Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Barrel O’ Rum is the Rodney Dangerfield of tropical drinks

Updated March 1, 2015
See below: Our Barrel O’ Rum review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Related: Master Mixologist Rum Barrel Challenge | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Barrel O' Rum

Barrel O’ Rum (The Mai-Kai photo)

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.

Barrel O' Rum

It’s not unusual to see the Barrel O’ Rum served en masse. (The Mai-Kai photo)

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.”

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The official menu description
Barrel O' Rum
BARREL O’ RUM

Smugglers, pirates and rum runners took their pleasures with this spirituous libation, bold and big, but rightfully smooth.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

The Mai-Kai's Barrel O' Rum, June 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Mai-Kai's Barrel O' Rum, June 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Size: Large

Potency: Strong

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

The Mai-Kai's Grandfather Barrel, April 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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!

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OFFICIAL MAI-KAI RECIPE
The Mai-Kai Barrel O’ Rum

(From Beachbum Berry’s Taboo Table)

Barrel O' Rum

Barrel O' Rum by The Atomic Grog, June 2011.(Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 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.

Barrel O' Rum

Barrel O’ Rum (The Mai-Kai photo)

* 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.

The Mai-Kai Barrel O' Rum

Okole maluna!

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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11 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Barrel O’ Rum is the Rodney Dangerfield of tropical drinks

  1. Fallenstar says:

    Made one tonight in my Mai-Kai rum barrel mug, delicious! Just like I remembered it. Thanks for posting the recipe.

  2. swankpad says:

    Different from the recipe I have. I should try this beside the one I have and see how they fare. This is a lot bigger drink than mine and essentially waters down the booze more and may be the idea. Half everything but the booze and it is very close to my recipe from Marriano.

  3. Michael Maurice says:

    If I was going to make this in a large batch, how would you measure out the bitters?

    • Michael,

      There are lots of “rules of thumb” you can use for measuring bitters. A common one is 32 dashes per ounce. Since the Barrel calls for a healthy 6 dashes, I would not skimp. Try 1 ounce of bitters per every 5 drinks batched.

      Okole maluna!

  4. Adrian Labrador says:

    Love this recipe!! The only thing I recommend is 1.5 oz of lime juice instead of the 2.

  5. Adrian says:

    Hey Hayward! I recently ran out of my myer’s and I want to try coruba, is there any place in south Florida that sells it??

  6. Pingback: The Mai-Kai is here to stay: 10 reasons why we love the historic South Florida restaurant | The AtomicGrog.com Blog

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