The Zombie Cocktail: Invented in Chicago During World War I? (Part V)

In Which we Introduce the Zamboanga

A few more comments on the Zombie. First, my interest is in its origin more than the drink itself. That said, I was surprised by the drumbeat of opinion, G. Selmer Fougner leading the pack (1940) that the Zombie is a clunker of a drink. Canonical cocktails man David M. Embury weighed in to similar effect (“overadvertised liquid hash”) in his 1948 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.

Some exception is made in the literature for Donn Beach’s original 1934 version as elucidated by Jeff “Beachbum” Barry (the acknowledged Tiki drinks and culture authority), but otherwise many writers seem to apologize for giving a recipe.

I made a Zombie from a generic recipe of the 1950s: a couple of rums, pineapple juice, lime juice, one or two other things. It was great. I mean, what’s not to like?

So why the critical disfavour? I think because the Zombie was relatively new, only coming to prominence in 1940 in New York, and earlier to be sure on the West Coast but New York “made” the drink without question. Also, the drink used rum, always behind whisky, brandy, and gin in the prestige ranking of liquors, then and today still, probably.

The Martini, Manhattan, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, whisky-and-soda had 19th century roots – pedigree. The Zombie wasn’t going to enter the pantheon so fast, and in fact the hostility of its early chroniclers helped speed it to an early demise, IMO.

Objectively, there is nothing in the recipes I’ve seen and now tasted that seems inferior to any of those aristocratic mixtures. The Cuba Libre and of course The Daiquiri are exceptions perhaps but used up the available territory allotted rum by mid-20th century drink arbiters, for status I mean.

While I continue to believe that Donn Beach and Harry Quin are the main claimants to the original Zombie, other explanations should be mentioned.

Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s great volume on cocktails in 1939 mentions a Zombie and ascribes a Haitian origin to it. See pp. 138-139, here, in Baker, Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. 2, “Being an Exotic Drinking Book”. His ingredients are mainly cognac and coconut cream, although Baker suggests that a substitution of rum for part of the cognac is an improvement.

Of course the zombie as a figure – the dusty automaton brought from the dead by witchy summons – was part of African-influenced folklore in Haiti. So it makes sense a drink with that name became known there, but did it originate there? I don’t think so.

I am not suggesting by any means that Baker, Jr. made up the story. I think though Donn Beach’s drink, or quite possibly Harry Quin’s if he did invent it, made its way to American circles in Haiti, literally or simply by reputation, whence Baker’s friend Christopher Clark returned via Pan American with a now localized recipe.

Here is one intriguing thing though, which as for Harry Quin’s account, no cocktails historian has hitherto raised as far as I know. On the same p. 138 Baker, Jr. gives a recipe for a Zamboanga “Zeinie” cocktail. He explains on p. xiii that he had travelled to an area called Zamboanga, and found the drink there, in the Sulu Sea as the recipe itself states. From p. xiii:

We found additional evidence [of beverage alcohol in remote places] after three voyages to Zamboanga in Philip­pine Mindanao…

Is “Zeinie” a diminutive for Zamboanga? To my mind it doesn’t scan all that well. Note too (see p. 138) the asserted origins of the Zamboanga “Zeinie”, which wended from Manila to Zamboanga in south Philippines through the Islands.

Baker introduced the recipe as follows:

THE ZAMBOANGA “ZEINIE” COCKTAIL, another PALATE-TWISTER from the LAND where the MONKEYS HAVE No TAILS

This drink found its way down through the Islands to Mindanao from Manila, and we found it in the little Overseas Club standing high above the milk-warm waters of the Sulu Sea, on the suggestion of a new friend, just met…

 

While it seems the actual name of the drink was Zeinie, at least as heard by Baker, the association with Zamboanga may have lent its name as an alternate term. And Zombie is quite plausibly a diminutive of that word.

Did the Zamboanga “Zeinie” reach the California coast in the 1920s or early 30s…? Remember that Ching, who worked initially for Donn Beach in Hollywood and later Monte Proser in NYC, claimed (March 15, 1940, New York Sun) to introduce the Zombie in California as a legacy of an alleged Tahitian background. Maybe he did and the name was shortened to Zombie?

