Mai-Kai cocktail review: The classic Last Rites returns from the grave

Updated January 2017
See below: Ancestor recipe | Last Rites review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
UPDATE: Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide | More “lost cocktails” | Tropical drink family tree
2012 Hulaween party resurrects lost cocktail

The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menu includes many drinks that have survived since the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace’s inception in 1956. Our unofficial count is 33 originals among the current menu’s 47 cocktails. The origins and recipes for some of these have long been mysteries, and we hope this guide unravels a few.

From Sippin' Safari: This vintage photo shows Mariano Licudine displaying his rum collection in 1962.

From Sippin' Safari: This vintage photo shows Mariano Licudine displaying his rum collection in 1962.

But even more mysterious are the great lost cocktails of The Mai-Kai. Those drinks that appear on early menus but for one reason or another were retired or replaced. Among the 12 of these that we’ve been able to identify are such exotic temptations as the Impatient Virgin, Dr. Fong and Liquid Gold. Those three, along with many others, were descendants of Don the Beachcomber cocktails that original Mai-Kai bartender Mariano Licudine reconfigured after spending decades learning from tropical drink originator Donn Beach.

This connection, along with the rich history of The Mai-Kai, is detailed in depth by cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum Berry” in his excellent 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari. This lavishly illustrated guide is recommended not only for all the great recipes, but for the stories behind the cocktails that you won’t find anywhere else. Look for a special 10th anniversary edition – featuring new recipes, photos and stories – to be released in July 2017.

The Last Rites is resurrected in October 2012

The Last Rites is resurrected in October 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Bum’s chapter on Licudine and The Mai-Kai includes several never-before-published recipes, including the one below for the late, great Last Rites. Ominously named due to its potency, it’s highly drinkable like a Mai Tai yet just as strong as a Zombie. We highly recommend pairing the book with the cocktail to get a true taste of mid-century mixology.

As a special treat, The Mai-Kai brought the Last Rites back from the grave for its annual Hulaween party in October 2012. In the wake of the success of the one-night revival of the Demerara Cocktail at a special event earlier that year, manager Kern Mattei graciously resurrected this classic in honor of Halloween. It has since made several more appearances, including The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary party in December 2016.

It’s a sour, spicy and exotic drink with a distinctive flavor that has undergone several changes. Scroll down for our tribute recipes that attempt to replicate the latest incarnations of the Last Rites.

At first, we were under the impression that the Last Rites was a Mariano Licudine creation since no ancestor recipe seemed to exist. Of course, Beachbum Berry usually has the last word on such matters. His 2013 book, the award-winning Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them (available from Cocktail Kingdom), revealed yet another classic Don the Beachcomber drink from the 1930s that influenced The Mai-Kai’s original 1956 menu.

Puka-Puka Punch

Puka-Puka Punch recipe from Beachbum Berry’s “Potions of the Caribbean.”

The previously unpublished Puka-Puka Punch recipe in Potions came from the private notebook of a former Don the Beachcomber bartender, Dick Santiago. Berry surmises that the name comes from The Book of Puka-Puka: A Lone Trader on a South Seas Atoll, a 1929 memoir by Robert Dean Frisbee, an American beachcomber who lived in the Cook Islands.

Since Licudine worked for Donn Beach in the late 1930s in Hollywood, then later in Chicago, it’s likely he borrowed heavily from the Puka-Puka Punch when creating the Last Rites. It’s hard to not notice the similarities in the distinctive combination of Martinique rum, lime, passion fruit and falernum. You can compare the recipes below, along with the tribute recipes for the latest incarnations. After its reintroduction in 2012, it returned from the grave several more times, including The Hukilau 2013 at the Lost Cocktails Party (see photo) and the 60th anniversary party in December 2016 (see menu).

