Mai-Kai cocktail review: Drink like a native with the deadly Shrunken Skull

Updated May 2019
See below: Our Shrunken Skull review | NEW: Ancestor recipe | Official recipe
UPDATE: Tribute recipe | Bonus recipe
Related: The history of 151 rums at The Mai-Kai
Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Our expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.

The Shrunken Skull, served in the Abelam mug in May 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Shrunken Skull, served in the Abelam mug in May 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were common during Tiki’s golden age. The ominous Shrunken Skull and its variations were among 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 is one of only two current Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other also comes 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 can still reach $50 or more for older versions.

The Shrunken Skull mug, as seen in The Mai-Kai online store

The Shrunken Skull mug, as seen in The Mai-Kai online store.

The above links and info come courtesy of Ooga Mooga, the premiere website 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 Shrunken Skull 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 is also used for the Tahitian Coffee.

I picked up both mugs in the gift shop, aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post. I’ll be monitoring their prices on Ooga Mooga like any good mug investor.

Mugs now available at The Mai-Kai online store
You can order both of the above mugs and other merchandise online via the Trading Post’s new website, MaiKaiTradingPost.com.
* Click here to order

A Shrunken Head mug created for The Hukilau 2017 by Tiki Tony and Eekum Bookum in tribute to the South Seas artifacts on display at The Mai-Kai. (TikiTony.com)

A Shrunken Head mug created for The Hukilau 2017 by Tiki Tony and Eekum Bookum in tribute to the South Seas artifacts on display at The Mai-Kai. (TikiTony.com)

For a fascinating look at the history of these unique mugs, check out the vintage images on the official site for Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, the 2016 book about The Mai-Kai by Tim “Swanky” Glazner.

Perhaps the coolest Mai-Kai mug produced in recent years was the Shrunken Head created by Tiki Tony for The Hukilau 2017 and produced by John Mulder and Eekum Bookum. It recently sold out in The Hukilau online store and can fetch more than $300 on eBay. [Ooga-Mooga listing]

The shrunken head that Tiki Tony’s mug pays homage to has nothing to do with a cocktail, though it’s probably even more fascinating. Of course, it’s a replica of one of the shrunken heads on display in The Mai-Kai’s secluded Samoa dining room (see photo below). Samoa is one of the restaurant’s original dining rooms from 1956, and the infamous shadowboxes have been in place as long as anyone can remember.

Since nobody who worked at the restaurant in 1956 is still around, it’s been open to conjecture whether or not the skulls and other artifacts are authentic. Owners Bob and Jack Thornton famously traveled the South Seas collecting native artwork and cultural pieces. Many of those items were deemed to be art pieces too valuable to insure and were removed after a major renovation in 1971.

In 1974, the Thorntons donated their collection to their alma mater, Stanford University, where its now part of the Oceania collection. Some of that collection was on display at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale in 2010. The shrunken heads and Samoa room shadowboxes remained in place, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not authentic artifacts.

One of the shadow boxes in the Samoa room at The Mai-Kai that contains art pieces including shrunken skulls. (Photo by Sven Kirsten, December 2016)

One of the shadow boxes in the Samoa room at The Mai-Kai that contains art pieces including shrunken skulls. (Photo by Sven Kirsten, December 2016)

The closest we’ve come to an answer on the origin of those items came during a 2017 interview with Bob Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz of Oceanic Arts in Whittier, Calif. These living legends of mid-century Tiki bar artwork supply were responsible for outfitting much of The Mai-Kai’s original decor that the Thornton brothers didn’t personally acquire.

In an episode of Inside the Desert Oasis Room with Adrian Eustaquio, the duo remembered filling those original orders for The Mai-Kai. They said Oceanic Arts imported many primitive art items from Polynesia and sold quite a few to The Mai-Kai. In the interview, Van Oosting and Schmaltz recalled shipping a skull pierced by an arrow, an item that came from New Guinea via an exporter who did dredging work on the island. These shipments were addressed to “Dr. Van Oosting” and “Dr. Schmaltz” to avoid scrutiny by customs officials, they said. This isn’t 100 percent proof, but it sure sounds like the skulls are the real deal.
* Click here to listen to the podcast (The Mai-Kai discussion starts at 34:18)

While other cocktails at The Mai-Kai get more recognition from critics and applause from fans, the Shrunken Skull is near the top of the list of iconic status for its distinctive quality and impeccable theming. With interest in horror and the macabre growing, so does the allure of the Skull. A couple even dressed as a pair of Shrunken Skulls at the Hulaween party in October 2017.

