Don The Beachcomber had the Zombie. Trader Vic had the Mai Tai. While Fort Lauderdale’s iconic Mai-Kai has many cocktails worthy of classic status, it’s the mighty Barrel O’ Rum that has become the 55-year-old landmark’s signature drink, and possibly the most underrated tropical drink in history.
Sure, it’s hugely popular. Just wind your way through The Molokai bar during any busy happy hour and you’ll see more Barrels than BP lost in the Gulf. Among the general public and popular media, the Barrel O’ Rum and The Mai-Kai are synonymous.
But among the the cocktail intelligentsia, the Barrel just doesn’t quite measure up. What gives? Come on guys, this is an incredible drink. A deceptively deadly celebration of rum and citrus that manages to be both simple and complex. This is a work of art courtesy of The Mai-Kai’s inimitable mixologist, Mariano Licudine, who took an often muddled concept and perfected it for the thirsty, rum-swilling masses during Tiki’s heyday. A half century later, it’s a timeless classic, often copied, never duplicated.
As Rodney Dangerfield (who probably drank many Barrels in his day) would say, the Rum Barrel just don’t get no respect.
On the other hand, who needs respect? The Barrel’s lowbrow appeal is what makes it the classic that it is. It’s the drink for the Everyman (and woman). As Rodney so eloquently put it: “My doctor told me to watch my drinking. Now I drink in front of a mirror.”
Smugglers, pirates and rum runners took their pleasures with this spirituous libation, bold and big, but rightfully smooth.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Flavor profile: Dark rum, lime juice, passion fruit, bitters
Our take: An explosion of rums and juices in a prefect marriage of sweet and bitter.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)
Ancestry: A variation on the original rum barrel popularized by Don The Beachcomber and other early Tiki establishments, this classic has been on the menu since The Mai-Kai’s opening in 1956. Undoubtedly created by mixologist Mariano Licudine, who based The Mai-Kai menu on all the prototypes he’d been making for Don The Beachcomber.
Bilge: This is the drink the local press always spotlights when reviewing The Mai-Kai or compiling lists of the best South Florida signature cocktails. It’s also The Mai-Kai’s most popular and iconic mug, regularly selling out in the gift shop.
GRANDFATHER BARREL (4 stars)
An off-menu, premium version of the Barrel O’ Rum, the Grandfather Barrel is typically made with top-shelf aged rums and carries a hefty price tag. It was originally made with a special mix of rums that was set aside to mature, resulting in a uniquely tasty concoction. But this custom blend is no longer available. Our take: You can definitely taste the premium rums in this high-end version. A must if you’re a rum connoisseur. If not, just stick with the regular Barrel and save a few bucks. Also worth noting: A version using Old Granddad bourbon in lieu of rum was never really an option, despite it’s mention in Beachbum Berry’s Taboo Table, according to The Mai-Kai’s general manager, Kern Mattei.
RAINBOW BARREL (2 1/2 stars)
This vodka version of the Barrel is ether an abomination (according to rum fanciers) or the best vodka drink you’ll ever taste. It’s probably neither of those things, but we see no real reason to drink this unless you have a legitimate rum allergy. The great flavors of the rums are stripped away, leaving a very good vodka-based fruit drink but nothing worthy of the great Mai-Kai tropical drink legacy. We recently learned that three different Absolut vodas are used in the Rainbow Barrel, but we’re still not sold on its worth.
Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!
OFFICIAL MAI-KAI RECIPE
The Mai-Kai Barrel O’ Rum
(From Beachbum Berry’s Taboo Table)
* 2 ounces white Puerto Rican
or Virgin Islands rum
* 2 ounces dark Jamaican rum
(Kohala Bay preferred)
* 2 ounces fresh lime juice
* 2 ounces orange juice
* 2 ounces white grapefruit juice
* 2 ounces rich passion fruit syrup
* 1 teaspoon rich honey mix
(2 parts honey, 1 part water)
* Splash of club soda
* 6 dashes Angostura bitters
Pulse blend with a heaping cup of crushed ice (perferably in a top-down or spindle mixer). Pour into a ceramic rum barrel or large snifter, adding more crushed ice to fill.
Notes and tips for home mixologists
* Don’t skimp on the bitters. It’s essential to offset the sweetness of the drink.
* The Mai-Kai likely uses Bacardi silver or its white well rum, but there are other very good white rums to recommend, such as Cruzan or Flor de Cana. We’ve confimed that The Mai-Kai uses the distinctive dark rum formerly known as “Dagger” in the Barrel. Kohala Bay is most notable for its use in the Black Magic and many of The Mai-Kai’s strong cocktails. It’s hard to find outside of South Florida, though distribution has improved over the past few years. Feel free to use other dark Jamaican rums such as Coruba or Myers’s. To approximate the taste of Dagger, combine equal parts Smith & Cross Jamaican rum and El Dorado 12-year-old Demerara rum. Click here for more on this rare rum. You could also experiment with aged rums such as Appleton Estate or Plantation, creating a Grandfather Barrel.
* Use only fresh juices (freshly-squeezed if possible). It’s also crucial to use white grapefrut juice (not pink) with no added sugar. And make sure you use a good brand of passion fruit syrup (not juice). There are many available online, such as Fee Brothers, B.G. Reynolds, Monin, and Aunty Lilikoi. You can make your own by heating rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) with frozen passion fruit puree. The use of rich syrups makes The Mai-Kai’s drinks extra rich and savory.
* Though Taboo Table calls for shaking, we now know that The Mai-Kai blends all of its drinks. Frozen drinks are blended until smooth in a standard blender, but most others are “pulse blended” in a top-down mixer (the kind you may see most commonly used for milkshakes). This is a tradition passed down from Don the Beachcomber. Using this method creates a richer drink with a big frothy head. Just make sure to not over-blend. A few quick, 3-4 second pulses is all that’s needed. If you don’t have this kind of mixer/blender, a standard blender will work. It just won’t create quite the same rich consistency. Hamilton Beach makes a very good mixer at a decent price that I highly recommend.
This is a classic cocktail that’s not too difficult to make at home. It’s best enjoyed in an authentic Mai-Kai Rum Barrel or similar Tiki mug. It’s also a great drink to make in large batches. Invite all your friends and make it a BYOB (bring your own Barrel) party.