with another use for it. So if you have grapefruit juice and you have cinnamon syrup, go for it.
T: Wonderful. If I were to go into a very good cocktail bar that’s maybe not tiki or tropical focused, what are my chances that they will be able to make me a Zombie if it’s not on the menu? Do you think that’s just a case-by-case scenario?
S: If it’s a good bar…
T: They’ll have cinnamon syrup?
S: I should hope so. If it’s a good bar, then all these ingredients are at that bar. The question is, what’s the attitude of the bartender? How curious are they about how to help you if you ask for that? Good bars have good service. If someone asks you for something that you don’t typically serve, you discretely go look up the recipe and then make it. You know what I’m saying? If you went to a good, high-end bar and you see the syrups, 10 rums behind the bar, absinthe, nice glassware, pebbled ice, there’s a good chance they can do it for you. But if you ask and you get an attitude, then maybe that’s not such a good sign.
T: Not a good sign. Not at all.
S: You know what I’m saying? I run tiki events and someone came in with friends, and she was like, “I would love a Martini.” She’s like, “I’m sorry to ask you.” I was like, “No, I would love to make you a Martini.” Because that’s what you want. Let’s do it and let’s have fun with it.
T: Everyone’s going to be happier after that. If they’re getting what they want and you’re making that for them, wonderful.
S: Who am I to tell you what to drink? You tell me.
T: So, what’s the next ingredient? Where shall we head to?
S: Let’s talk about grenadine.
T: Grenadine? OK, tell me all about it.
S: This is where it can go wrong. I know it’s not easy or justifiable to have grenadine in most bar programs. Because let’s face it, there aren’t that many drinks that call for it. I’m trying to guess about the other drinks that call for it; maybe there are two or three there for the classics. It’s something that is so seldom encountered. Unless bars have a cocktail on a menu that’s calling for it, they’re not really going to be bothered with it.
T: Unless they sell a lot of, is it Sex On The Beach that has grenadine in it? Maybe.
S: Yeah, but in the bars that serve that drink, they are probably serving a pre-made cordial.
T: They’re not going there.
S: By the way, people, Rose’s is not grenadine. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not grenadine. The definition of grenadine is a syrup that’s derived from pomegranate juice reduced down with sugar. That’s the quick and easy definition of it. What I found is that bars prefer to use a juice like palm, if they’re going to make a grenadine. I’ve also seen people adapt syrups that they would get from a specialty store like Kalustyans. They have different pomegranates that are maybe coming from a Middle Eastern or Indian palate. But again, test a few options there. Be aware that you might want to cut it a little bit, maybe add a little vinegar to make it more of a shrub, to restore the acidity or the freshness. This is not something I have personally tried, so it’s speculation. But there may be some chef-grade pureés out there that one could tinker with, but I’ve not personally done that, so I don’t know how it works. Let’s say something like Perfect Pureé. I’ve used Perfect Pureé, Boiron, and similar brands with other fruits, and what I’ve always found is that I need to cut it a little bit, so it’s not as sweet.
T: OK, so what would be your approach then? What’s the ideal approach here with grenadine? Are you making it yourself or is there a high-quality provider that you would go for?
S: I would say if you can make it yourself, make it yourself, because then you have more control over how sweet you want it to be. I think there are a few smaller producers of cocktail syrups that are reputable, like Small Hand Foods makes some good cocktail syrups. I don’t know if they have grenadine currently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. BG Reynolds, which is also based in California, specializes in tiki and tropical drinks. They’re probably your best bet and are pretty easy to get. I would start there. If you don’t want to order the whole syrup and you just want to make it yourself, do palm juice and white sugar. Make it the same way you would a simple syrup.
T: Got it. Ideally, you’re looking for something that is sweet but is not overly sweet. It has some sharpness to it.
S: Yeah, you want it to be a little tart. Again, that goes with those concentrated fruit flavors that I mentioned in the Guyana rum.
T: Wonderful. To everyone listening, do not: A) consider Rose’s and B) undervalue the importance of grenadine in this.
S: Do not skip this one. I think it’s the one where people try to cut corners, but you’re not doing yourself any favors.
T: Nice. Top tip there. Next ingredient?
S: Next ingredient. Where are we at? All right: falernum.
T: Let’s talk about falernum.