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

The official menu description
Shrunken Skull
SHRUNKEN SKULL
Dangerous and deadly.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Strong and rich rums, tart pomegranate grenadine, a touch of sweetness, hints of spice.

Review: High-octane and potent, yet also fruity and dry. Rich and flavorful with a punch of spicy and tart notes to keep things in balance.

The Shrunken Skull served in the shrunken head mug in September 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Shrunken Skull served in the shrunken head mug in September 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
(see how it ranks)

Ancestry: The Shrunken Skull has been on The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menu since the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s 1956 debut, and drinks with the same name were mainstays on mid-century Tiki bar menus. Most followed the simple recipe that Jeff “Beachbum” Berry later published in his 1998 tropical drink bible, Grog Log. However, further research revealed that the true ancestor was likely a drink known as the Skull & Bones, an early staple of Don the Beachcomber (aka Donn Beach), the Tiki bar torch-bearer whose menu served as a template for The Mai-Kai. Another bar with a Don the Beachcomber pedigree, the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, has served their version of the Skull & Bones since opening in 1961. Berry finally revealed Donn Beach’s Skull & Bones recipe in the 10th anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari in 2017 (see below).

Bilge: 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!

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

NEW: ANCESTOR RECIPE
Skull & Bones

(From Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, 10th anniversary edition)

Skull & Bones by The Atomic Grog, March 2018. Skull mug by Tiki Diablo for Death Or Glory, Delray Beach, Fla. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Skull & Bones by The Atomic Grog, March 2018. Skull mug by Tiki Diablo for Death Or Glory, Delray Beach, Fla. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 1/2 ounces 151-proof Demerara rum
* 1/2 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum
* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce grenadine
* 6 drops (1/8 teaspoon) Herbsaint or Pernod
* Dash of Angostura bitters
* 8 ounces (1 cup) of crushed ice

Put everything into a blender, saving ice for last. Blend at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a skull mug or double old -fashioned glass. And add ice cubes to fill.

By Don the Beachcomber, circa 1960s. Provided to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry by former Don the Beachcomber bartender Tony Ramos.

Complex and classic, powerful and deadly, but also highly drinkable. The Skull & Bones is clearly the ancestor to The Mai-Kai’s Shrunken Skull, but with slightly different flavor notes and a tad more potency.

At long last, Berry revealed this gem from one of his best sources of Donn Beach classics in 2017 in the revised and updated version of his seminal 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari. The book is a must for any true Tiki cocktail fan with its rich history of many of the early greats, including The Mai-Kai’s Mariano Licudine.

The source of the Skull & Bones was Tony Ramos, who Berry befriended in the 1990s and became a fount of knowledge about Donn Beach’s cocktail recipes and mysterious secret ingredients. Ramos had worked for seven years at the Don the Beachcomber flagship restaurant in Hollywood in the 1980s. The recipe includes many signature Don the Beachcomber flourishes, such as Pernod and Angostura bitters, plus multiple rums and syrups. It’s way more complex than the published Shrunken Skull recipe below and worthy of the true ancestor title.

As Berry points out in his fascinating history of this cocktail, potent (and seemingly “manly”) drinks such as the Zombie, Navy Grog and Skull & Bones were necessary at Don the Beachcomber and elsewhere for male imbibers of the day. Most men of the era would not be caught dead with a fruity drink in their hand, and Beach provided the perfect antidote by taking his knowledge of the Planter’s Punch and souping up the simple recipe for the mid-century’s adventurous males.

When you order the Shrunken Skull in The Molokai bar, one of the sarong-clad servers will pour your 151 floater, aka "side of danger." (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2017)

When you order the Shrunken Skull in The Molokai bar, one of the sarong-clad servers will pour your 151 floater, aka “side of danger.” (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2017)

Variations of all these drinks ended up on the menu at The Mai-Kai, of course. Licudine worked at Don the Beachcomber in Chicago for more than 15 years until he came to Fort Lauderdale in 1956 to be the head bartender. Note that the Skull & Bones and others appear on this 1963 menu from Donn’s Chicago location.