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

ANCESTOR RECIPE
Puka-Puka Punch
(Don the Beachcomber, circa 1937)
(From Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them)

Puka-Puka Punch by The Atomic Grog

Puka-Puka Punch by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2014)

* 1 1/2 ounces Pontalba rum (see below)
* 1 1/2 ounces gold rhum agricole vieux
* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce white sugar syrup
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce falernum

Blend with 8 ounces (1 cup) of crushed ice for 5 seconds at high speed (aka pulse blend). Pour into a chimney glass or Tiki mug partly filled with ice cubes.

Review: A nice blend of sweet and tart elements with flavorful rums. The agricole rum shines through, with falernum dominating the background flavors.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Pontalba is a long-gone rum from New Orleans that was once among the many featured on Donn Beach’s menus. Beach was a native of the Big Easy (his father was a hotel owner), where he first traveled to the Caribbean as a youth and later was rumored to be involved in rum-running during Prohibition. Defunct New Orleans rums are featured in several of his vintage recipes. Berry suggests substituting Old New Orleans amber 3-year-old or gold Virgin Islands rum. Gold rhum agricole vieux, aka Martinique rum, is discussed below in the Last Rites recipe.

* In Potions, Berry unveils a new technique for making simple syrup, aka white sugar syrup. Instead of heating equal parts sugar (preferably organic) with water, he suggests making a “cold process” syrup by placing the sugar and room-temperature distilled water in a clean, empty fifth-size liquor bottle. You then simply seal the bottle and shake vigorously until the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate for several weeks. He says it yields a “crisper syrup with a lighter density, one that plays better in cocktails than a ‘cooked’ syrup.” This works best when making smaller quantities, around 12 ounces or less.

* See the notes below on passion fruit syrup and falernum.

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

LAST RITES

Last Rites

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Falernum, a mix of potent rums, lime. The latest version (December 2016) adds heavy molasses overtones.

Review: Strong and spicy but with a hint of sweetness and great balance that makes it go down easy.

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

Ancestry: An original Mai-Kai cocktail from 1956, the Last Rites was at some point retired from the active menu. It was last spotted on a menu in the 1980s, but it’s reanimated periodically for special events.

Bilge: According to Beachbum Berry, the recipe below is from Mariano Licudine’s personal notebook and was served at The Mai-Kai circa 1959.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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

OFFICIAL MAI-KAI RECIPE
Last Rites

(From Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)

The Last Rites by The Atomic Grog (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

The Last Rites by The Atomic Grog (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 3 ounces aged Martinique rum

Blend at high speed with 6 ounces (3/4 cup) of crushed ice for exactly 5 seconds. Pour into a tall glass and add more crushed ice to fill.

It appears that Licudine took the Puka-Puka Punch recipe and simplified it, dropping the New Orleans rum and sugar syrup. It results in stronger, more straightforward flavors and a more dominant rhum agricole taste. Since The Mai-Kai’s syrups tend to be sweeter than most, the extra sugar was likely unnecessary.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* The choice of rum is obviously important since there’s only one at play here. Beachbum Berry recommends Rhum Clement VSOP, J.M. Paille, Neisson Rhum Agricole Eleve Sous Bois, and Rhum St. James Hors D’Age as the aged Martinique rums of choice. St. James Extra Old will do in a pinch, he advises, but avoid any cheap brands. The earthy taste of all but the best agricole rums, made from fresh sugar cane, will mar your cocktail.

* Of course, be sure to use fresh fruit and only the best cocktail syrups. You can make your own passion fruit syrup and falernum, or try reverential brands such as Fee Brothers and B.G. Reynolds. This is a classic cocktail that deserves classic ingredients.

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

Last Rites tribute by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)

Last Rites tribute by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Last Rites, v.2
circa 2016

By The Atomic Grog

* 1 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 1 1/2 ounces gold rum
* 1/2 ounce Cruzan Blackstrap rum

Blend at high speed with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5-7 seconds. Pour into a Zombie glass and add more crushed ice to fill.

