Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic

Updated August 2020
See below: Our Mai Tai review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: The off-menu Suffering Bastard was just a Mai Tai with a kick
What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson? | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

More than 75 years after its invention, the Mai Tai is widely hailed as the definitive tropical drink. You’ll get some arguments from Zombie fans like myself, but there’s no denying that the Mai Tai is one of the world’s most popular and distinctive cocktails, period.

The Mai Tai (front) is one of The Mai-Kai's signature drinks. (Photo by by Go11Events.com, courtesy of The Mai-Kai; waitress: Maima)
The Mai Tai (front) is one of The Mai-Kai’s signature drinks. (Photo by Go11Events.com, courtesy of The Mai-Kai; waitress: Maima)

Much has been written about how to make an “authentic” Mai Tai, as created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, circa 1944. Tiki cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has a very concise history lesson and recipe posted here. As the Bum points out, the argument over who really invented the drink persists to this day.

We subscribe to Berry’s theory that Trader Vic created the Mai Tai after tasting a Don the Beachcomber drink with a similar flavor profile called the Q.B. Cooler. Donn Beach, who created the Tiki bar concept in 1934 in Los Angeles, also had a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle, but it was gone from the menu by 1937. It’s widely accepted that Vic frequented Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood before opening his first Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Could he have lifted the name from one drink and the flavor profile from another in creating his Mai Tai?

It’s entirely possible, but that has nothing to do with The Mai-Kai, or its version of the Mai Tai. The Mai-Kai already serves a descendant of the Q.B. Cooler called the K.O. Cooler (See our previous review). If you’re looking for the taste of a proto Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, try the K.O. Cooler.

The Mai Tai served at The Mai-Kai is one of many variations created in the wake of the success of the original drink. You’ll find some good examples from vintage Tiki restaurants in Beachbum Berry’s cocktail books and app, including the Bali Hai Mai Tai, Damon’s Mai Tai, Kon-Tiki Mai Tai and Surf Room Mai Tai. Until recently, many bars offered an inferior or bastardized copy. But the Tiki and craft cocktail movements have resulted in a much more creative atmosphere, especially where the Mai Tai is concerned. Check out the links below for examples:
* Florida bartender wins Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Challenge at The Mai-Kai
* More Mai Tai recipes on The Atomic Grog

A Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai in April 2013
A Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai in April 2013. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

In the mid-century, however, The Mai-Kai was not quick to jump on the Mai Tai bandwagon. The cocktail has not been spotted on a menu before 1970 (see image). It’s missing from all previous menus in our collection, including this one from 1966.

At first, it was likely an off-menu drink made upon request, like the Scorpion and Suffering Bastard, two other Trader Vic’s classics popular with many guests. The latter finally made it to The Mai-Kai’s menu during the last major update in 2018.

Rather than copying Vic’s recipe, Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine put his own spin on the Mai Tai (and Suffering Bastard), owing to his roots as one of Don the Beachcomber’s early Filipino barmen. He worked behind one of Donn Beach’s original Hollywood bars in 1939 before becoming assistant bar manager at the Chicago location during his years there (1940-1955). He joined The Mai-Kai as bar manager in 1956, crafting its opening day menu with owners Bob and Jack Thornton.

Regardless of its origin, The Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai is one of the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace’s most popular drinks and has become a classic in its own right. It’s more sweet than sour, with a familiar Mai-Kai rum profile. At first taste, it may seem simple, but it’s actually one of the more complex drinks on the menu.

The Mai-Kai often serves sample Mai Tais at special events, such as the Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Challenge in October 2018. (Atomic Grog photo)
The Mai-Kai often serves sample Mai Tais at special events, such as the Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Challenge in October 2018. (Atomic Grog photo)

There could be as many as three juices, four syrups, two rums, a liqueur, bitters and club soda in this sweet but potent concoction. It took several years after diving down The Mai-Kai tribute recipe rabbit hole before I even attempted a Mai Tai, and my initial attempts were a bit too simplistic. Finally, a fairly accurate tribute was posted in April 2012. It was revised in 2013, when the off-menu Suffering Bastard was first discovered.

While the Trader Vic’s version of the Suffering Bastard is arguably the most famous, the drink was actually invented in Cairo in 1942. It was so popular in the mid-century that it became one of the most-requested drinks at every Tiki bar, whether it was featured on the menu or not. Just as the popularity of the Mai Tai forced bars to either copy Trader Vic’s classic or create their own version, so did the Suffering Bastard.