Licudine would have had much experience with the recipes as assistant head bartender there. Mai-Kai owners Bob and Jack Thornton were well aware of this when the tapped him to lead the cocktail program in Fort Lauderdale. Together, they re-worked and improved a great number of Beach’s drinks, tweaking many of the names as they went.
* Related: The Mai-Kai’s tropical drink family tree

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, lies the only other Tiki bar in the world still serving Donn Beach’s original, secret recipes. The legendary Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles was opened in 1961 by Ray Buhen, an original Don the Beachcomber bartender in the 1930s. It’s still operated by family, including Buhen’s son and grandson. The Buhens’ impressive menu of 92 tropical drinks dwarfs The Mai-Kai’s total of 47, and it also includes the Skull & Bones. While it doesn’t feature a special mug, the drink’s menu description and photo are strikingly similar. It’s touted as including grenadine, lime juice and dark rum.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

Most of the ingredients are covered below, but there are a few worth noting here:

* Passion fruit syrup is best made fresh, or using a quality bottled product. Check out the recipe in Beachbum Berry’s books (our house favorite), or look to hand-crafted commercial products such as BG Reynolds, Small Hand Foods, and Aunty Lilikoi. In a pinch, Monin, Fee Brothers, Real Syrups and Finest Call are serviceable and have a longer shelf life.

* Pernod (or Herbsaint) and Angostura are key elements in many classic Tiki cocktails. The anise and bitter notes, used in small doses, add complexity and temper the sweetness.

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

ANCESTOR/OFFICIAL RECIPE
Shrunken Skull

From Mr. Lemon Hart’s Tropical Treats (1973), Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log (1998) and Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010).

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce pomegranate grenadine
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum
* 1 ounce 151 Demerara rum

Shake vigorously with ice cubes, then pour everything into a skull mug.

Shrunken Skull (official Mai-Kai photo)

Shrunken Skull (official Mai-Kai photo)

November 2016, May 2019 updates

When I originally discovered this recipe in Beachbum Berry’s books, I considered this to be an ancestor recipe since it didn’t include a source. Sure, it was very similar to The Mai-Kai’s current recipe, but this is also a very simple cocktail that was probably common knowledge in the 1950s and ’60s. However, a post on Tiki Central in November 2015 unveiled a nearly identical recipe that was published in 1973 in Mr. Lemon Hart’s Tropical Treats. The only difference: Lemon Hart rum is called for by name, the amounts of all the ingredients are cut in half, and the mixing instructions are slightly different. [See the recipe]

Then, I dove deeper into the Tropical Treats book, which features more than 125 food and rum cocktail recipes that spotlight Lemon Hart rum. I realized that the book was co-edited by Leonce Picot, a Mai-Kai assistant manager from 1957 to 1967. It’s likely he had access to the official recipes. Though, as it turns out, this one was simplified for the book’s audience. This was a common practice in Tiki’s heyday for several reasons. It made the complex drinks easier to make for lay bartenders (like the 1950 Zombie). And it also ensured that the secret recipes that were so closely guarded by Don the Beachcomber (and The Mai-Kai) remained a mystery.

The Lemon Hart book also features recipes for two drinks that are no longer on The Mai-Kai menu, the Demerara Cocktail (also featured in 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari) and the Demerara Float. Both also appear to have been modified for the book. Though the book’s Shrunken Skull recipe doesn’t refer to 151 rum, we know that this cocktail typically features a floater of the overproof variety popularized by Lemon Hart. This Holy Grail of mixing rums became the subject of much drama over the past decade as it entered, left and re-entered the U.S. market (see details below).

It's unclear when the cinnamon stick became commonplace in the Shrunken Skull. It's not included in vintage recipes, and you may not receive one at The Mai-Kai when supplies are short.  (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

It’s unclear when the cinnamon stick became commonplace in the Shrunken Skull. It’s not included in vintage recipes, but it’s typically standard garnish at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

The story of Picot is also quite interesting. He’s featured prominently in a chapter in Glazner’s Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, where we learned how he helped create the signature Mystery Drink. While he worked at The Mai-Kai, he also edited a series of recipe books boosted by the backing of the Thornton brothers. Click here for more on Picot in the Demerara Float review.

Sadly, we lost Leonce Picot in August 2018 after a long, storied career in the restaurant industry. After he left The Mai-Kai, he opened many highly regarded French restaurants and was considered a pioneer in the South Florida restaurant scene. Glazner posted this nice tribute after Picot’s passing.

For the reasons outlined above, we’re now calling this an “ancestor/official” recipe since it’s likely this was not the full original recipe. But it’s obviously close.

