Don the Beachcomber (1934)
Southern California’s longest-running contribution to the world’s cocktail culture is the deliciously goofball world of tiki. The brainchild of world traveler and bootlegger Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach), tiki was a melange of the authentic and the completely fabricated. South Seas cultural artifacts mixed with Carribean rum mixed with Chinese cooking, this faux-tropical getaway world captured the imagination of Hollywood in the 1930s and took off from there like hot lava. Tiki dominated cocktail culture in the ’50s and ’60s, then faded as late-’60s culture labeled it “square,” something their parents enjoyed.
Don the Beachcomber’s original 1934 Zombie was created (in all likelihood) as a collaboration with his four Filipino bartenders, who worked hidden away in the back kitchen, out of sight of the front-room bar (to keep the mystery and protect his secrets). One of those bartenders, Ray Buhen, went on to open Tiki Ti in Hollywood in 1961; the place is still there today, run by his son and grandson. In an interview, Ray called out Donn Beach’s authorship claim: “He’d say anything. He said he invented the Zombie, but he didn’t. Or hardly any of his drinks.” Donn’s recipes were jotted down in notebooks passed from one bartender to the other, transcribed in code in case they fell into enemy hands. You’d just have to know what “Don’s Mix” or “Markeza” or “Golden Stack” was to make the drink correctly. He changed the recipe several times over the years; not sure why, because this version’s the best. Potent and dangerously delicious, Don the Beachcomber enforced a strict two-per-customer rule on this drink. Breaking this rule has risks: in 1936, Howard Hughes struck and killed a pedestrian while driving home drunk after one too many Zombies at Don the Beachcomber’s.
The Zombie, with its ten-ingredient list, is a perfect example of a drink that is best (and maybe safest) made at home. Try to get one of these at a busy bar and you’re more likely to get a “pick something else” response. And if you do get a Zombie, it probably won’t be this one. This original 1934 recipe was finally decoded in 2005 by Beachbum Berry after years of research and experimentation.
You’ll need three syrups for this: grenadine, cinnamon syrup, and Falernum – a spiced rum syrup from Barbados (recipes for cinnamon syrup and falernum below, grenadine recipe is linked). Always best to make them yourself at home… but a great alternative is BG Reynolds‘ fantastic line of tiki syrups from Portland, Oregon.
If you’re going through all the fun to make this fantastic drink, why not serve it in a vintage tiki mug? Great finds can be had at thrift stores occasionally, or check online at Etsy‘s vintage shops.
Hardware: Electric blender, Jigger, Medicine dropper, Straws (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Tiki mug or double Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Gold rum (recommended: Appleton, Mount Gay, Cruzan), Dark rum (recommended: Coruba, Myers’s), 151 demerara rum (recommended: Lemon Hart)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Falernum, Cinnamon syrup, Grenadine, Pernod or Herbsaint
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Grapefruit juice (white, if you can get it), Angostura bitters, Fresh spearmint
In an electric blender, add:
1 1/2 oz gold rum
1 1/2 oz dark rum
1 oz 151 demerara rum
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
1/2 oz Falernum
1/4 oz cinnamon syrup
1/4 oz grenadine
6 drops Pernod or Herbsaint
1 dash Angostura bitters
6 oz cracked ice
Flash blend five seconds to quickly mix – meaning just turn the blender on, then off again. Pour unstrained into a tiki mug or Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the tiki mug or glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.
In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 3 cinnamon sticks, crushed lightly. Add 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water, then simmer 10 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cool & steep 20 minutes, then double-strain into an airtight container to remove particles. Keep refrigerated.
In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 50 cloves, 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, and 1 whole nutmeg (crushed, not ground). Combine in an airtight container and add 8 oz 151 demerara rum, the peeled zest from 8 limes (being careful to not include any of the bitter white pith), and 1/2 cup grated fresh ginger. Infuse for 24 hours, then double-strain the infused rum to remove ingredients and small particles. Make a rich simple syrup of 2 cups sugar and 1 cup water and let cool. In an airtight container, combine the infused rum, the rich simple syrup, and 10 drops almond extract. Stir to combine. Let rest two weeks, refrigerated, for the ginger to mellow. Keep refrigerated. (recipe adapted from Kaiser Penguin.)