S: Let’s talk about it. I like to use one falernum when I’m behind the bar, because I’m consistent. It’s actually built on a rum base.
T: Can I stop you for a second? For anyone listening who’s not aware, what is falernum?
S: Oh yeah, I’m going to break it down. It’s a Barbadian liqueur, historically, which is based on Bajan rum and infused with cinnamon clove citrus peels. Every recipe differs somewhat, but it’s a rum liqueur. I think it’s helpful to compare it, let’s say, to orange Curaçao. So orange Curaçao is in that triple sec or citrus liqueur family. What differentiates it is that orange peels from the island of Curaçao have a little bit more of a bitter, aromatic element to it. Whereas with triple sec, they’re using different oranges. I kind of like to think of falernum as the triple sec of rum. But in a good way, because it’s not based on a neutral spirit, it is actually based on rum. It does bring some flavor to the table. Orange Curaçao can sometimes be based on a neutral spirit. In the best case scenarios it’s based on brandy. Brandies are typically a good base for the liqueurs. But in the case of falernum, it’s rum.
T: Are there any other profiles in there or brands that you might highlight?
S: Yes, I like John D. Taylor. It is produced in Barbados in the same facility, under the supervision of people who have been working with that product for over 100 years. There’s an unbroken lineage; it’s the real deal. Whereas if you buy falernum syrup from, I’ll bring up BG Reynolds, it’s fine. But I don’t know that they’re using Bajan rum as a base. Falernum is from Barbados, get a Bajan falernum then.
T: Yeah, keep it classic there. What kind of proof would that come in at, and what are you looking for there? Maybe that’s a signal of quality. Folks might see one, they come across one, what are they supposed to be looking for?
S: If my memory is correct, I think John D. Taylor is clocking in around 17 percent. It’s certainly not higher than 23, because there is a law in the U.S. regarding the proof on something that will be called a liqueur. If it has no alcohol content whatsoever, what that means is that you’re going to be giving up a little real estate in the end result. Having something that comes in at least 16 percent and above means you’re not getting unwanted dilution. That’s why I prefer a rum-based falernum as opposed to one that doesn’t have a spirit component.
T: That’s perfect there. It’s that one thing to look for, and hopefully alcohol is a surefire sign of a quality, hopefully.
S: I mean, it’s one element. But again, when you’re making a cocktail, you want the right amount of dilution. Any component you can put in there that doesn’t detract from it is better.
T: Wonderful. Next, let’s dive into either absinthe or Herbsaint. Which are you using and what is this bringing to the cocktail?
S: This is a matter of taste. For me, I find Herbsaint a little sweeter relative to most absinthes. But there are so many absinthes on the market right now that I can’t say you should use this or you should not use that. I would just say to familiarize yourself with the different approaches to it. Since it comes from New Orleans, Herbsaint may be something that Don may have used, because that’s where he grew up. So I think it might have something in common with his palate. Again, that’s speculation. The question is, how do you feel about sweeteners in your cocktails? If you don’t like sweet, then maybe go for the absinthe. If you don’t like the anise flavor, I would stray away from the Herbsaint, because that is very anise-driven. Some people just can’t stand it. Some people like it. Just understand your palate and your preferences and then decide from there. There’s no right or wrong answer.
T: Perfect. If I am not mistaken here, and I am consulting my notes because there’s a lot going on and there’s a lot going into this cocktail, but I believe we have another citrus component and bitters. That might be correct? Which do you want to explore first?
S: Citrus, because this is the make or break. I understand that fresh citrus can be expensive of late. I know that fresh lime has gone from maybe $70 a case to up to $120 or $130. So that’s a serious jump.
T: That’s a lot.
S: That’s crazy, right? I feel the pain. So should we use prepackaged juice or should we use fresh lime? Obviously, fresh lime is going to give you a better result. One thing to keep in mind when you’re working at home, is that there are two schools of thought. One says that you want to use it right after you squeeze it. One says that it’s better to squeeze the juice and give it a few hours to let off some gasses or oxidize a little bit, so it becomes a little less acidic and more stable. But never keep fresh juice from the day before. Because at that point, it’s basically done. All the floral components have disintegrated. What you’re left with is very bitter, and it’s not giving you that freshness that you want. If you want to use prepackaged juice, by all means. But just be aware it is not the same; it’s not interchangeable,
T: It doesn’t pop the same way that the fresh stuff does.