A quart of Mai Tais from The Mai-Kai in The Atomic Grog, June 2020. The Hukilau 2017 glassware design by Tiki Tony Murphy. Biodegradable straws by Hay Straws. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A quart of Mai Tais from The Mai-Kai in The Atomic Grog, June 2020. The Hukilau 2017 glassware design by Tiki Tony Murphy. Biodegradable straws by Hay Straws. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Trader Vic’s version is basically a souped-up version of his Mai Tai with more rum. According to manager Kern Mattei, The Mai-Kai’s Licudine stole a page from Vic’s playbook and made his version of the Suffering Bastard a slight variation of his own unique Mai Tai, adding the distinctive cucumber garnish instead of the pineapple spear, flowers and mint. Repeated examinations of both the Suffering Bastard and Mai Tai also revealed a great depth of flavors, which we tried to re-create in both tribute recipes.

The Suffering Bastard tribute recipe was updated in 2018 when it made its debut on the cocktail menu, but we didn’t have the opportunity to revisit the Mai Tai until this year. While 2020 will live in infamy because of the coronavirus pandemic, it also allowed us to take home cocktails from The Mai-Kai for the first time.

The Mai Tai has been a cornerstone of the to-go menu since Day One, and we had the opportunity to take home a quart in early June. This provided a unique occasion to explore the Mai Tai in depth, in the comfort of our home bar. While the recipe ingredients remain pretty much the same, we did a lot of tweaking. We hope you enjoy the update!

Check out our full coverage of The Mai-Kai’s creative takeout offerings during the early months of the pandemic below. Scroll down to see the updated tribute recipe.

Cocktail quarts join gallons as The Mai-Kai expands takeout menu
Cocktail quarts join gallons as The Mai-Kai expands takeout menu
Check out the full coverage of how The Mai-Kai is handling the pandemic, from developing unique take-out offerings to reopening to the public under social distancing rules.

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The official menu description
Mai Tai
MAI TAI

The celebrated drink of the islands, made smoother here by the subtle introduction of Appleton 12-year-old Jamaican Rum.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Rich and layered, with complex sweet and sour flavors perfectly accentuating the Jamaican rum.

Two Mai Tais are better than one. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November, 2010)
Two Mai Tais are better than one. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2010)

Review: Sweet and accessible, nicely balanced by the aged rum and complexity of the syrups and juices.

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

Ancestry: There were so many mid-century variations of the Mai Tai, it’s impossible to know exactly what inspired this version. But we know that Mariano Licudine was a Don the Beachcomber alumnus, so we’re certain there’s some influence from Donn Beach’s classic repertoire. The falernum, honey mix, Jamaican rums and combination of Angostura bitters and Pernod are all signature elements.

Bilge: The garnish (fresh mint, pineapple spear and edible orchid dusted with powdered sugar) is one of the most elaborate of all The Mai-Kai cocktails. The menu description is one of three to tout Appleton ‘s 12-year-old rum. The venerable Jamaican brand is one of the most high-profile rums on The Mai-Kai menu. Here’s a list of other Mai-Kai drinks believed to contain Appleton rum. Note that “Mai-Tai” is hyphenated on The Mai-Kai’s menu, but we’re sticking with the traditional spelling in this guide to avoid confusion.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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NEW: Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai
By The Atomic Grog (version 2.0, updated August 2020)

Mai Tai tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2020. Hukilau 2019 glassware designed by Baï. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Mai Tai tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2020. Hukilau 2019 glassware designed by Baï. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 1/2 ounce all-natural pineapple juice
* 1/4 ounce rich honey mix
(2 parts honey to 1 part water; mixed, then chilled)
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 1 1/4 ounces Appleton 12-year-old Jamaican rum
* 1 1/4 ounces gold Jamaican rum
* 3-4 drops of Pernod
* 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
* 1 teaspoon of grenadine
* 1/4 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 3/4 ounce club soda

Pulse blend with 1 heaping cup of crushed ice for 5-7 seconds and pour into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with pineapple spear, mint sprigs and an orchid, dusted with powdered sugar.

A complex and perfectly balanced flavor bomb featuring many classic Mai-Kai ingredients.

2020 update: Takeout cocktails spur updated tribute

There’s a big difference between concocting a tribute recipe from memory vs. taste-testing it next to the real thing side-by-side. We’re lucky to be able to do this with the cocktails on The Mai-Kai’s limited takeout menu introduced in April 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. Available in both quarts and gallons, these popular drinks will last for a week or more in the fridge, allowing plenty of time to examine in The Atomic Grog lab.

