Mai-Kai cocktail review: What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson?

Updated July 2015
See below: Our K.O. Cooler review | Ancestor recipes | Tribute recipe
Related: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber's Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)

Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)

It’s 1937. A budding Oakland, Calif., restaurateur named Victor Bergeron ventures south to Hollywood to see for himself what all the hoopla is about surrounding a small tropical-themed bar called Don the Beachcomber. According to legend, Bergeron was inspired to adopt the same Polynesian theme and shortly thereafter changed the name of his restaurant from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s.

The rest is history, and Trader Vic’s remains the standard-bearer for Polynesian restaurants worldwide with more than 25 locations. The Don the Beachcomber chain disappeared, but the brand was recently revived with a Huntington Beach, Calif., location, though there’s no official connection to founder Donn Beach.

One of the drinks on Beach’s menu in 1937 was the Q.B. Cooler, named for the Quiet Birdmen, a drinking fraternity of aviators founded by seven World War I pilots in 1921. Donn changed his Q.B. Cooler recipe over the years, but as cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry revealed in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the original version tastes remarkably similar to what Trader Vic later introduced to the world as perhaps the most famous of all tropical drinks, the Mai Tai.

Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

As Berry theorized in the book and later demonstrated during a symposium at the 2009 Hukilau at The Mai-Kai, it’s likely that Bergeron created the Mai Tai by copying the flavor profile of the Q.B. Cooler. What’s remarkable is that the Mai Tai contains quite different ingredients (orange curacao, sugar syrup, orgeat syrup). The two drinks have only rum and lime juice in common. But it’s undeniable that the tastes are incredibly similar.

Of course, Bergeron later claimed that he invented the Mai Tai in 1944 and eventually won a court battle that established him as the originator of the famous cocktail. Berry puts forward the theory that Bergeron most likely did invent the Mai Tai as we all know it, but he was inspired by the Q.B. Cooler and re-created it using almost entirely different ingredients.

The Mai-Kai's K.O. Cooler, March 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Mai-Kai’s K.O. Cooler, March 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

So what does this all have to do with The Mai-Kai? As we know, the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s original 1956 cocktail menu was created by former Don the Beachcomber barman Mariano Licudine. Under the direction of owners Bob and Jack Thornton, he took many of the recipes directly from his collection of Donn Beach creations, slightly altering ingredients and changing the names of the drinks. So the influential Q.B. Cooler thus became the K.O. Cooler.

The Mai-Kai also offers its own version of the Mai Tai, but it’s nothing like an original Mai Tai you’ll encounter at Trader Vic’s or bars offering the classic recipe. If you want to sample an historic drink that pre-dates the Mai Tai, enjoy The Mai-Kai’s K.O. Cooler.

**************************

The official menu description
K.O. Cooler
K.O. COOLER

Heavy bodied and brawny, but smooth. A formidable opponent.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

K.O. Cooler, June 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

K.O. Cooler, June 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Size: Medium

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Dry, tart and bitter combination of exotic flavors with a punch of Demerara rum.

Review: Strong up-front rum flavor, yet nicely balanced with great sweet and sour notes. Very similar to a classic Mai Tai.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)

Ancestry: A direct descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler, the K.O. Cooler was retooled by original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine and has been on the menu since 1956.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

**************************

ANCESTOR RECIPES

Q.B. Cooler
(1937 Don the Beachcomber recipe, from Beachbum Berry’s Remixed and Sippin’ Safari)

Q.B. Cooler by The Atomic Grog, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

1937 Q.B. Cooler by The Atomic Grog, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce honey mix
(1 part honey to 1 part water)
* 1/4 ounce falernum
(Fee Brothers recommended)
* 1 ounce soda water
* 1 ounce gold Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce light Puerto Rican rum
* 1/2 ounce Demerara rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 1/2 teaspoon ginger syrup
* 4 ounces crushed ice

Blend at high speed for 5 seconds. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with several mint springs.

This is the recipe that Beachbum Berry cited in Sippin’ Safari as possibly inspiring Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. It’s a classic 1930s-era Don the Beachcomber drink with many layers of flavor and his signature use of three contrasting rums.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* We recommend Appleton Estate V/X, a great aged gold Jamaican rum. We teamed that with El Dorado’s 15-year-old Demerara rum and 4-year-old Flor De Cana Extra Dry from Nicaragua (a fine substitute for inferior Puerto Rican rum). Actually, any of the Demerara rums from El Dorado would work well, such as the 8- and 12-year-old expressions. The result: A combination of rums on par with any high-end Mai Tai. Note that the Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai features Appleton Estate Extra, a 12-year-old dark Jamaican rum. Here’s a list of all the drinks that contain Appleton rums.

* Sonoma makes a nice ginger syrup. Beachbum Berry also includes a recipe for making your own in Remixed and Sippin’ Safari.

Q.B. Cooler
(1941 Don the Beachcomber recipe, from Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log)

1941 Q.B. Cooler by The Atomic Grog, April 2015

1941 Q.B. Cooler by The Atomic Grog, April 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/4 passion fruit syrup
* 1/4 ounce sugar syrup
* 2 ounces dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce light Puerto Rican rum
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
* 1/8 teaspoon Pernod

Blend with 12 ounces of crushed ice for 5 seconds. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with mint springs.

