Updated August 2023
See below: Our Derby Daiquiri review UPDATED | Official Mai-Kai recipe | Tribute recipe NEW
More Mai-Kai Daiquiris: Cuban Daiquiri UPDATED | Special Reserve Daiquiri | Floridita Daiquiri | Banana Daiquiri | Strawberry Daiquiri
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
* More on the Derby Daiquiri from The Swank Pad
NEW: The Mai-Kai’s Derby Daiquiri seminar at Tiki Oasis 2023
NEW: The Derby Daiquiri on Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour (video)
When you think of the Mint Julep, you immediately think of the Kentucky Derby. In 1959, when the organizers of the $100,000 Florida Derby sought a similar drink to promote their race, they turned to The Mai-Kai.
The Derby Daiquiri, created by legendary mixologist Mariano Licudine, became the race’s official drink. The Florida Derby, which began in 1952, is still run today every spring at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale with a purse now set at $1 million. Winners usually go on to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
The Derby Daiquiri immediately gave the race and The Mai-Kai a huge publicity boost. It was championed by Rums of Puerto Rico in countless national ad campaigns and was featured as Esquire magazine’s drink of the month.
When New York’s Cue magazine printed the recipe, restaurants all over Manhattan started serving the “$100,000 drink,” Jeff “Beachbum” Berry wrote in the chapter on Licudine and The Mai-Kai in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari. The lounge at the Newark, N.J., airport served the drink to vacationers departing for Fort Lauderdale.
Not to be outdone, Berry wrote, Mai-Kai owners Jack and Bob Thornton sent a portable Tiki bar to the Fort Lauderdale airport, where Licudine himself served his creation to arriving passengers. In his thatch-roofed “goodwill wagon,” Licudine also met VIP arrivals at train stations and cruise ship docks, in the process becoming something of a local hero, Berry wrote.
The 1957 menu does not include the Derby. Instead, you’ll find the Cuban Daiquiri, The Mai-Kai’s take on the classic that dates back to the town of the same name in the late 1800s. But with that island’s political troubles, it made sense to remove it. The timing of the Derby Daiquiri was perfect as a replacement.
Curiously, the only other menu changes around this time involved Daiquiris: the Special Daiquiri was renamed the Special Reserve Daiquiri and the Floridita Daiquiri was introduced. But the Derby was the clear favorite out of the gate.
We don’t know exactly what inspired Licudine to create this orange-flavored classic, but Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner pinpoints the relationship between the restaurant and the trade group Rums of Puerto Rico. The author devotes an entire chapter to the drink in his 2016 book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant (Schiffer).
As Glazner points out, it’s no coincidence that Mai-Kai assistant manager Leonce Picot was also a regional representative for the trade group, the umbrella marketing organization for the rums produced in Puerto Rico. The group still exists today with member brands including Don Q, Bacardi, and Ron del Barrilito.
In 1958, the relationship between The Mai-Kai and Rums of Puerto Rico was tight for another major reason. The restaurant likely used more of that country’s rum than any other single bar or restaurant.
A document given to Glazner by the opening-day manager, Bob Van Dorpe, shows an official tally of nearly 6,000 bottles of Puerto Rican rum purchased in the first full year, 1957. That’s more than any other style and more than a third of the total rum purchases. Top brands poured at The Mai-Kai at that time included Boca Chica (the house white and gold mixing rum), Merito, Carioca, Ron Rico, Don Q, and Bacardi.
Rums of Puerto Rico used The Mai-Kai sales info to tout its member rums for more than a decade. One ad proclaims: “The Mai-Kai uses more Puerto Rican rum than all other liquors combined!” A headline on a later ad from the mid-’60s quotes Bob Thornton: “We now use 1,800 cases of Puerto Rican rum a year at the Mai-Kai – a good deal of it in our famous Derby Daiquiri.”
When the Florida Derby announced it was looking for a signature drink to compete with the Kentucky Derby, it’s likely that Picot and The Mai-Kai had an inside track. Van Dorpe told Glazner that the Rums of Puerto Rico executives at that time were not only enamored by their important client, The Mai-Kai. They were also fans of horse racing and visited the track often during their visits.