When compared to our take-home quart of Mai Tais, our original tribute recipe had too much sweetness and red color. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2020)
When compared to our take-home quart of Mai Tais, our original tribute recipe had too much sweetness and red color. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2020)

Besides the obvious taste tests, it’s also important to compare the color of the drinks. Unlike photos, using the naked eye often gives clues about what flavors and ingredients may be emphasized. The first thing we noticed when comparing our quart of Mai Tais to our original tribute recipe (see photo) was that the latter has a distinct pink/red hue while the real Mai Tai has more of an orange/red color.

Comparing the flavors, our tribute was very close, featuring some of the same sour and bitter notes, but it was also decidedly too sweet. And, most importantly, the signature rum did not pop like it did in the real deal. We noted that orange seemed to be the dominant juice, well-balanced by the spicy and sweet elements. The rum flavor is mild, but definitely more noticeable in the finish.

To remedy this, we reexamined every ingredient and its proportions. The 6 1/4-ounce, 12-ingredient drink remains a 6 1/4-ounce, 12-ingredient drink. But we swapped one syrup for another, and we tweaked eight of the measurements, most only slightly. But we believe the result is a step up from version 1.0 below.

The major adjustments:
* Juices: OJ and lime were increased, pineapple decreased.
* Rums: Employing a standard 1 1/4-ounce jigger, we upped the total to 2 1/2 ounces total.
* Syrups: Honey and falernum were unchanged, but the ultra-sweet (red) fassionola was replaced with a larger dose of the sweet/tart (orange) passion fruit syrup.
* Miscellaneous: Bitters and grenadine were adjusted slightly, while the club soda was cut in half.

Version 2.0 of the Mai Tai tribute recipe comes closer to the real deal in both flavor and color. Hukilau 2019 glassware designed by Baï. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2020)
Version 2.0 of the Mai Tai tribute recipe comes closer to the real deal in both flavor and color. Hukilau 2019 glassware designed by Baï. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2020)

The final result was a distinct improvement from the previous version. The rum and bitters are pushed slightly forward in the mix while the sour/sweet backbone is beefed up.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* The Mai-Kai’s orange and lime juices are rich, pulpy and distinctive – adding to the overall burst of flavors. The Mai-Kai uses the 100 percent natural and unpasteurized OJ from Kennesaw, squeezed and bottled in South Florida. It’s available at Whole Food and other retail locations in the Sunshine State. Elsewhere, you can either hand-squeeze Florida Valencia oranges or use a lightly pasteurized juice from Florida, such as Natalie’s. The Mai-Kai’s extra tart lime juice is even more distinctive, a key lime blend that you won’t taste elsewhere. We recommend a 50/50 blend of fresh-squeezed Persian lime juice and bottled key lime juice (used to make key lime pie) you can find in many supermarkets. Even better, hunt down the 100 percent natural Terry’s Key Lime Pie Juice (available online from a South Florida grove or in their roadside store). When combined 2-to-1 with Persian lime juice, it comes very close to The Mai-Kai’s fresh, tart juice.

* Replacing fassionola with passion fruit syrup served two purposes. It dialed back the cloying sweetness while also helping change the color of the drink slightly. Just try to use a rich, sweet syrup rather than and overly tart brand. We like to make our own homemade rich syrup following the recipe in the appendix of Beachbum Berry’s books. In addition to frozen passion fruit pulp, we like to use organic raw cane sugar from Florida. The commercial brands that best match the desired flavor are Real Syrups, Aunty Liliko’I, and Monin. A bold pomegranate grenadine is also featured, adding extra flavor and sweetness. We prefer several of the intense Fee Brothers syrups, but Monin also make a good one. Avoid cheap, artificial brands.

See more notes and tips below under version 1.0

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai
By The Atomic Grog (version 1.0, updated March 2013)

Mai Tai tribute by The Atomic Grog, March 2013
Mai Tai tribute by The Atomic Grog, March 2013. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 1 ounce all-natural pineapple juice
* 1/4 ounce rich honey mix
(2 parts honey to 1 part water; mixed, then chilled)
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 1 ounce Appleton 12-year-old Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce gold Jamaican rum
* 3-4 drops of Pernod
* Dash of Angostura bitters
* Dash of grenadine
* 1/4 teaspoon fassionola (see below)
* 1 1/2 ounces club soda

Pulse blend with 1 heaping cup of crushed ice for 5-7 seconds and pour into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with pineapple spear, mint sprigs and an orchid, dusted with powdered sugar.