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

NEW: Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Shrunken Skull, v.3
By The Atomic Grog, updated May 2019

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog, November 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog, November 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce strong pomegranate grenadine
* 3/4 ounce rich simple syrup
* 1/4 teaspoon allspice dram or Don’s Spices
* 1/2 teaspoon falernum
* 2 ounces aged Puerto Rican gold rum
* 1 ounce 151 Demerara rum
* Splash of club soda

Pour the 151 rum into a standard 1-ounce shot glass. Pulse blend everything else except the club soda with 1 cup of crushed ice for 4-5 seconds. Pour into a skull mug, top with soda and more ice, then garnish with a cinnamon stick. Serve with the shot of 151 on the side. Pour in the overproof rum and stir with the cinnamon stick.

Sweeter and spicier than your standard Shrunken Skull, yet still very tart and sour, this version is easily the most rich and complex.

May 2019 update

It’s rare that The Mai-Kai’s managing owner, Dave Levy, gives me direct feedback on a specific recipe. Don’t get me wrong, he’s fully supportive of this cocktail guide. But he’s typically elusive when I question him about a particular drink.

So when he made a comment after seeing the November 2016 update and reference to the “official” recipe published in Mr. Lemon Hart’s Tropical Treats (see above), I eagerly took note. I was missing three ingredients, he said, immediately punching holes in what I thought was a very simple recipe. He gave me no other clues, other than the tip that one of the three came in the form of five dashes.

A timeless cocktail: The Shrunken Skull at The Mai-Kai, August 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

A timeless cocktail: The Shrunken Skull at The Mai-Kai, August 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

After removing cinnamon syrup (see below), I had a feeling that something was missing from this drink. Though it was simple, the recipe cited by Berry and later discovered in Leonce Picot’s book for Lemon Hart seemed to be fairly definitive and was difficult to doubt. But when the owner tells you to add three more ingredients, you better figure it out. On an earlier bar tour I had noted that a dark ingredient, likely allspice, was well-stocked in large unmarked dasher bottles, much like Donn Beach would have done.

My theory: Small amounts of falernum and allspice (1/4 teaspoon is roughly 5 dashes) add small does of sweetness and spice, which had earlier been mistaken for cinnamon syrup. The third missing ingredient, I surmised, is probably club soda. It’s added to both offset the heaviness of the other flavors and also fill up the 15-ounce Shrunken Skull mug. Similar to the Rum Barrel, you can detect a slight fizz from the soda in the Shrunken Skull.

What’s interesting is that while the flavors of all of these “skull” drinks are similar, there are distinct differences. As noted in other recipes, Licudine and the Thorntons took Donn Beach’s Skull & Bones and changed quite a few elements, giving it their own special flair. We’ll note a few of those elements below.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Allspice is the first deviation you’ll note in The Mai-Kai’s version. Though used in very small does, the exotic Caribbean spice is noticeable (and originally mistaken for cinnamon due to the aromatics of the stick). While allspice liqueur (aka allspice dram) has become popular at many craft and Tiki cocktail bars, The Mai-Kai’s distinctive house blend is more sweet and mild. Our recommendation is to use an old Don the Beachcomber staple, Don’s Spices (aka Don’s Spices #2), a 50/50 mix of allspice dram and vanilla syrup. Used in small amounts, it adds a suble and exotic flavor to many cocktails at The Mai-Kai. We’ve noticed it in at least eight other cocktails, from the mild Samoan Grog to the strong Black Magic. If you lack the liqueur or the vanilla syrup, you can pick up a fine version of Don’s Spices #2 from BG Reynolds branded as Tiki Spices.

* Even more ubiquitous, falernum is featured in at least 20 other Mai-Kai recipes, no surprise since this is another ingredient popularized by Don the Beachcomber. The clove-lime-ginger-almond syrup from the Caribbean is used subtly here, but it’s still noticeable. The Mai-Kai uses the Fee Brothers brand, which is reportedly very close in style to the defunct falernum (A.V. Stansfield) favored by Donn Beach. Also recommended, Latitude 29 Formula falernum from Orgeat Works, an all-natural alternative commissioned by Beachbum Berry to the exact same specs.

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

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Shrunken Skull, v.2
By The Atomic Grog, circa 2016

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog, November 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog, November 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce strong pomegranate grenadine
* 3/4 ounce rich simple syrup
* 1 ounce aged Puerto Rican gold rum
* 1 ounce dark 151 rum (Demerara preferred)

Pour the 151 rum into a standard 1-ounce shot glass. Pulse blend everything else with 1 cup of crushed ice for 4-5 seconds. Pour into a skull mug and garnish with a cinnamon stick. Serve and add the 151 as a floater. Stir with the cinnamon stick.

