Mai-Kai cocktail review: Hot Buttered Rum is a heart-warming winter classic

Updated Feb. 24, 2020
See below: Our Hot Buttered Rum review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

What could be more comforting on a chilly winter night than some warm rum and spices with a big dollop of butter? The holiday season would not be complete without a traditional Hot Buttered Rum.

From The Mai-Kai's 1956-57 menu
From The Mai-Kai’s 1956-57 menu.

Like the milk punch, Hot Buttered Rum is a seasonal classic that dates back to colonial times. According to the American Heritage Cookbook, the drink even “found its way into domestic politics.” Candidates would ply their constituents with it to influence their vote. If only today’s politicians would try this method instead of the usual dirty politics.

Drinks using the key ingredients – rum, butter and hot water – were documented during the early days of mixology in cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas’ mid-19th century bar guides as Hot Rum and Hot Spiced Rum. The Mai-Kai’s version is not very different than the traditional Hot Buttered Rum and was no doubt influenced by Don the Beachcomber’s early Tiki classic.

Hot Buttered Rum and the lesser known Hot Rum Grog were staples on Donn Beach’s early menus. A menu from the 1940s includes this description of the Hot Buttered Rum: “Rums from the islands of Jamaican and Barbados. Mulled with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, sweet butter and hot water. This will rekindle the fires in your heart.”

The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari
The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari.

By the 1950s, Donn’s copycats were experimenting with the traditional recipe, adding creme de cacao (Pub and Prow Hot Buttered Rum), along with maraschino liqueur and black tea (Volcano House Hot Buttered Rum). We can thank tropical cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for these, which he published in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010) and the Total Tiki app.

Mahalo to the Bum and his 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari in 2017, we have perhaps the most reverent Hot Buttered Rum recipe to Donn’s original (rum, honey butter mix, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon). Berry gleaned it from a 1969 issue of the Stardust Hotel’s in-house magazine, but those who follow Tiki history will know that the Aku-Aku restaurant, which operated from 1960 to 1980 in the iconic Las Vegas landmark, has a direct connection to Don the Beachcomber. Beach consulted on its creation and undoubtedly contributed his recipes to the cocktail menu. Sippin’ Safari is a must-read for many great stories about Donn and the Aku-Aku.

Also worth mentioning is the traditional Hot Buttered Rum served at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. Inspired by the classic version in the 1862 Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, it appears to be a simple recipe: Aged rum, hot water and buttered rum batter. But, as detailed in the James Beard Award winning book Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2018) by Martin and Rebecca Cate, the batter is a complex mix of fresh-ground spices: Cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves, allspice, anise seed, and more. A historically significant recipe that’s well worth the effort to make.

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The official menu description
Hot Buttered Rum
HOT BUTTERED RUM
A traditional island favorite on cool and stormy nights.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: After dinner

Hot Buttered Rum, December 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Hot Buttered Rum, December 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Flavor profile: Butter, rum and spices with slight bitter orange notes.

Review: Buttery, creamy and comforting with a touch of rich rum.

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

Ancestry: Another drink dating back to the original 1956 menu, the Hot Buttered Rum was a staple at many other mid-century Polynesian restaurants. Like most of the other cocktails from this era, it’s likely The Mai-Kai’s own take on a Don the Beachcomber classic.

Bilge: The specially designed mug, which can be purchased in the restaurant’s gift shop and the online Mai-Kai Trading Post, is a favorite of owner Mireille Thornton, whose late husband Bob Thornton built and opened the restaurant with his brother Jack in 1956. Mrs. Thornton continues to oversee the Polynesian Islander Revue, the authentic South Seas stage show that she helped create some 50 years ago.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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NEW: Tribute to the Mai-Kai’s Hot Buttered Rum, v.2
By The Atomic Grog, updated February 2020

Hot Buttered Rum by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2017)
Hot Buttered Rum by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2017)

* 1 1/2 ounces gold or dark Jamaican rum
* 1/8 ounce Don’s Spices #2
* 3/4 ounce rich honey mix
* Zest of half of a small orange
* Hot water
* 1 tablespoon sweet unsalted butter

Steep the orange zest for 5 minutes in one cup of purified or spring water heated almost to boiling. Strain into a warm coffee mug containing the rum, spices and honey mix. Add the butter and let melt atop the drink. Garnish with a cinnamon stick to stir and combine the butter.

