What do you think of when you picture an Absinthe drinker, a dissipated hedonist, living in a ruined garret in Paris, getting ready to slice off a part of his anatomy to box up and send to a lover? Well, you'd be mostly right. But did you know that la Fée Verte played an integral part in the development and history of the tropical cocktail? Until last July, when Beachbum Berry's marvelous new tome of Tropical Mixology Archaeology, Sippin' Safari, showed up in my mailbox, neither did I.
Sippin' Safari is mostly the tale of Donn Beach, AKA Don the Beachcomber, father of the Tiki Bar, and one of the greatest cocktailians who ever lived. Without Don and his protégés, the era of Polynesian Pop and its exotic island accoutrements probably would never have gotten off the ground. Don's superlative libations blended fresh fruit juices, top-shelf rums, mysterious liqueurs, and exotic spices to create masterpieces of the mixological arts. Among the dozens of ingredients that went into his potent potables, Absinthe appears consistently, but not as the reputedly hallucinogenic Green Fairy of the tortured artiste. Instead, he employed it as a bittersweet counterpoint to the more syrupy flavors of his tropical thirst quenchers, and measured it out in mere drops rather than jiggers of louche insousiance.
Over the years, the Beachcomber invented dozens of classic cocktails like the Nui Nui, Jet Pilot, Cobra's Fang, and Missionary's Downfall, but indisputably, his most famous creation was the Zombie. For years, the original Zombie recipe has been the Holy Grail of Tropical Cocktails. Created in 1934, or thereabouts, at Don's Hollywood bar/restaurant, it was shamelessly ripped off by East Coast impresario, Monty Proser, who cashed in by bringing it to the attention of a thirsty world at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The recipe, like so many classic tiki drinks, was deliberately withheld from everyone, including Don's most trusted bartenders, who were forced to make them using secret mixes kept in numbered bottles. Several reputedly authentic versions have appeared in print over the years, but Beachbum Berry appears to have uncovered the real deal in a 1930s notebook kept by one of Don's original bartenders, Dick Santiago.
Since receiving the book, I've whipped up a "Zombie Punch" once or twice using Pernod, the supersweet imitation Absinthe produced in France after Wormwood was banned as an ingredient (thanks to a hysterical "Reefer Madness"-like campaign against its supposedly psychotropic effects). It was a damn fine drink, and no mistake, but I really wanted to make it with the genuine article so when I was in Melbourne last week, I picked up a bottle of German Absinthe called Mr. Jekyll, and brought it back to the US in my checked baggage. I wish I could tell you some sort of exciting cloak and dagger tale of smuggling it back into the country disguised as a bottle of mouthwash, but the bored Customs agents at LAX just waved me through. Besides, Absinthe has never really been technically illegal in the US anyway.
After dinner this evening, I spent a good half-hour assembling the proper ingredients and garnishes to produce the Zombie shown at the top of this post: Appleton V/X, Demerara Lemon Hart 151, Ron Rico Gold Rum, fresh lime juice, Falernum, the mysterious Don's Mix #2, real Grenadine, and 8 precious drops of Absinthe. I mixed everything with 3/4 cup of crushed ice for exactly 5 seconds in a blender, and served it in a highball glass garnished with fresh mint. For a touch of ironic whimsy, I added the Maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge, skewered on a vintage swizzle stick from Don's arch-nemesis, Trader Vic Bergeron.
Now you may have tried something called a Zombie at one point or another, and chances are you were served an abomination of cheap rums and sugary mixes that was so strong, you couldn't taste anything except for the burning sensation of raw alcohol sliding down your throat. Well, I'm here to tell you that a properly mixed Zombie using precise amounts of the ingredients called for in the 1934 Zombie Punch recipe, is nothing like that. Every flavor is distinct and complimentary; the tartness of white grapefruit and lime balance perfectly against sweet hints of cinnamon and anise. The 3 rums combine to produce an unquestionably strong, but surprisingly distinct, smooth finish, and as you bring your lips to the glass, your nasal passages are filled with the cutting bouquet of fresh spearmint and pineapple Absolute bliss!
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go eat some brains.