S: It doesn’t.
T: And then finally, the bitters.
S: Bitters are essentially the salt and pepper in cocktails. They’re based on a higher-proof neutral spirit infused with barks and herbs. Angostura is the go-to for most cocktails. We’re talking about barks, herbs, and spices that come from South America, actually not far from where Demerara rum is produced. The Demerara Valley abuts the Amazon. It’s kind of a similar thing. I would suggest the adage, “What grows together, goes together.” You can use other styles of bitters, but I say Angostura is a good place to start. If you have an opinion regarding using a Jamaican bitter, or pimento bitter, or even tiki bitters, go with that by all means. But I say start with Angostura.
How to Make the Zombie Cocktail
T: Amazing. I feel like we’re now ready to construct this drink. I would love to hear your method for that and tips along the way, and that spec that you would use. Or what you would consider to be the recognized classic these days.
S: I’m going to read out the spec that I used in my book. It’s basically a paraphrase of what Beachbum Berry discovered as he decoded the Zombie. So I gotta give him credit for that, because I couldn’t figure this cocktail out on my own. So you do one dash of Angostura bitters, one teaspoon for falernum. What teaspoon are we talking about? I suggest using a standard bar spoon, the kind you can get from Cocktail Kingdom. That’s essentially the equivalent to a teaspoon. Then you’ll do half an ounce of falernum, half an ounce of Don’s Mix. If you’re using the ingredients separately, that would be a quarter-ounce each of your cinnamon syrup and your grapefruit juice. Then the three-quarter ounce of the fresh lime juice that’s been sitting for a little bit. At this point, I would stop, taste it, see if you like the sweet and sour balance. Citrus varies from day to day, so you might want a little more sweet or a little less sour, depending on where that’s at. After that, I do an eighth of a teaspoon of absinthe. How do you do this? For me personally, I’ll just use a dropper, maybe one or two.
T: That’s it?
S: Yeah, because after that, it’s going to be a big affair here. Now the next one is 1 ounce of 151 Demerara rum. Very important; it’s not 151 Bacardi, they are worlds apart. It’s not the proof that we are after here, it’s the intensity of flavor. And in this case, it’s the flavor of Demerara rum. That’s followed by one-half ounce of a gold Puerto Rican rum. So now it’s OK to do the Puerto Rican rum. That could be a Bacardi Ocho, or something that’s similarly styled. It could be Brugal. But we’re talking about a rum that falls somewhere between the five- and eight-year range. It’s important to note that, if you’re doing mixed drinks with citrus, I don’t recommend using rums that are aged more than eight years. They’ve taken on so much character from wood that they’re better either in a spirit-forward application or neat on the rocks. So you want rums that are a little lighter so that you get those natural flavors still shining through. Last but not least, my favorite part is 1-and-a-half ounces of Jamaican rum. Earlier, we talked about how the rum in this original recipe was likely column still. If you go to the store and you pick up something that says Jamaica rum, like an Appleton, be aware that that’s going to have some column distilling in it. So it’s a style that differs a little bit from what Don was likely working with. It wasn’t as close to what he used. It might be a Smith & Cross. It might be something from Ed Hamilton Ministry of Rum, which sources from distillers that work exclusively with pot stills. That’s where I tend to go. Again, a Jamaica rum is not a Jamaican rum. That is that old-school pot still, and then there’s a more modern style that integrates both. For some people, they’re like, “Wow, I got to get three bottles of rum?” No, you actually don’t.
S: Exactly. There’s a hack: If you want to get three bottles of rum because you plan on making tiki and rum drinks anyway, by all means do that. If you’re that person, when you plan to make a Zombie, why not make your own blend ahead of time? Go ahead and measure your rums out in a 500-milliliter using these proportions so that it’s already ready to go. You just have to do one pour, OK, boom. But if you don’t want to do all that, Ed Hamilton makes a really delicious Zombie rum blend that he consulted with Beachbum Berry to make. It uses the rums from Jamaica and from Demerara that are produced in these methods that are closer to what was used at the time.
S: I have some at home and it is delightful. Yeah, it’s great. We hope that that’s what Don was using. But I figure it is, because we’re talking about Beachbum Berry, and that’s pretty close. It’s heavily researched, great sourcing, and then you only need to use one bottle.