November 2016 update

This version is the result of the discovery that cinnamon syrup was not featured in any cocktails at The Mai-Kai. It was previously assumed that this Don the Beachcomber staple was part of The Mai-Kai’s repertoire, but it turned out to be merely a mirage created by the aromatics of the cinnamon stick. The intense aroma can easily trick you into thinking you’re also tasting cinnamon.

The tweak was minor. We simply replaced the 1/2 ounce of cinnamon syrup with 3/4 ounce of rich simple syrup. The result is just as sweet, though a bit less spicy. The cinnamon stick garnish plays an important role, but when exactly was it added? The ancestor recipes make no mention of it.

The ancestor recipes above don’t include it, and neither does the image on the original 1956-57 menu. Note that the skull mug had not appeared yet either. It was still the same in 1970 (see menu), but by 1979 we see both the mug and the stick sans straw (see menu). The menu image remained the same for decades, until the version featuring current photo was introduced in 2014. We’ve included both the old and new images in the official menu description above.

A Shrunken Skull tribute featuring Lemon Hart 151 rum and Monin pomegranate syrup. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2016)

A Shrunken Skull tribute featuring Lemon Hart 151 rum and Monin pomegranate syrup. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2016)

Though it didn’t change the flavor of the cocktail drastically, the recent return of Lemon Hart 151 was significant. Re-introduced to The Mai Kai in 2012, it became unavailable again in late 2014. Hamilton 151 from Guyana filled the gap nicely until late summer 2016, when a new version of Lemon Hart 151 (returning with its iconic yellow label) hit the U.S. market. It was quickly back in use at The Mai-Kai, giving drinks like the Shrunken Skull an every-so-slight accessibility that the more intense Hamilton rum didn’t. While some may say the blend is a bit heavy-handed, it seems to mix well in many classic recipes. We actually prefer the current Lemon Hart, with its slightly sweeter and richer flavor, to the rawer Hamilton in the Shrunken Skull. See more rum discussion under the original tribute recipe below.

It’s also worth noting several other discoveries that bring the drink closer to what you’ll taste at The Mai-Kai. One is the recommendation of Monin pomegranate syrup. This extremely tart and intensely flavored gourmet syrup can (and should) be used in place of bland and generic grenadine whenever appropriate. It shines particularly well in the Shrunken Skull, where it blends perfectly with the sour lime juice and strong rums. There’s more info on grenadine below version 1 of the tribute recipe.

Another essential ingredient is the distinctive lime juice used at The Mai-Kai. It’s a very tart and fresh blend of Key lime juice that’s unique to Florida. Most Tiki bars will freshly squeeze Persian limes, which tend to be less rich and more sour than tart. I’ve been able to duplicate The Mai-Kai blend by combining bottled Key lime juice with fresh-squeezed Persian lime juice. It brings another level of intense flavor to this cocktail, matching the rums and syrup. Click here for more info on the lime and other juices used at The Mai-Kai.

While it turns out to not be 100 percent accurate, we thought it’s worth including our original tribute recipe for posterity (and your mixing pleasure) …

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

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Shrunken Skull, v.1
By The Atomic Grog, circa 2011

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog, November 2014

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog, November 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce cinnamon syrup
* 1 ounce strong pomegranate grenadine
* 1 ounce aged Puerto Rican gold rum
* 1 ounce dark 151 rum

Pour the 151 rum into a standard 1-ounce shot glass. Pulse blend everything else with 1 cup of crushed ice for 4-5 seconds. Pour into a skull mug and garnish with a cinnamon stick. Serve and add the 151 as a floater. Stir with the cinnamon stick.

July 2015 update

When Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum returned to The Mai-Kai in April 2012, this dark and smoky overproof rum immediately elevated the Shrunken Skull, which had previously been using the inferior Bacardi 151. Unfortunately, the revival was short-lived. When Lemon Hart 151 was removed from U.S. distribution in 2014, The Mai-Kai was forced to adjust and switch to Gosling’s Black Seal 151 rum from Bermuda. Though not in the true Demerara style (which comes only from Demerara Distillers in Guyana), Gosling’s 151 was a decent replacement. The Shrunken Skull remained very strong, yet rich and flavorful with a punch of spicy and tart notes to balance.