More plausibly perhaps, Ching encountered the drink somewhere in pan-Asian circles and presented it to Donn Beach, his California employer, in 1934. Then, or earlier on the path the name was shortened to the cute-sounding Zombie, and only later did the embroidery of the Haitian meaning attach.

I find it interesting that two key ingredients of the Zombie feature in the Zamboanga “Zeinie”, pineapple, in syrup form here, and lime juice. True, the syrup is only three dashes, but that would be concentrated, and originally probably real juice was used.

It is not much a stretch that in California, a Tiki-minded barman would elect rum to replace Cognac due the tropical, warm seas commonality of two otherwise unconnected, widely-separated regions, and maybe for cost reasons as well. And the Cognac of the Zamboanga “Zeinie” was probably originally an indigenous hard alcohol, as Baker, Jr. implies in his fuller remarks on p. xiii cited.

It always struck me as odd in fact, and probably not only me, that Caribbean rum ends as signature of a drink so intimately connected with Tiki culture.

To my mind, the most persuasive accounts on origin are either Harry Quin’s – a story I like for a number of reasons, including Quin’s relative insouciance toward the drink – or the Donn Beach/Don the Beachcomber origin story.

But I’m now thinking as well if Donn Beach introduced it, the Zamboanga “Zeinie” may lurk in the history. Spelling and pronunciation too would have varied when the drink was simply in oral tradition; it is not much of a leap to think the diminutive Zombie emerged, just as Coke did for Coca-Cola.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Zombie Cocktail: Invented in Chicago During World War I? (Part V)

  1. Assume for a moment that Ching was correct, that directly or indirectly from a Tahitian source he introduced the Zombie to California.

    What connection could there be between the Tahitian drink and the Zamboanga “Zeinie”, as Manila, presumed home of the latter, is about 6000 miles from Tahiti?

    The answer would be, the drink crossed a largely empty Pacific from Philippines to Tahiti, and thence to California. Recent ethnological studies suggest that Polynesians and Filipinos have a common ancestral background originating in Philippines, whence early seafarers fanned out to settle habitable islands.

    I don’t mean to sound facetious, but 6000 miles or 500 miles are in many ways not that different in the context of Pacific Ocean vastness.

    • Regarding the authenticity of a Philippines drink that uses lime and pineapple, the latter is famously a Philippines production. The former, not so much, but this is simply because both sweet and sour varieties of fruits exist from which lemons and limes were later hybrids. See this Quora discussion which amply shows there are various fruits close to the lime in Philippines. These must have been used for the drink in question, at least before Westernized by use of the Cognac, say.

      • One more reference, from the January 1928 American Chamber of Commerce Journal, in which both terms Zamboanga and Zeinie appear, but not conjoined and not as a drink. The phrase “As Zeinie used always to say” appears, which may refer to an individual, an American trade official or business expatriate in Phillipines, perhaps. Certainly Zeinie can be a surname, as I knew from earlier searches. The only other thing I can think of is, perhaps the phrase quoted was an expression a la “Kilroy was here”, but I have not been able to document this.

        Baker, Jr. probably therefore named his Zamboanga cocktail after this Zeinie, perhaps due to the latter’s partiality for it. So we are left with a drink, originating apparently in Manilia (when, we don’t know), that migrates far south to the Zamboanga district, and bears its name with Zeinie’s, in Baker, Jr.’s scheme to be sure. Perhaps originally it had no name, or a local one not reported by Baker, Jr. (He is known in cocktails studies as not always the most reliable reporter but certainly a stylist with an entertaining bent).

        But still Zamboanga, district where Baker found a drink that used hard liquor, pineapple, and lime, or similar ingredients, inferentially, was home to a kind of fruity mixed drink or punch. The association of Zamboanga the district with such drink could have travelled the Pacific wide and ended as the American Zombie.

        Far-fetched? Perhaps, perhaps not. Stranger things have happened in the history of drink and a relationship between the names, allowing for the “diminutive” form, is something we cannot rule out peremptorily, IMO.

        One last point: there is ample evidence of indigenous distillation c.1900 in Philippines and Zamboanga, not just vegetable or fruit juices fermentation. Primitive, pre-industrial distillation was known and documented. If anyone wants the evidence, which is quite detailed, I can supply it.

Leave a Comment