The story I’ve read, from numerous sources over the years, is that “Don the Beachcomber” invented the potent Zombie cocktail, a blend of rums, juices, falernum, Pernod or absinthe, and some other odds and ends.
A good account is given in this Wikipedia essay which ascribes it (by “legend”, maybe justly) to Donn Beach aka Don the Beachcomber in 1934 in California, at his famous Beachcomber bar. Donn Beach was an assumed name of Ernest Gantt (or Beaumont-Gantt), see some biographical details here.
Yet, a fairly detailed account of a February 1916 origin in Chicago, related by New York bartender Harry Quin in 1940, is described in an April 3, 1940 column in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, a food and entertainment reporter. You can read it here. Johnson refers to his March 15, 1940 column reporting an earlier stage of the controversy; you may read it here.
Quin, of Chinese origin or ethnic origin, stated he worked at the Mandarin Inn in Chicago in the teen years, and his boss, Chin Foin, had bought a surplus of rum and directed Quin to come up with a recipe to use it up. Having seen an unsettling dance performance at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1915 (while visiting relations) by an African troupe exclaiming the term “Zombie”, Quin decided to call his drink a Zombie.
Quin also told Johnson (see the article) that he joined the U.S. Navy after American entry into the war, serving on the U.S.S. Gopher. He states he served his cocktail to his shipmates on shore leave. While a number of sources state Gopher, formerly U.S.S. Fern, or Tern (sources vary) was a training ship on the Great Lakes by this time, clearly it did serve on the Atlantic, as this service history states (“it returned to the Atlantic during World War I”).
Quin grandly called the craft a “destroyer”, whereas the service record cited states “gunboat”, but close enough. So Quin’s account in that respect seems to hold up, as he refers to some ports of call that would have been reached only on Atlantic service. For what it is worth, he states one port of call was in California, at San Francisco.
Quin also claimed to introduce the Zombie at Ruby Foo’s in New York in 1938, so two years before the Beachcomber, a New York club owned by Monte Proser, introduced it about January 1, 1940 – see this account by Johnson again in December, 1939. The Beachcomber was at 50th and Broadway and Proser later established a small chain of them on the East Coast.
Proser also had a Zombie bar at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. The Fair opened on April 30, 1939, and it is not clear to me (sources vary) whether the bar at the World’s Fair, sometimes described as part of the Hurricane Bar, preceded or postdated the Beachcomber in Manhattan; I think postdated is more correct, however.
In any case 1938 would trump Proser’s introduction of the Zombie in New York either at his Beachcomber or the World’s Fair.
In NYPL.org’s menu archive, a digitized menu of Ruby Foo’s appears for each of 1938 and 1939. Many cocktails but not the Zombie are listed on both, yet the 1939 menu lists a Ruby Foo’s Special, so this might have been Quin’s Zombie, not yet bearing the Zombie name.* The 1938 menu contains no reference to a special cocktail of the house.
Proser brought his bartender, Ching, from Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, CA to run his New York Beachcomber bar. Ching claimed to originate the Zombie in Polynesia, which seems unlikely (but is possible); more likely either Donn Beach invented it as understood to date, or Harry Quin’s story is actually true.
To my knowledge, the account by Quin of a 1916 origin in Chicago has not previously been raised by (modern) cocktails historians. One would hope a sample menu of Mandarin Inn between 1916 and the start of Prohibition is available to test what Quin claimed, but so far I have not located one.
In terms of 1930s recipes, the New York food journalist G. Selmer Fougner somewhat reluctantly gave two recipes for the Zombie in a July 1940 column in the New York Sun. His exasperation is explained, it seems, by not being able to track down the original recipe. Fougner states each recipe represents one of the two claimants to “the title”, so presumably one is the Quin-Ruby Foo’s recipe, the other the Beachcomber Manhattan one that Ching stated he brought from Donn the Beachcomber to Proser in New York.
This recipe claims to be the original, 1934 Donn the Beachcomber Zombie as recreated by Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Barry. This recipe differs in key details from both recipes offered by Fougner.
For a continuation of this discussion, see Part II.
*In fact, this 1939 Ruby Foo’s menu did mention the Zombie, I simply missed it on my first review. See a correction in my Part IV.