T: Yeah, just the one bottle. This is the hack for the minimalist here; the person trying to not take up too much space on their bar or have too many bottles at home.
S: If you can get your hands on that bottle, it’s delicious.
T: I got to try that. Sounds wonderful. We’ve brought all these ingredients together. What’s happening next?
S: If you’re at home and you’re just using basic equipment, put it all in a tin, add some ice, and shake it as hard as you can. I say do that with any cocktail. But because there are numerous elements here, you do need to put a lot of energy into it to make sure they all come together. That’s going to be 10 or 15 seconds, depending on how strong you are and what kind of ice you are using. I would suggest using larger cubes as opposed to smaller cubes, because you don’t want the dilution to happen too quickly. You really want to have a really nice chill come over that, so you need that shaker tin set to be very frosty, almost what I call “too cold to hold.”.
S: From there, you strain it into a tall Collins, ideally something that can hold 12 to 14 ounces over cubed ice. If you happen to have pebbles, maybe put a little on the top if you want to make it look more tiki. But the garnish is really simple. It’s a mint sprig, maybe a couple Maraschino cherries. Not the electric red ones, but the nice Maraschino cherries. Just bear in mind that this is from an era in tropical drinks where the elaborate garnishes have really yet to take hold. You start to see more of that in the ’40s and ’50s. They didn’t have mugs, so maybe they had flowers and mint and more natural applications. The over-the-top stuff comes a little later on. So don’t worry if you don’t have tiki mugs, or you don’t have special garnishes. It’s fine, you don’t need it. What you really need is to pay attention to the rums and the ingredients. That’s what you want. If you’re in a bar setting, let’s say you want to make it for a guest. If you have access to a stand mixer like a Hamilton Beach piece of equipment, which you probably would just find in the tiki bar, the fun thing about it is that you can build a couple serves in one tin at a time. It looks like a milkshake machine. Then you add a little bit of scooped ice, because it’s literally going to take three to five seconds of a flash blend. Boom. and then the drink is mixed. What I love about it, especially from an operator point of view, is that as long as everything is measured properly, everybody’s in agreement on the amount of ice they’re going to use in it. Regardless of your skill level, it’s very democratic. It’s not a shortcut, obviously. I’m not saying to give this to your team if they don’t know how to shake drinks. But in a pinch, when you’re five or six people deep and that ticket has 10 Zombies on it, there you go. Let’s make it happen.
T: You mentioned a little bit of ice. What is the rough quantity there, for one serving?
S: I would say half of a standard bar scoop.
S: If you’re doing a flash blend method, about half a scoop.
T: And that’s basically doing the job of the ice in the shaken form, diluting, and chilling at the same time. Obviously, the more you add, the more diluted it’s going to become.
S: Exactly. Bear in mind, it’s going in a tall glass over ice anyway, even if it comes out a little strong initially.
T: That is fine. Wonderful. That’s been an incredible deep dive on the Zombie. The preparation, the serve, everything. I definitely feel comfortable approaching this one from a home bartender perspective. I was wondering, though, if you have any other advice or final thoughts regarding this cocktail.
S: We talked about this: Don’t skimp on what you may regard as the minor ingredients. Don’t skimp on a grenadine. If you want to make your falernum at home, that’s great. That might be better for you, because maybe you’re going to pick out a rum that you really resonate with. Maybe you use Jamaican rum instead, that’s fine. But the smaller ingredients do play a role in enhancing and drawing out the flavors and the major players of the rum. I would say that for each rum we’re talking about, each one has at least three to four flavor attributes. When you think about it, there’s somewhere between eight to 10 flavor attributes that are meant to come through in the final result. Hence, all the other supporting players. So don’t skimp on any of it. Don’t regard it as extravagant. Just realize that it’s a fine-tuned machine that’s going to take you places. Have fun with it.
T: One final question from me: What is the best time and setting to be drinking a Zombie?
