Yesterday at Tales of the Cocktail, we learned how - or where - to make flying fun again.

photo of the Zombie
The Domesticated Zombie

[If we were sitting in a bar after day one of Tales of the Cocktail, well, I'd be ahead of you. I'd have spent the day drinking little, taster-sized cocktails, but eventually little drinks add up. Over a normalizing beer, here's the story I'd tell.]

First Drinks of the Day: Three sips from Camus' Ile de Ré Cognac - its baseline Cognac, a double-aged, woodier version, and the Cliffside Cellar, a scotch-like Cognac that was further aged in barrels in a partly underground cellar of an abandoned military facility at the water's edge. A high impact start to the day.

Second Drinks: A series of Ole Smoky moonshines from Tennessee that I'm assured are made the old fashioned way, minus a) the rusty, scavenged parts of the still, b) the hidden in the woods, and c) the legendary kick George Jones sang about that likely is a product of a) and b). The overproof corn whiskey has the most bite, but it's more drinkable than most commercially crafted moonshines I've tasted. The white lightning was palatable but not special. Ole Smoky uses it as the neutral spirit in its 40-proof flavored drinks - blackberry, peach, and apple pie, and moonshine cherries. The blackberry flavor is accurate, and the peach tastes great with iced tea.

Talk of the Day: "Airport Bars," conducted by Jacob Briars in a '60s pilot uniform, Charlotte Voisey dressed as a glamorous stewardess and Doug Draper, dressed as Doug Draper. Briars began by observing that the poor quality of airport and in-flight drinks is a first world problem, like "what is the right amount of toast for foie gras?" The three traced the history of air travel, from its heyday as a stylish experience to the Greyhound-in-the-air experience it has become. Naturally, they punctuated the talk with cocktails starting with an Aviation, developed in 1916 and served - naturally - from a cart wheeled down the middle aisle of the ballroom in the Royal Sonesta. They followed it with the only famous drink to be developed in an airport, the Irish Coffee - born in a bar in the Shannon Airport in Ireland. The secrets to a good Irish Coffee: whiskey must be Tullamore Dew, sugar must be C&H brand sugar cubes which dissolves better into the whiskey, the coffee must be hot, and the cream must be at least three days old so that it will aerate better when whisked. No aerosol whipped cream. 

Draper talked about some of the factors working against good airport bars, ranging from a general lack of bar backs to do much of the prep work needed to make anything more than a Bloody Mary or Margarita (the two most popular airport bar drinks), and security checkpoints eat much of the time that travelers once killed with drinks. If they have time for a cocktail, they don't have time for a complex creation. Still, he did talk about promising trends including Hendrick's gin starting a bar in the Newark airport, paired with one of its cocktails, the Floradora (1.5 oz Hendrick's, 3/4 oz rasp syrup, 3/4 oz lime juice, 3 oz ginger beer).

The talk concluded with a few lists - The Most Reliable Airport Cocktails (Michelada, Bloody Mary, Irish Coffee, Tom Collins, Stone Fence), The Cocktails That Are So Simple They Should be Reliable (St. Germain Cocktail, Champagne Cocktail, Manhattan, Cuba Libre - a good flying drink because it helps settle your stomach - and Negroni). Finally, Briars announced their Top 10 Airport Bars (10. Buena Vista in San Francisco, only for the Irish Coffee 9. Cafe Rembrant, Amsterdam 8. Tortas Frontera,Chicago O'Hare, "an elegant shithole" with an excellent selection of Mescal in Terminal Three 7. Little Ludlow, Melbourne, "has something every airport bar should have - a view of the planes" 6. Blanco, Phoenix, a great Mexican restaurant with great margaritas 5. 5280 Lounge, Denver 4. Center Bar, Zurich 3. Eyecon, Copenhagen 2. Virgin Club, London Heathrow, 1. One Flew South, Atlanta, in Terminal E - the best thing in a bad airport). People from One Flew South were in the crowd and exploded out of the chairs at being named number one.  

Drink of the Day: The Floradora - a reason to fly through Newark.

The Zombie Curse: Yesterday I spoke with Jeff "Beachbum" Berry about his love affair with tiki drinks and particularly his 10-year quest to find the correct recipe for The Zombie, a concoction whose popularity endured from the Depression to disco. Late yesterday, his seminar on The Zombie began with two of its creator Don the Beachcomber's innovations. Although tiki drinks are associated with Polynesia, he took his inspiration from the Caribbean and particularly the Planter's Punch. Its mix of sweet,sour, strong and weak was the DNA for countless drinks. He simply played with what could occupy - or be combined to occupy - each of those slots. He would combine a number of different rums to serve as the "strong," a habit that until recently remained uncommon with other spirits.

Berry told the drink's checkered history as disgruntled bartenders were hired away to bring The Zombie recipe with them, and one particularly was a Johnny Zombieseed as he spread the drink across the country as he moved from bar to bar. Between the degeneration that occurred as the drink was simplified by being passed from from one busy bartender to the next and Don the Beachcomber's efforts to protect his recipe, The Zombie became as much a legend as a drink, with one critic dismissing it as overrated, overhyped and overfeared. By the '70s, one bar guide asserted that it was simply four rums, four juices, and four sweeteners.

Berry thought he had found the recipe in a Hollywood barbecue recipe book, and the recipe was credited to Don the Beachcomber. This 1950 version was served and was a perfectly pleasant experience, clearly the beneficiary of some hype but not a pure hype creation. In the course of other research, Berry came across a bartender's little black book that included the 1934 Zombie recipe, one very different from the 1950 version. He cracked much of the code except for a 1/2 ounce of Don's Mix, then had to decode that. Through the powers of obsession, Berry learned that the final flavors were grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup, the latter of which seemed obvious when served, perhaps because it had been put in our mind. That drink was worth waiting a day for.