Trader Vic’s (1944)
You really can’t improve on perfection, but that hasn’t stopped the world from screwing up Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai for almost 70 years. I’ve already detailed the secretive and combative world of Tiki in my write-up about the Navy Grog – I’d say that contributed to the degradation of the Mai Tai, but Trader Vic himself also changed his recipe as time went on, adding more citrus juices (and more rum). Trader Vic originally used Wray & Nephew 17-year old rum in his recipe, but the Mai Tai was so popular, he actually depleted the world supply of that rum (or they just stopped making it), then the same with 15-year expression that came afterward. These days, the Trader Vic’s chain restaurants make the drink with a crappy, artificial-tasting bottled mix and inferior rum. Feel free to experiment with mixing two different rums (as I do here), or try just one kickass rum in this. My friend Matt “RumDood” Robold says he’s made this with Smith & Cross and “enjoyed it more than he probably should have” and I can back that up – even just a quarter-ounce in place of some of the aged Jamaican rum works great. The great bang-for-the-buck aged rum Appleton 12 is a minor luxury. If you’re up for it, make a batch of homemade orgeat (recipe below), or look around for B.G. Reynolds‘ excellent version. Either way, done right using this old-school recipe, the Mai Tai will take you back to the early days of Tiki, as US Marines were returning from the Pacific back home to southern California, eager to both remember and forget what they’d been through over there.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Straws (optional), Hawthorne strainer (if using Boston shaker)
Ice: Ice cubes, Crushed ice
Glassware: Double rocks glass
Spirits: Aged Jamaican rum (recommended: Appleton Estate 12 or Reserve), aged rhum agricole (recommended: Neisson Élevé Suis Bois or Rhum J.M. Vieux VSOP)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Curaçao (recommended: Senior Curaçao of Curaçao, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao), Simple syrup, Orgeat (recommended: BG Reynolds’ or make your own; recipe below)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime hull half (reserve from squeezing), Fresh spearmint
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
1 oz aged Jamaican rum
1 oz aged rhum agricole
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz Curaçao
1/4 oz orgeat
1/4 oz simple syrup
Shake well to chill. Fill a Double Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice, then strain the drink over the ice, adding more ice to top if needed. Garnish with the spent lime hull half (rind side up) and a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.
In a heavyweight Ziploc, break up 2 1/2 cups whole, raw almonds – looking for large chunks, not powder. A rolling pin or muddler works well. Toast at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, combine the crushed, toasted almonds with 2 cups of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook 4 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool, then pour into an airtight container and let steep 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a jar or bottle (it’ll take a while to slowly drip out), then add 12 drops of orange flower water, 12 drops of rose water, and 1 oz of overproof vodka to help reduce spoilage. Shake to blend. Keep refrigerated. Will last about 3 months.
Trader Vic’s, 1950s
The persistant rivalry between California tiki chains Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s often resulted in confusion for the customer. Both had a Mai Tai on their menu, both claimed to have invented it – and their versions were very different flavor-wise. On top of that, their Mai Tai recipes changed as the years went by, often resulting in a less-interesting drink.
A similar case with the Navy Grog – competing recipes, confusing origins, lessening quality over time. And it bears almost no relation to the “grog” consumed by British sailors, a mix of rum and water. Frank Sinatra considered the Navy Grog his favorite drink at the Palm Springs Don the Beachcomber back in the day – but this is the version the rival Trader Vic’s was serving in the ’50s. I’ve tasted both and this one’s the champ. Knockout champ, if you’re not careful!
There’s an unusual-sounding ingredient here – “Pimento Dram.” No, that’s not the red blobby things from inside an olive. Down in the West Indies, they call the Allspice tree “Pimento.” This traditional Carribean liqueur is simply allspice-infused demerara rum mixed with a brown sugar syrup. Easy and fun to make at home, so long as you can stand waiting a few weeks for it to come together.
Hardware: Shaker, jigger
Ice: Ice cubes, crushed ice
Glassware: Double rocks glass
Spirits: Light rum (recommended: Havana Club 3, Caña Brava, Cruzan), Gold rum (recommended: Appleton, Mount Gay), 151 demerara rum (recommended: Lemon Hart)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Pimento Dram (recommended: St Elizabeth Allspice Dram or make your own – recipe below)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Grapefruit juice (white, if you can get it), Lime twist, Grapefruit twist
In a shaker about half-full with ice cubes, add:
1 oz light rum
1 oz gold rum
1 oz 151 demerara rum
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz pimento dram
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into a double rocks glass filled with crushed ice (an ice cone with a straw running through it was the style at Trader Vic’s, but can be impractical for home use).
Garnish with a lime twist and grapefruit twist.
Light toast 1/4 cup whole dried allspice berries, then crush to break up, but not pulverize. In an airtight container, combine the crushed toasted allspice berries with 1 1/8 cups 151 demerara rum (Lemon Hart). Let steep 10 days in a cool, dark place.
After 10 days, strain the infused rum through cheesecloth, then a coffee filter, to remove allspice. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine 1 1/2 cups water with 2 1/2 cups brown sugar. Stir to blend until sugar is completely dissolved. Let brown sugar syrup cool, then add the infused rum. Funnel into an airtight glass bottle or jar and let sit 30 days in the refrigerator. This will level out the heat of the allspice. Keep refrigerated.