This is the first Q.B. Cooler recipe uncovered by Berry, published in his first book in 1998 but not included in Remixed or the Total Tiki app. Along with the Zombie, it’s a prime example of how quickly Donn Beach changed his recipes. In just four years, he replaced the honey and falernum with passion fruit and simple syrup, dropped the soda water, added Pernod, and changed up the rums.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Fresh juices and fresh, homemade syrups are preferred. You can make a cold-pressed simple syrup by vigorously shaking equal parts organic sugar and water, then chilling. Passion fruit syrup can be made by heating passion fruit pulp with sugar and water, adjusting proportions to suit your taste. If you prefer a shelf-stable bottled version, B.G. Reynolds, Fee Brothers, Monin and Aunty Lilikoi are all good brands.

* In Donn Beach’s days, he might have used the now-defunct Dagger or Myers’s as his dark Jamaican rum. The current version of Myers’s isn’t as highly regarded, but it will work if that’s all you have available. If you can find the more sophisticated (but less costly) Coruba, snatch up a bottle.

**************************

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s K.O. Cooler
By The Atomic Grog (Posted in July 2015)

K.O. Cooler tribute by The Atomic Grog, April 2015

K.O. Cooler tribute by The Atomic Grog, April 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 3/4 ounce orange juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 3/4 ounce white grapefruit juice
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
(2 parts honey to 1 part water)
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum
* 1 ounce Demerara rum (Hamilton 86)
* ½ ounce Demerara overproof rum (Hamilton 151)
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
* 2 drops Pernod

Blend at high speed for 5 seconds. Pour unstrained into a double old fashioned glass. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with several mint springs.

The back story

One of the most elusive recipes at The Mai-Kai. I was stumped for the longest time after comparing the K.O. Cooler to both versions of Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler. I knew Licudine and the Thornton brothers preferred to change them up, but there were many ingredients at play here. Where to begin?

I knew that the drink included the highly regarded Demerara rum from Lemon Hart after it returned to the U.S. in 2012, but I had no idea in what proportion. When Lemon Hart again disappeared from the market in late 2014, it was replaced briefly by other rums before The Mai-Kai began using the new small-batch Hamilton rums from Guyana.
* See the full story on Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums

Mystery solved? Hurricane Hayward (right) discusses his K.O. Cooler tribute recipe with Beachbum Berry in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau 2015

Mystery solved? Hurricane Hayward (right) discusses his K.O. Cooler tribute recipe with Beachbum Berry in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Cate)

The big breakthrough came when it was revealed to me that the K.O. Cooler was the only cocktail at The Mai-Kai that contained both the 151 and 86 proof Hamilton rums, which accounts for its complexity and strength. I quickly realized that the K.O. Cooler actually features elements of both Q.B. Cooler recipes. Since Licudine worked for Donn Beach from 1939 to 1955, he likely would have been exposed to both and could have used that knowledge to come up with a distinctive version for the Thorntons at The Mai-Kai. I have previously theorized that he also combined multiple Donn Beach recipes to come up with other Mai-Kai classics, such as the Zombie, Jet Pilot and Tahitian Breeze.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Appearing in both recipes are orange juice, lime juice, and bitters. The falernum and honey come from the 1937 version, while Pernod is from the 1941 recipe. These are three key ingredients in many Mai-Kai cocktails, so it makes sense that they’re included here. Pernod-Angostura is also a lethal combination used to great effect in other strong drinks (see Special Planters Punch).

* The addition of grapefruit juice, also confirmed, is a hallmark of many of The Mai-Kai’s strong drinks. It helps temper the potent rums and is another signature Don the Beachcomber ingredient.

* A Spanish-style gold rum seems to work best with the regular and overproof Demerara rums in this drink. There are many good choices, including Bacardi 8 or Select; Ron Del Barrilito 3 Star; Flor De Cana 4, 5 or 7; Cruzan Estate or Single Barrel; Ron Matusalem Classico; Don Q Anejo; et al. If you can’t find Hamilton rums in your area and still have access to Lemon Hart, by all means use it. El Dorado also makes many fine Demerara rums (the 5- or 8-year-old would work well here), but no dark 151 rum. In a pinch, Gosling’s 151, a dark rum from Bermuda, can be substituted.

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.
This entry was posted in Cocktail reviews, Cocktails, Cocktails, Culture, History, History, Mai-Kai, Recipes, Rum and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson?

  1. Rick Masters says:

    Received a shipment of Hamilton Demerara today and couldn’t wait to try this Rum. Picked this tribute tonight ……….. it certainly has a tangy/sour taste to it and I liked it a lot. First blended and then I tried another shaken. Must admit I preferred the shaken version as it’s simply stronger flavor wise.

    • Aloha Rick, mahalo for checking out the blog.

      It’s possible that quite a few of The Mai-Kai’s cocktails would be better suited to being shaken, but they use the mixers for everything out of convenience and streamlining of the back bars. And tradition, of course.

      Okole maluna!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.