The playing field changed again in 2015, when a new 151 rum from Guyana (and Demerara Distillers) was introduced to the U.S. market. Hamilton 151 from importer Ed Hamilton’s Caribbean Spirits was much closer to Lemon Hart 151. It’s more aggressive than Lemon Hart, but it actually made the Shrunken Skull smoother and more even than Gosling’s did. With Lemon Hart back on the market in mid-2016 (see above), there are now more choices. But depending on availability, you may have only one of the above available to you without resorting to online ordering.

Beachbum Berry's Remixed, and the original Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog featuring Bacardi 151. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2011)

Beachbum Berry’s Remixed, and the original Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog featuring Bacardi 151. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2011)

One major change in the recipe since the original was posted is the direction to pulse blend instead of shaking the drink. Shaking was consistent with the recipes in Beachbum Berry’s books (and later discovered in a Lemon Hart cocktail guide as noted above), but not the procedure followed at The Mai-Kai. Since posting the original recipe, we learned that all of the The Mai-Kai’s tropical cocktails are either pulse blended in a top-down mixer (see photo) or, in the case of the smooth and icy drinks (Derby Daiquiri, et al.), blended in a conventional blender. By “pulse,” I mean to hit the blend button and release in rapid succession. This is one of many idiosyncrasies passed down from Don the Beachcomber.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* The shrunken head mug is quite a bit larger than the Abelam mug (15 ounces vs. 12 ounces). Either add more ice, or better yet increase the measurements by 50 percent (1 1/2 ounces lime juice, etc.). Just be forewarned that it packs a wallop.

* We recommend a full-bodied cinnamon syrup, such as the one made by BG Reynolds. If using a lighter syrup, increase the proportion a bit. Beachbum Berry’s books and app include a nice recipe for a homemade syrup that I have always used, and there are many others online.

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog using the Abelam mug and Lemon Hart 151 rum. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2012)

Shrunken Skull tribute by The Atomic Grog using the Abelam mug and Lemon Hart 151 rum. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2012)

* A dominant flavor in the Shrunken Skull is a very potent pomegranate grenadine. You’ll notice The Mai-Kai drink is very red, like its ancestors. A standard grenadine, even the excellent all-natural pomegranate syrup made by Sonoma Syrup Co., isn’t up to the task. A breakthrough came when I discovered a 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 (or a similarly robust grenadine such as Fee Brothers or BG Reynolds) 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. If you’re looking for a simpler option, Monin pomegranate syrup is probably the most tart and natural-tasting syrup on the market. It’s intensely tart and bold, plus it contains no artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, or preservatives. Finally, advanced users may want to make their own pomegranate grenadine. Try this recipe from A Mountain of Crushed Ice or this one from Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

* Last but not least, the rums: The original recipe calls for (and we believe The Mai-Kai still uses) an aged Puerto Rican rum such as Don Q Anejo, Ron del Barrilito 5 Star, Bacardi Select, Bacardi 8, or Bacardi Anejo. Feel free to experiment with different aged, Spanish-style gold rums. Cruzan 5 from the Virgin Islands, Flor de Cana 4 from Nicaragua, and Ron Barcelo Anejo from the Dominican Republic are all good options. Lemon Hart is the preferred 151 floater (as discussed above). Hamilton 151 is the best substitute. Avoid a gold 151 rum (such as Don Q). There are more overproof options constantly hitting the ever-expanding rum market (from brands such as Plantation), allowing for many more alternative takes on this creepy classic.

The Atomic Grog's Shrunken Skull tribute v.1, featuring B.G. Reynolds cinnamon syrup. Mixologist Blair Reynolds features his take this version at his Portland Tiki bar, Hale Pele. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2014)

The Atomic Grog’s Shrunken Skull tribute v.1, featuring B.G. Reynolds’ cinnamon syrup. This version of the Shrunken Skull appeared on the opening-day menu at Hale Pele in Portland. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2014)

Bonus recipe

Tropical mixology has a long history of reverently borrowing classic recipes. This trend came full circle as it relates to the Skull & Bones and Shrunken Skull when Hale Pele opened in Portland in August 2012 with a tribute to The Mai-Kai cocktail on its menu of classics, old and new. Other Mai-Kai drinks on the Hale Pele menu have included the 151 Swizzle and Jet Pilot.