S: Yes, I’m glad you bring it up. There is a spot in San Francisco called the Zombie Village. The drinks are fantastic, and the build is so over the top. This is a program that was started by Doc Parks, who has recently gone on to start another bar in Napa Valley called Wilfred’s Tiki Lounge. What I love about it is, the Zombie Village is an homage not only to that cocktail, but to the history of tiki bars in general. There’s a general bar area which is beautiful and an upstairs lounge with little grottoes. At each grotto is a booth that sits maybe eight to 10 people, but they are each dedicated to a seminal bar or decade in the history of tiki, which I just thought was so brilliant and reverential. Some bars are really about their story and their brand. That’s fine, but I loved that he was sharing the love and also providing this educational moment for those that care. I had a wonderful and almost scandalous evening there with a few tiki friends in California. We coined the phrase “tiki to the face,” and I’ll just leave it to your imagination what that looked like. But yeah, I love that place.
Getting to Know Shannon Mustipher
T: Sounds like an amazing setting for this cocktail. Shannon, thank you so much. That’s been a lot of fun. Let’s head into the final questions, our recurring questions to finish the show so that our listeners can get to learn a little bit more about yourself. Let’s jump into it. Question No. 1 — I feel like we might know the answer to this one, not sure. What style or category of spirit would typically enjoy the most real estate on your back bar?
S: It’s rum. I would say that maybe 80 percent of what I keep at home is rum.
T: If you’d said anything else, I would have been very surprised there.
S: I mean, it’s for research purposes.
T: It’s work.
S: It’s part of my job.
T: Yep. Question No. 2: What ingredient or tool do you think is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
S: If you’re at home, I think that people tend to overlook ice. What size the cubes are, because that’s going to contribute to the dilution, both when shaking and also serving. Aesthetically, it’s nice to have clear ice. I’m not the person that’s like, “I don’t like crappy ice.” I don’t want to go that far with it, but it does make a difference. Also, consider how you’re storing the ice. I’m able to store ice in a freezer that doesn’t interact with food. I know that’s not true for everybody, but it does make a difference, because the flavors of whatever else is in that space is going to end up in the ice.
T: You do not want to be shaking it with a burrito-flavored ice.
S: Maybe we’re making a Margarita, I don’t know. Again, that’s something where people are like, “Just go grab some from the deli.” Hey, sometimes it’s fine. If you’re going to the beach, who cares? But if you’re going to take the time to make a recipe like this, take care of your ice.
T: Stick it in a Ziploc or in a plastic container.
S: I’ve done that, too.
T: Yeah, that helps. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in this industry?
S: Slow down. I think that the most important piece of advice is just to realize that it does take some time. If you’re working behind a bar and you aspire to own a program or achieve some sort of significance or to staying power, realize that maybe it’s contrary to what it may look like on social media. It takes a decade-plus to get really good at being behind the bar, at being in service, at mastering your craft, at managing yourself. I would just say, don’t be in a hurry.
T: That also extends to everyday life these days.
S: For sure.
T: Question No. 4: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, past or present, what would it be?
S: That’s easy: El Floridita in Havana and see if I can get the little spot next to Hemingway.
T: Yeah, that’s a good one. I can’t believe that no one’s thought to say that one before. That’s a great idea.
S: Yeah, it’s easy for me. Of course I want to go there.
T: Final question today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
S: Again, very easy: a Daquiri. If I made it, yeah. If I was going somewhere and I didn’t know who was making it, then maybe a Ti’ Punch, because that’s pretty hard to mess up.
T: That’s a good one. But if you’re making it for yourself?
S: Now I feel torn. Ti’ Punch with Snaquiri chaser.
T: Yep, that’s one order right there. So you’re allowed both of those.
S: That’s what I would do.
T: That’s a pro move right there.
S: I do my best.
T: Shannon, thank you so much. It’s been a blast chatting all things Zombie with you and getting into the history. Thanks for coming in and thanks for your time.
S: Oh, man, it’s been a pleasure. It’s fun to talk about this stuff because I feel like I sometimes take some of these things for granted. It’s been great to chat with you and learn about your background and also share these things with the listeners, especially when it comes to the rum blends. I think that’s something that makes tiki really special and makes a rum category really special that you can work with it in this way. That’s why I love the Zombie, because it really makes a strong case for that.
T: Amazing. Well, let’s go make some Zombies. Actually, I need to go out and buy a ton of ingredients and then head home and make some Zombies.
S: Sounds like a plan to me. I might be Zombie-free tonight because I’m on a writing deadline, but can call me if you need some tips.
T: Sounds great. Thank you.
S: Right on. All right, thanks, Tim.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.