As stated above, this is not at all like a classic Mai Tai from Trader Vic’s, but it’s a great balance of many juices and flavors that also features a fine rum. Highly drinkable and a bit dangerous since it does pack a deceptive punch.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* It goes without saying that fresh fruit and juices are crucial. Only the pineapple juice doesn’t need to be hand-squeezed, but be sure to pick up an all-natural carton in the refrigerated juice aisle (no cans unless absolutely necessary).

A promo photo of the Mai Tai from The Mai-Kai's Facebook page
A promo photo of the Mai Tai from The Mai-Kai’s Facebook page.

* The rich, sweet flavors of this drink had us stumped during our initial attempts at a tribute. The falernum was a no-brainer, and my bottle of Fee Brothers falernum did the trick. We understand that The Mai-Kai also uses the “Fees” brand. My initial recipe also featured rich sugar syrup, but something was missing. Changing this to honey mix, a Mai-Kai staple, was the first step. If your palate is attuned like mine, you may taste slight honey notes in this drink from time to time. But something was still off. My tribute was more yellow than the reddish orange of the real deal. That most likely meant grenadine and/or fassionola. And as I learned during my detailed review of the Cobra’s Kiss and several other drinks, this obscure bar syrup was a secret weapon for adding intense fruity flavors as well as a healthy dose of color.

* The recipe also uses a few other elements to balance the sweetness. Bitters and Pernod traditionally serve this purpose nicely and work well here. And the club soda keeps the drink from becoming too intense, infusing a slight effervescence.

* The Mai Tai is also a great showcase for Appleton’s 12-year-old rum, which blends nicely with the sweet juices. I also used Appleton’s gold rum, but you’re welcome to use other brands to compliment the dark and rich 12-year. Something imported directly from Jamaica would be best to fit the bill. The Mai Tai is that perfect drink to sweep you away to an exotic island.

Okole maluna!

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Appleton master blender Joy Spence hosts rare rum tasting at The Mai-Kai
What we learned at Appleton master blender Joy Spence’s rum tasting
What could possibly be better than an Appleton Estate rum tasting at The Mai-Kai? How about the first-ever such event at the historic Polynesian palace hosted by Joy Spence, the longtime master blender for the venerable Jamaican brand synonymous with pure premium rum. Check out our full recap and photos, including 5 things you might not know about Joy Spence, 12 things we learned about how Appleton rum is made, and how she wants you to experience Appleton Estate rums.
Recipe: Joy Spence’s favorite rum cocktail

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Social Media tributes

7 Replies to “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic”

  1. I personally love Mai Tais. Whenever I get to a new Tiki Bar the first thing I always try is their Mai Tai. It’s fun to try all the varieties. Some of them are good some of them are bad, but that’s part of the fun for me. You never know what you are going to get.

  2. I’ve never been to the Mai Kai (it’s about 3000 miles away from me), so I’m just guessing, but you say the recipe for their Mai Tai is something like this?

    2 oz Appleton Estate Extra
    1 oz pineapple juice
    1/2 oz sugar syrup
    1/2 oz falernum

    Shake ingredients with crushed ice. Pour into a cocktail glass.

    1. Arian,

      I wish it was that easy. What you taste up-front in the drinks at The Mai-Kai does not always tell the entire story. Like the Don the Beachcomber classics that inspired them, these cocktails tend to be very complex, with up to eight or 10 ingredients and multiple rums.

      I’ve not attempted to duplicate the Mai Tai for this reason, but I may give it a shot and see what I come up with. I’ll let you know if I have any luck.

      Mahalo!

  3. Do you add the club soda before the blending process? Also, mine came out with a slurpee consistency? Would this be correct? Dash of grenadine and 1/4 tsp fassionola gave my drink a goldish look, not orange red. What say you? Thanks

    1. Make sure you pulse blend … just hit the switch quickly on and off 5 or 6 times. Don’t blend until slushy. This also assumes your ice isn’t too crushed up. It should be chunks of ice, not finely crushed.

      The soda goes into the blender with everything else. The fassionola is what gives the drink its color. What brand did you use? Some are not as red as others.

  4. I believe the Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai is leaning toward the fruity side. I gravitate to the Vic’s original with 1.5 Appleton Rare, 1.5 Clement 6 yr .75 Pierre Ferrand .75 BG Reynolds orgeat 1 one eighth fresh lime juice. Rum taste is evident, with no one ingredient prevailing, evidence of a great “balanced” cocktail. I order Mai Tai’s everywhere I travel, and not one of them comes close to this mix. Keep up the expert “tributes” as I mix each rum based one and test it.

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