This relationship surely gave Licudine’s cocktail an advantage when a reported 70 entries were trotted out for judges at the “Oder of Rums Royal” competition held by Rums of Puerto Rico at Miami Beach’s Eden Roc Hotel on Nov. 10, 1958. As noted above, the Derby Daiquiri had already been officially registered by the group on Aug. 1.
There are no official accounts of the judging, but as Glazer points out in his book, the ascension of the Derby Daiquiri was not much of a contest. It was proclaimed the official drink of the Florida Derby in February 1959, and the rest is history.
Long before it became a buzzword, the three entities entered into a relationship in a perfect example of brand “synergy.” Rums of Puerto Rico poured its marketing dollars into both The Mai-Kai and the Derby Daiquiri. And the Florida Derby received more mileage out of its signature drink than it could ever imagine.
The relationship spurred its own race, the Mai-Kai Rum Cup, a preliminary held before the Florida Derby. The winning jockey received not only a sterling silver “Derby Cup” fashioned after the Derby Daiquiri glass, but also an authentic 5-gallon wooden rum barrel filled with Puerto Rican rum. A vintage barrel was found in storage and will be returned to a spot under The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère as part of the multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the restaurant in 2023.
Back in the Derby Daiquiri’s heyday at Gulfstream, 30,000 cocktails were served from 30 bars to the race’s 20,000 attendees. Dancers from The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue performed at the track.
In a 1970 publicity stunt, Gulfstream and The Mai-Kai sent a team of sarong-clad waitresses from The Molokai bar to Kentucky to serve the Derby Daiquiri at a pre-race party. Kentucky Derby officials were not amused, but the Florida Derby had achieved its goal of having its own cocktail of equal stature to the Mint Julep.
In 1974, 15 years after its debut, magazine and newspaper ads continued to tout the trifecta of Puerto Rican rum, the Florida Derby, and the Derby Daiquiri. Picot’s successor at Rums of Puerto Rico in 1968, Randy Avon, also came from The Mai-Kai.
It’s also worth noting that many of the ad campaigns credited and praised Licudine, a native of the Philippines who emigrated to America in the 1930s. As Berry points out in Sippin’ Safari and his new 2023 seminar, “Thrillas from Manila: Famous Filipino Tiki Barmen,” it was highly unusual for these previously anonymous bartenders to receive mainstream acclaim in the age of segregation and racial disparities.
But Licudine was an exception to that rule. Under their watchful but respectful eye, the Thornton brothers trusted their hand-picked bar manager to upgrade the classic cocktails that he knew from working for Don the Beachcomber from 1939 to 1955. But, more importantly, they allowed him to take center stage with his own creations, including the Derby Daiquiri and Black Magic.
While the Black Magic is a complex cocktail that breaks new ground with its use of coffee, the Derby Daiquiri is a simple riff on the Cuban classic that spotlights a local ingredient that Florida became famous for. In creating a signature cocktail for the Florida Derby, Licudine naturally turned to Florida’s state fruit, which to this day still makes The Mai-Kai’s drinks distinctive (see: Mystery Drink, Sidewinder’s Fang, S.O.S., et al.).
Orange had been used before in different Daiquiri variations. Licudine was surely aware of the Beachcomber’s Daiquiri (white rum, lime, Cointreau orange liqueur) from his days at Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood and Chicago.
Donn Beach may have been inspired by Cuba’s legendary La Florida, where famed bartender and owner Constantino Ribalaigua Vert practiced the art of the Daiquiri at the highest level over the course of five decades beginning in 1918. His early menu included Daiquiri Number 2, which features both orange curacao and orange juice with white Cuban rum, fresh lime juice and sugar.
Both of those Daiquiris were shaken and strained into a coupe, not blended. That style didn’t appear until Vert – also known as “The Cocktail King” or more simply “Constante” – popularized the use of the novel electric blender in the 1930s, which paved the way for the Derby Daiquiri.