The update

When I tasted the Last Rites at The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary party on Dec. 28, 2016, I was immediately struck by an overwhelming new flavor: Molasses. But where was it coming from? Molasses syrup is not totally unknown in today’s Tiki cocktail scene, but it was never included in any Mai-Kai or Don the Beachcomber recipes that I was aware of. Nobody I spoke to at the event could figure it out either, but the mystery was solved by owner Dave Levy, who oversees Mariano Licudine’s historic recipes and has been known to tinker with ingredients from time to time.

Last Rites (left) was one of three "lost cocktails" featured at The Mai-Kai's 60th anniversary party on Dec. 28, 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Last Rites (left) was one of three “lost cocktails” featured at The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary party on Dec. 28, 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The thick molasses flavor was coming not from a syrup, but from a rum, he revealed. Of course, it’s the distinctive Cruzan Blackstrap, which features dark molasses flavors along with hints of licorice/clove/cinnamon that can overwhelm a cocktail if not used judiciously. While not historically accurate when compared to the drink’s original rums, the addition of Blackstrap to this traditionally rum-forward concoction is certainly true to the spirit of Donn Beach’s creation.

I thought the latest version was perfectly balanced, however, and not extremely rummy. So I played around with the proportions before arriving at 1/2 ounce of Blackstrap and 1 1/2 ounces of gold rum. I went with Cruzan’s 5-year-old Virgin Islands rum, which pairs nicely with the Blackstrap. While it contains 1/2 ounce less rum than the original version below, it packs a spicier punch and makes for a more rounded cocktail.

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

Last Rites tribute

Last Rites tribute. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2012)

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Last Rites, v.1
circa 2012-2014

By The Atomic Grog

* 1 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 1 ounce light rum
* 1 1/2 ounces gold rum

Blend at high speed with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5-7 seconds. Pour into a Zombie glass and add more crushed ice to fill.

The reinterpretation

The resurrected version of the Last Rites seems to be both more complex and a bit sweeter than the recipe featured in Sippin’ Safari, which dates back to 1959. As with the earlier return of the Demerara Cocktail, we’re assured by Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei that the authentic recipe was pulled out of the vault. Mattei also told us that multiple rums were included, though we’re fairly certain rhum agricole was not one of those. It was also dropped from the S.O.S. and Bora Bora recipes, so this is not a surprise.

The Last Rites is served at a special tasting of lost cocktails in April 2014

The Last Rites is served at a special tasting of lost cocktails in April 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

It’s entirely possible Licudine tweaked the recipes over the years, just as Donn Beach did. Before he retired in 1979, he likely added multiple rums and more sweetness to make the Last Rites a bit more palatable to modern tastes. We tried to do the same by increasing the lime and falernum, and adjusting the rums.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* The Mai-Kai uses intense and flavorful syrups that are difficult to duplicate. Fee Brothers falernum probably works best and is close to the same formula used in Donn Beach’s days, according to Berry. Licudine liked to use falernum as a “secret weapon” in many of his recipes (see Moonkist Coconut, Cobra Kiss, et al). Aunty Lilikoi’s from Hawaii is very close to The Mai-Kai’s passion fruit syrup, just not as red in color. I also like to make my own by heating frozen passion fruit pulp with a rich sugar syrup.

* I’d recommend a good silver mixing rum such Flor de Cana from Nicaragua or Cruzan from the Virgin Islands. Considering the Appleton brand is common in so many Mai-Kai cocktails, my gold rum choice was Appleton Special from Jamaica. If you want to round out the flavor and bring the recipe closer in line with the original, try using gold Martinique rum instead of, or in combination with, the gold Jamaican rum.

Here’s hoping the Last Rites is never again buried in The Mai-Kai’s cocktail graveyard.

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.

5 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: The classic Last Rites returns from the grave

  1. Swanky says:

    FYI, the man on the left in the dark suit is BVD, who you will learn much more about in my seminar…

  2. Tiare says:

    Outstanding post as usual! very interesting!

Leave a Reply