May 2019 update

I’ve long known that The Mai-Kai does not use cinnamon syrup in any of its cocktails (even those on the after-dinner menu), so this update was a long time coming. As noted in other reviews when we made this discovery, the cinnamon stick garnish really does create the illusion of cinnamon-esque flavors with its strong aromatics (see also: Shrunken Skull and 151 Swizzle).

The bones of what became version 2 of this tribute recipe came together in May 2017, but only recently was the fine-tuning completed.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* We share a fondness for Appleton Estate rums from Jamaica with The Mai-Kai. While our first version below called for a gold Jamaican rum, we suspect a darker rum may be involved. Try Appleton’s Reserve Blend and/or one of the suggested blends that mimic the flavor of The Mai-Kai’s house dark Jamaican rum.
Related: Cocktails containing Appleton rum at The Mai-Kai
* What we learned at Appleton master blender Joy Spence’s rum tasting at The Mai-Kai

* To make up for the removal of cinnamon, we swapped out pimento liqueur with Don’s Spices #2. This is simply a 50/50 mix of vanilla syrup and pimento liqueur. It brings that same allspice note and adds a touch of sweetness. We also increased the amount of honey, employing a rich honey mix (2 parts honey to 1 part water, mixed and kept in a handy squeeze bottle) instead of straight honey.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the original recipe containing cinnamon. It’s a nice alternative for those cold winter nights and included below for reference.

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Tribute to the Mai-Kai’s Hot Buttered Rum, v.1
Adapted from the traditional recipe by The Atomic Grog

Hot Buttered Rum by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2011)
Hot Buttered Rum by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2011)

* 1 1/2 ounces gold Jamaican rum
* 1 tablespoon rich cinnamon syrup
* 3-4 dashes pimento liqueur
* 1 teaspoon honey
* Zest of one small orange
* Hot water
* 1 1/2 tablespoons sweet unsalted butter

Add the first five ingredients to a warm a coffee mug, then fill with hot water. Add the butter and stir until completely melted. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* A quality gold Jamaican rum, such as J. Wray Gold or Appleton Estate Signature Blend, both from J. Wray & Nephew, is recommended.

* Make sure you use a very rich cinnamon syrup, such as the B.G. Reynolds brand. It’s also easy to make your own by adding cinnamon sticks to your simple syrup recipe.

* Pimento liqueur, a great Jamaican staple made from allspice berries, gives the drink a little extra kick. A half a teaspoon of ground allspice would also work.

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A great drink in any season, Hot Buttered Rum is just as enjoyable in your favorite tropical paradise as it is in the frigid northern winter.

Okole maluna!

2 Replies to “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Hot Buttered Rum is a heart-warming winter classic”

  1. From the list of ingredients, I would guess that the Don the Beachcomber version used the Pearl Diver Mix as its batter for this cocktail.

    1. That’s quite possible. According to Beachbum Berry, Pearl Diver’s Mix is the same as Coffee Grog batter (butter, honey, cinnamon syrup, vanilla syrup, pimento liqueur). The Hot Buttered Rum, however, has that big hunk of butter floating on top, so perhaps it has just a small amount of the mix. Some day, I’ll have to do a head-to-head comparison of the Coffee Grog and the Hot Buttered Rum at The Mai-Kai and note the differences.
      http://www.slammie.com/atomicgrog/blog/2012/05/25/mai-kai-cocktail-review-ignite-your-passion-for-flaming-drinks-with-the-kona-coffee-grog/

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