Like Constante before him, Licudine achieved international fame with his skills. Aided by the Rums of Puerto Rico connection, he was sent on tours of the Caribbean to teach bartenders at the burgeoning resorts and hotels how to make tropical drinks, Mai-Kai style. This included the distinctive ice shells that he also learned from Don the Beachcomber and brought to South Florida and which remain scattered throughout The Mai-Kai menu long after his 1979 retirement.
While it no longer holds court at Gulfstream Park, the Derby Daiquiri remains a mainstay on The Mai-Kai menu and still captures the attention of Tiki and cocktail enthusiasts. It may be a simple drink, but it has a complex and fascinating history.
Much of the updated info and images above were gleaned from the seminar “The Derby Daiquiri and Beyond: How to Create Your Own Classic,” presented by Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei and The Atomic Grog’s Jim “Hurricane” Hayward at Tiki Oasis 2023. Mahalo to Mattei for his new input and exclusive photos, along with Glazner and Berry for their font of knowledge.
The official menu description
Our own famous creation of the light and frosty orange Daiquiri, official drink of the Florida Derby.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Flavor profile: Orange, lime, a hint of light rum
Review: A twist on the classic frozen Daiquiri, a bit sweeter and less tart.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)
Ancestry: The Derby Daiquiri – with its very tropical OJ-lime-rum flavor notes – was created by mixologist Mariano Licudine in 1958 and was introduced in 1959 as the Florida Derby’s answer to the Kentucky Derby’s bourbon-based Mint Julep.
Bilge: The cocktail originally featured a unique 6-ounce jockey glass to commemorate its association with the annual race. It was manufactured by a noted glassware company, West Virginia’s Morgantown Glass Co. They were not created specifically for The Mai-Kai, but the glasses have long been out of stock and are extremely rare. The company also made clear and frosted styles for racetracks or racing enthusiasts, but the Derby Daiquiri made the amber version famous. It occasionally pops up online, but you may need to search for Morgantown jockey glass, not Derby Daiquiri glass. When the glasses were in use, The Mai-Kai also used custom coasters that slid over the base.
Bonus bilge: Ask for a “double-blended Derby” and you may be able to get a less icy, smoother version. The intense blending also gives the drink a hint of vanilla flavor.
Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!
OFFICIAL MAI-KAI RECIPE
- 1 ounce fresh orange juice
- 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 1 1/2 ounces white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
Blend with 1 cup of finely crushed ice for 15 seconds or until smooth. Serve in a small wine goblet or similar stemmed glass around 6-8 ounces.
Unlike nearly every other cocktail on The Mai-Kai menu, the Derby Daiquiri recipe was never a secret. It was featured in numerous newspapers and magazines during its early years. Beachbum Berry included it in his seminal books, Grog Log and Sippin’ Safari, and it was even featured on The Mai-Kai website.
If you have trouble achieving a perfectly smooth consistency without ice chips, you may need to blend longer and/or with more intensity. The Mai-Kai uses high-end restaurant blenders, so to compensate we would also recommend using a softer or more finely crushed ice. In a worst-case scenario, there’s no shame in shaking or pulse blending, then straining into a coupe. Many of the early Rums of Puerto Rico ads featured this style of Daiquiri.
- The Mai-Kai sources a rich, pulpy orange juice directly from Kennesaw, a South Florida purveyor that provides 100 percent cold-pressed juice that’s nearly identical to (and more consistent than) fresh-squeezed. At home, feel free to squeeze your own oranges, just try to make sure they’re from Florida. Fruit from California has a slightly different flavor profile. You may be able to find bottled Kennesaw juices in Whole Foods or at juice stands throughout the Sunshine State. The next best option is Natalie’s, another South Florida brand that’s more widely available nationally.
The secret to this drink, and others, is the distinctive Key lime juice used at The Mai-Kai. It’s a lot more tart and intense than traditional fresh-squeezed Persian lime juice, effectively cutting through the sweet and strong flavors. It combines with the rich orange to create a unique flavor you’ll find only at The Mai-Kai. Manager Kern Mattei detailed The Mai-Kai’s use of Key lime juice in an article published in Punch in 2017. You can use Persian limes, but we’ve been able to come close to The Mai-Kai flavor by combining equal parts of bottled Key lime juice and Persian lime juice. Many supermarkets carry brands made from concentrate (Nellie & Joe’s, Mrs. Biddle’s, etc.) that are serviceable. If you live in Florida or want to go the extra mile, pick up a bottle of Terry’s Key Lime Juice. It’s 100 juice, not from concentrate, and will make the Derby Daiquiri taste even closer to the original. In this case, we recommend a 2:1 blend of Key to Persian lime juice.
