Today’s New York Times
has a great article
by Steve Kurutz about Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his tiki-drink related investigative work. The article gives Jeff all the credit he deserves for taking something that’s camp and making it, well, if not classy, at least respected and worthy of discussion.
“Mr. Berry’s single-minded scholarship has gained him respect in the cocktail world.” Kurutz wrote. He noted Jeff’s uncovering of the three supposedly original Zombie recipes, one after another, and the process he used to identify the original original. This involved, in part, a year-long effort to crack the secret code of a recipe he turned up in a 1937 little black book owned by a former Don the Beachcomber bartender. (The recipe is here
But he only scratches the surface about what Jeff’s research actually entails. Cocktail history tends to be more participatory than, say, the study of deep-ocean mollusks or ancient Roman architecture. Inquiring minds want to know: what did the original Zombie taste like, using the rums that were available back at the inception?
didn’t tell the story of a tasting this past summer, which I was lucky enough to join in.
One night during Tales of the Cocktail in July, Jeff, Martin Cate (of Forbidden Island
in Alameda) and I headed over to Stephen Remsberg’s. Our goal: make the original Zombie. Stephen, as those who’ve read the book might recall, is the rum collector with 700-plus bottles in his stockpiles, many of them vintage, rare and unopened.
We were interested in recreating the proto-Zombie, then called the Zombie Punch, one of the drinks that made Don the Beachcomber famous soon after he opened his bar in Los Angeles in 1934. Stephen had painstaking accumulated the prescribed rums, including a pre-1935 Puerto Rican rum, an equally early Demerara rum, and a no-longer made early Lowndes Jamaican rum. For the latter, Stephen could locate only an unopened mini, which sadly provided just enough rum to make a single original original Zombie. But this is scholarship and sacrifices must be made. We shared one drink.
(In the interest of scholarship, I should also note that we cheated a little: Stephen broke out a bottle of vintage absinthe for the anis flavor — and that would have still been illegal in the United States in 1934. Some other anis substitute would have gone in the original original Zombie.)
I’m happy to report that the Zombie — flash blended with crushed ice, as Don would have prescribed — was a thing of utter and complete beauty. The biggest surprise to me was how woody it was — this wasn’t all about sweet or juices or ooh-la-la, but about complexity. It had touch of natural pucker to it thanks to the wood, which was eased by the anis and falernum. This Zombie came at you from many directions, all at once, all demanding attention. It was all you could do but to sit down and marvel.
You can have King Tut’s tomb. Unearthing the taste of the original Zombie is my kind of archeology. I’m quoted in today’s Times
article as calling Jeff the “Indiana Jones of tiki drinks” — and I’m here to tell you I’d follow Jeff into any cave, snake pits be damned.
UPDATE: I missed this on the first go-around: On the Times
web site Jeff narrates a slide show
featuring up an excellent capsule history of tiki.(Photos: NYT portrait of Jeff, above. Tasting photos, by Martin Cate: left to right, Stephen, Jeff, Wayne. And, below, the original original ingredients.)
Labels: history, trends