Our year-long expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn this week with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.
Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were not uncommon during Tiki’s golden age, and the ominous Shrunken Skull was perhaps the most infamous. The idea was to conjure up a sense of danger lurking in your local tropical getaway. Classic Tiki bars offer the ultimate escape from the mundane day-to-day existence, and every island adventure needs a little bit of macabre yet kitschy risk-taking.
In this case, the danger lies in the strong rums that permeate this deadly concoction. The Shrunken Skull (see photos above and below) is one of only two Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other is another drink with an element of danger attached to its name: The Shark Bite.
The Shrunken Skull is also one of only a handful of Mai-Kai cocktails to come in its own custom mug, originally a vintage shrunken head design that can fetch more than $100 on the open market. It was replaced by a modern version that is not quite as rare but still can fetch $50 or more.
The above links and info come courtesy of Ooga Mooga, the premiere Web site for Tiki mug collectors. This highly recommended resource lets users track their mug collection while showing it off to others. Loaded with photos of great vintage mugs, it’s worth checking out even if you don’t register as a collector.
The drink also often comes in an Abelam mug (average price: $30), which features a mask-like design of the Abelam people who live in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. A vintage Abelam mug is typically priced in the $100 range.
All of the above mugs have a handle, which is atypical of most Tiki mugs. It’s usually an indication that the mug does double-duty on the dessert menu as a vessel for hot coffee drinks. At The Mai-Kai, the current Abelam mug also can be enjoyed with an after-dinner classic, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog. The shrunken head mug also contains the Tahitian Coffee.
We picked up our copies (see below) in The Mai-Kai gift shop. We’ll be monitoring their prices on Ooga Mooga like any good mug investor.
The official menu description
Dangerous and deadly.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Flavor profile: Lemon Hart 151 rum, grenadine, cinnamon.
Review: High-octane and potent, yet also fruity and dry. Has all the hallmarks of a great strong tropical cocktail.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
(see how it ranks)
Ancestry: The Shrunken Skull (or one of its variations) was a mainstay on mid-century Tiki bar menus, with most following the simple recipe that Jeff “Beachbum” Berry later published in his 1998 tropical drink bible, Grog Log (see below). It was also a staple of Don the Beachcomber, the Tiki bar pioneer whose menu served as a template for The Mai-Kai. So it’s no surprise that the Shrunken Skull has been on The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menu since the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s 1956 debut.
Bilge: As Beachbum Berry points out, classic Tiki drinks have begun to inspire a new generation of musicians, such as The Hangmen, who penned the catchy Shrunken Skull Stomp. Crank up this deadly ditty while you indulge in the following recipes.
Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!
(From Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log and Remixed)
* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce pomegranate grenadine
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum
* 1 ounce Demerara rum
Shake vigorously with ice cubes, then pour everything into a skull mug.
Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Shrunken Skull
By The Atomic Grog
* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce strong cinnamon syrup
* 1 ounce strong pomegranate grenadine
* 1 ounce premium gold Puerto Rican rum (such as Bacardi Select, Bacardi 8, or Bacardi Anejo)
* 1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 rum (see below)
Pour the 151 rum into a standard 1-ounce shot glass. Shake everything else with a heaping cup of ice cubes. Pour into a skull or Abelam mug and garnish with a cinnamon stick. Serve and add the 151 as a floater. Stir with the cinnamon stick.
Notes and tips for home mixologists
As usual, we must include the caveat that we’re not trying to decode and duplicate The Mai-Kai’s cocktail here, just approximate the same flavor profile. But since the Shrunken Skull is such a simple concoction, we think we’ve come pretty close.
* The current shrunken head mug (at right) is quite a bit larger than the Abelam mug (12 ounces vs. 8 ounces), which explains why it hasn’t been used lately for this already strong cocktail. To fill this mug, just increase the measurements by 50 percent (1 1/2 ounces lime juice, 3/4 ounce cinnamon syrup, etc.). Just be forewarned that it packs a wallop.
* Like many Mai-Kai cocktails, one of the keys to this drink is an intense cinnamon flavor from the great in-house syrup. We recommend a full-bodied syrup such as the one lovingly made by B.G. Reynolds (formerly Trader Tiki). If using a lighter syrup, increase the proportion a bit.
* The dominant flavor is a very potent pomegranate grenadine, also most likely made in-house. You’ll notice the Mai-Kai drink is very red. A standard grenadine, even the excellent all-natural pomegranate syrup made by Sonoma Syrup Co., isn’t up to the task. Then I discovered this great recipe in the resource guide in the appendix of Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: Simply combine the Sonoma syrup with an equal portion of Pama liqueur. The result is a very vibrant syrup that’s perfect in this cocktail and others that call for a more up-front pomegranate flavor.
* Last but not least, the rums: Feel free to experiment with different premium gold rums. All those mentioned above work well. Until Lemon Hart returned to The Mai-Kai in late April 2012 after a 15-year absence, we suspect that gold 151 rum (such as Bacardi or Ron Carlos) was used as the floater (see photos above). While this resulted in perhaps the best Bacardi drink ever, it pales in comparison the the sumptuous Lemon Hart. We’ve since retooled our recipe to include this essential tropical drink ingredient. Click here for the story behind Lemon Hart’s reintroduction at The Mai-Kai.