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Cocktails & Spirits

Tonight: Zombie Jam at Mai-Kai

Last week, we told you about tonight's Zombie Jamboree at Mai-Kai. It begins at 5 p.m. Are you going? 

We met with Tommy Merolla, Botran Rum's newest brand ambassador, over the weekend and got a sneak peek at what he's mixing for the competition and talked cocktails and South Florida. A first look at Tommy, donning his signature fedora hat and wayfarers, transports you back to the 1950s. A mixologist for the über-trendy Living Room at the W Hotel in South Beach and vice president of USBG's Miami chapter, he has been a professional mixologist for 16 years. His romanticism for the craft is undeniable, whether explaining the meticulous complexities of picking out the flavor components of a particular rum to mix it with culinary ingredients or how South Florida needs more establishments that produce classic cocktails. He could talk about his favorite subject -- rum -- for hours on end. 

Clean Plate Charlie: What do you love most about your job? 

Tommy Merolla: I love meeting new people. I love

talking to people. I love bringing people together. I love to throw

parties and organize events. I love to educate people about the craft

that I do in a fun manner. In my line of work, you meet people from all

over the world, and it's especially fun when you get to customize the

experience for each guest. For example, you get a couple from the

Midwest that's not used to drinking tropical drinks and they come to the

bar and order a Cosmopolitan and a light beer. They're on vacation!

Every part of their vacation should be something unique and different,

so I talk with them a bit and suggest a drink for each based on their

taste preferences. You know they're going to go home and rave about

whatever amazing cocktail they had in tropical Miami. 

What do you think about the zombie cocktail, and how has it changed? 
The zombie cocktail is one of the most perfect of the classic cocktails because, when done correctly, it is truly balanced, flavorwise. It hits every taste bud. Plus, it's a tiki cocktail and perfect for South Florida's weather. So why shouldn't we be the experts of the cocktail? 

Created by Don the Beachcomber, the cocktail's original recipe disappeared for a while in the middle of the last century, so like the Mai Tai, variations of the cocktail surfaced which were not as good, made with cheap products and too sweet. I am sure that the true pioneers of the cocktail used the freshest ingredients. We can thank Jeff "Beachbum" Berry for resurrecting the almost extinct cocktail. He pretty much wrote the history on the zombie cocktail. As a modern mixologist, the recipe does not vary much from the original. When dealing with the classics, we can be OCD. Variations in recipes, like whether to use absinthe or anise or infusing the grenadine with other herbs, tend to depend on a mixologist's personal taste, and the use of fresh ingredients or homemade products is always preferred. 

So, what's in a zombie cocktail anyway? 
4 ounces rum, preferably dark rum
2 Parts Velvet Falernum - sweet syrup of almonds, ginger or cloves, lime, sometimes has vanilla or allspice 
1 Part grenadine 
1/2 part absinthe or anise 
Equal part Don's Mix:
  • 2 parts grapefruit juice 
  • 1 part cinnamon simple syrup 
Mix is all up and serve over crushed ice - kind of like a snow cone. Or blend with ice in the blender. 

Do you think you'll win the competition? 
My motto in life is: Don't take yourself too seriously. Before this competition, I didn't know much about the zombie cocktail or tiki cocktail culture, for that matter. I've probably read every book on it now, but I just want to have fun with it and enjoy the event. On that note, I'm also excited to meet "Beachbum" Berry, and there's no better place to hold the event than at the Mai-Kai, which I'm also excited about, because I've never been. And on that note, I wish there were more places like this in South Florida. The truly original places that converge classic cocktails, culture, and good live music. Nothing beats that.  

All of the competitors, known to be experts in rum and some also ambassadors for other rum brands, have been hard at work brushing up on their tiki knowledge and fine-tuning their recipes, er, at least we think they have, for tonight's inaugural Zombie Jam Competition, which will crown the "Zombie Master of Rum Renaissance 2011." The winner, which will be selected by the guests in attendance, will hold the prestigious title for one year. As for the prize, apart from the title, it's a surprise! You'll just have to go tonight to find out.

Tommy's fierce opponents: 
  • Jim Hayward, amateur mixologist 
  • Freddy Diaz of Dos Maderas Rum 
  • Lyndon Higginson representing the Bacardi U.K. Tiki Team 
  • Esteban Ordonez of Don Q Rum 
  • Cricket Ann Nelson, award-winning mixologist
Now, we can't divulge Tommy's full recipe, because that'll give the other opponents an unfair advantage, but we can tell you that he created his own mix, called Tom's Mix in ode to Don's Mix, that he will add to the original version of the recipe. He doesn't know what any of the other competitors are doing, but he personally wanted to stay as close to the original recipe as possible. 

Tom's Mix:
Passion fruit purée
Orange juice 
Orgeat syrup, a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water 

Be sure to join Tommy and the rest of the contestants for all of the rum-filled festivities at Mai-Kai tonight. Plus, he'll be glad to answer any and all questions related to rum. If you make it out, you can meet the Botran Rum team during the Rum Renaissance at the Deauville Resort in Miami Beach this weekend. They'll have a variety of rum samples from their portfolio on hand. For everything Rum Renaissance, check out the event's main website

Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Facebook and on Twitter: @CleanPlateBPB.

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Mandy Baca

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