- The Mai-Kai’s simple syrup is indeed simple, a 1:1 combination of sugar and water, heated and then chilled. A pure Florida cane sugar is preferred, though you’ll be fine with your local white sugar of choice. My preference for most Mai-Kai tribute recipes is to use a rich 2:1 syrup. Both work fine in the Derby Daiquiri, so adjust your version to taste.
Since the Derby Daiquiri’s origins date back to a Rums of Puerto Rico cocktail contest, The Mai-Kai has always used a Puerto Rican rum such as Don Q or Bacardi. If you seek a little extra rum punch, try a similar style that’s above 80 proof, such as Cana Brava or Hamilton White Stache. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was not unusual to find white mixing rums at 86 proof and higher. If you want even more flavor and punch, simply float a small amount (a teaspoon or two) of 151 Demerara rum or your favorite aged rum. We discovered this trick at the Rum Rat Pack Rumposium at The Hukilau 2011.
The next level Derby Daiquiri
Recognition of Mariano Licudine’s skills as a mixologist continue more than 40 years after his passing. Most recently is a chapter devoted to him and several of his drinks in a new book by cocktail revolutionary Garret Richard, who helms the bar program at Brooklyn’s Sunken Harbor Club. Released in May 2023, Tropical Standard: Cocktail Techniques & Reinvented Recipes was co-written with Ben Schaffer, author of The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual and editor of The Rum Reader.
The book pushes the envelope of tropical mixology using modern techniques and ingredients, yet is extremely reverential and traditional in its appreciation of the classics. This includes the Derby Daiquiri, which gets the full treatment. Richard created two new takes on the Derby, one frozen and one strained.
The youthful (yet veteran) mixologist uses cutting-edge and creative concepts in his recipes, such as orange syrup, xantham gum, and orange juice with its acid adjusted to match that of lime by adding citric and malic acid. It’s all very precise and deliberate, so you’ll need to read to the book to totally understand the concepts. But for Tiki and craft cocktail nerds, the book is a great resource and fun adventure.
We rate both of Richard’s cocktails equal to the vintage Derby Daiquiri (3 out of 5 stars), but they vary widely in their resemblance to Licudine’s original. We found the strained version not at all like the classic and more of a modern interpretation. It’s sophisticated and elegant, but it lacks that fresh tartness of the 1958 original.
Richard’s frozen version is richer and stronger than Licudine’s, though it does boast the signature tart flavor profile. The xantham gum creates a more intense mouthfeel, replacing the bland icy texture. If you grow tired of the straightforward Derby Daiquiri, both of the above will challenge your mixology skills as well as your taste buds.
As a compromise between the basic original and Richard’s more complex creations, we came up with a new version that uses one of the new techniques but keeps things simple. You’ll have to pick up the book to get the specs on the juice and learn more about acid adjusting. If you want to add another Richard signature touch, use 5 drops of his salt solution to make the flavors pop even more.
Simple Standard Derby Daiquiri
(Adapted from Tropical Standard recipes by Garret Richard)
- 1/2 ounce orange juice acid adjusted to lime
- 1/2 ounce rich (2:1) simple syrup
- 2 ounces lightly aged and filtered Spanish-style rum
Shake or pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass with an optional ice shell.
You can also make a traditional Derby Daiquiri by blending with 1 cup of crushed ice for 15 seconds or until smooth. Pour into a small goblet or stemmed glass.
We like this version not only for its simplicity, but also for its clean and crisp flavor profile. The rum is more prominent than the classic, but the concentrated sour orange juice combines with the rich simple syrup to provide intense flavors and balance. The result is a straightforward Daiquiri not far from Licudine’s original vision.
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