Hale Pele’s original owner and chief mixologist, Blair Reynolds (also proprietor of BG Reynolds’ Syrups), included his own cinnamon syrup, first introduced in v.1 of our tribute recipe in August 2011.

In the fall 2015 issue of Tiki Magazine & More, Reynolds wrote about the Shrunken Skull and included his recipe:

Shrunken Skull (Hale Pele, Portland)
* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce BG Reynolds’ grenadine
* 1/2 ounce BG Reynolds’ cinnamon syrup
* 1 ounce gold rum
* 1 ounce Demerara rum, served on the side

The Shrunken Skull at Hale Pele in Portland. (HalePele.com)

The Shrunken Skull at Hale Pele in Portland. (HalePele.com)

Shake all ingredients except Demerara rum with ice cubes and dump into a 15-ounce old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and pour in the shot of Demerara rum.

This recipe doesn’t specifically call for 151 Demerara rum, so feel free to use a blended standard-proof rum from Guyana (such as El Dorado 8 or Hamilton 86).

Reynolds took the opportunity to wax poetically about how ice-cold Tiki cocktails are perfect for cold winter nights, with the potent rums and baking spices warming your freezing bones. Sorry, but having spent more than 30 years ensconced in South Florida, I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about. But I wholeheartedly agree that the Shrunken Skull is a classic drink for all seasons.

More recently, Hidden Harbor, which opened in 2016 and has become one of the most acclaimed of the new wave of Tiki cocktail bars, paid tribute to the Shrunken Skull and other Mai-Kai cocktails during “Mai-Kai Tribute Night.” The bar also featured the Shrunken Skull in its ongoing Tiki Time Machine promotion. Mahalo to co-owner Adam Henry and everyone at Hidden Harbor!

Okole maluna!

Mai-Kai Tribute Night at Hidden Harbor in 2016

Mai-Kai Tribute Night at Hidden Harbor in 2016. (Facebook)

Tiki Time Machine at Hidden Harbor in 2018

Tiki Time Machine at Hidden Harbor in 2018. (Instagram)

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, Culture, History, History, Mai-Kai, Recipes, Rum, Tiki mugs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: Drink like a native with the deadly Shrunken Skull

  1. Sunny&Rummy says:

    Made up a fresh batch of pomegranate grenadine last night just so I could mix up a couple of new and improved LH 151 Shrunken Skull tribute cocktails. Excellent! And served up in my new Mai-Kai shrunken head mug that I picked up last week they tasted even better!

    Thanks for the recipe update and for the great review!

  2. Tiare says:

    Nice update on a super interesting post, nice everything! you dig deep!

  3. lc says:

    Seems on the sweet side?

    • The Mai-Kai’s strong drinks are typically balanced by elements such as lime and grapefruit juices, Angostura bitters and Pernod, or allspice dram. The Shrunken Skull only has lime, so it tends to lean toward the tart and/or sweet side. It also requires a grenadine that is more tart than sweet. But I’ve also had it mixed a little more on the strong side, so feel free to dial back the grenadine and/or simple syrup a bit.

  4. Arriano says:

    Hi — I spotted this 1954 Don the Beachcomber menu today. It describes the “Skull and Bones” as: “British issue Demerara Rum combined with Falernum, West Indian spices and Cuban limes. This drink was the favorite Grog of the bold and fearless men of the Spanish Main.” So, have you tried adding falernum? The “spices” could be just about anything of course — another reference to the falernum, bitters, etc. http://www.martinturnbull.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/1954-Don-The-Beachcomber-Drinks-Menu.jpg

    • Mahalo Arriano. An update of the Shrunken Skull recipe is in the works. Stay tuned!

      • Arriano says:

        Nice update. From Berry’s book, “…Tony Ramos, who wrote it out from memory….” I don’t know Tony at all, but I do know that memories can be faulty, especially if he hadn’t mixed up this cocktail in a long time. The fact that the Don’s menu includes falernum and the Sippin’ Safari recipe does not makes me think that your Mai Kai recipe is closer to the actual Don’s recipe than Tony’s.

  5. Chester Copperpot says:

    Any update on the skull and bones recipe?!?

  6. Pingback: Magical Tiki Meet-Up special event: ‘Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon’ | The AtomicGrog.com Blog

  7. BTW, I interviewed Bob and Leroy years earlier and they recounted the skull story to me. They told me they never even opened the box. They knew the Thorntons would want it and just sent it on to them.

Leave a Reply

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