Mai-Kai cocktail review: The timeless appeal of this classic is no Mystery

Updated July 3, 2014
See below: Our Mystery Drink review | Ancestor recipe | Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
Mini Mai-Kai Mystery Bowl offers scaled-down version of a classic
Symposium explores rich history and long-lost stories of The Mai-Kai

A vintage Mystery Girl and Mystery Drink photo

A vintage Mystery Girl and Mystery Drink photo. (Courtesy of SwankPad.org)

Oh Mystery Girl,
   what’s in this Mystery Drink?!
I must steal you away;
   conscience now has no say
Into this heart of darkness I sink.
And now you’re leaving me with this …
   a silken lei a single kiss?
A drink to fill this emptyness?
   Don’t leave me Mystery Girl!

Mystery Girl by The Crazed Mugs

The Mai-Kai’s Mystery Drink (and its accompanying ritual featuring the Mystery Girl) is no mere cocktail. It’s a Polynesian Pop culture icon, immortalized in song, on television and seared into the memory of countless Mai-Kai patrons over the past half-century.

When the drink is ordered, a gong is struck repeatedly as a Polynesian maiden silently delivers the huge, flaming bowl packed with at least 9 ounces of alcohol (some reports say it contains 13 ounces). The Mystery Girl dances before the lucky customer, placing a lei around the neck, then planting a kiss on the cheek before gliding away.

The Mai-Kai Mystery Girl serves Johnny Carson on 'The Tonight Show' in 1962. (Video still provided by Tim "Swanky" Glazner)

The Mai-Kai Mystery Girl serves Johnny Carson on ‘The Tonight Show’ in 1962. (Video still provided by Tim “Swanky” Glazner)

Johnny Carson was so taken with the sensuous presentation that he featured a Mai-Kai Mystery Girl on The Tonight Show – twice. Johnny and sidekick Ed McMahon were regular visitors to the restaurant in the 1960s and friends of owners Bob and Mireille Thornton.

The Mystery Drink and the ritual have not changed much in more than 50 years. The drink was added several years after The Mai-Kai’s 1956 opening as a way to promote the new Molokai bar, according to Tim “Swanky” Glazner, unofficial Mai-Kai historian and owner of SwankPad.org and Swank Pad Productions. The restaurant’s small Surfboard Bar was overwhelmed with customers, so an additional bar was added. It was built in the general area of where The Molokai is now, but it was much smaller and the decor was more in a tropical motif, Glazner says. The Molokai as we know it now was built in 1970.

A 1958 Molokai bar menu.

A 1958 Molokai bar menu. (Courtesy of SwankPad.org; click image for more)

Glazner shared many lost stories of The Mai-Kai, including video of a Mystery Girl serving Johnny on The Tonight Show, in a special symposium at Hukilau 2012. His research revealed that the idea for the drink came from assistant manager Leonce Picot in 1958. The carving that became the design of the bowl was created by songwriter Kui Lee (Don Ho’s I’ll Remember You, etc.).

Swank Pad Productions has also released the Mai-Kai Memories Series of Tiki bowls, featuring the Mai-Kai Mystery Girl Bowl and Mini Mai-Kai Mystery Bowl, loving tributes to this classic.
* Click here to order

In his presentation, Glazner revealed that pinup Betty Page was almost a Mystery Girl and shared the stories of many of the women who served the Mystery Drink over the years. The original two Mystery Girls were Nani Maka and Greta (Puanani) Kanemura. Maka had a long career as a Polynesian performer, most notably a stint at the beachside Yankee Clipper hotel’s Polynesian Room. She made special appearances at The Hukilau in 2013 and 2014, performing on stage with The Sweet Hollywaiians [see photos].

The Mai-Kai's Mystery Drink, April 2011.

The Mai-Kai's Mystery Drink, April 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Tributes to the Mystery Drink and Mystery Girl have recently taken a musical twist, with several artists penning their own tunes. Mystery Girl appears on the 2011 Find Forbidden Island album from Tampa’s The Crazed Mugs. See more of the lyrics and buy the album at CrazedMugs.com. Meanwhile, California’s The Hula Girls perform Mai Kai Mystery Girl during their live shows.
See a YouTube video here.

As for the drink itself, the communal-style Tiki bowl was well established by the late 1950s and had been popularized by Trader Vic at his many restaurants across the country. The Scorpion Bowl was the template that was copied by nearly every Tiki bar, for better or worse. The Mai-Kai’s Mystery Drink bears a striking similarity to Trader Vic’s Scorpion, as detailed below. It may have even one-upped Vic. If not in flavor, than definitely in presentation.

The Mystery Girl serves the famous drink, April 2011.

The Mystery Girl serves the famous drink, April 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The massive Mystery Drink bowl is custom-made, and branded with the restaurant’s name. Vintage versions can fetch more than $700 on eBay. The current bowl was designed by Squid and is manufactured by Tiki Farm. Every so often it pops up in the restaurant’s gift shop for around $100 (see photo, January 2012). The size has increased slightly, with the current bowl holding more than 100 ounces (a 46.8-ounce drink, plus ice). The older version is 84 ounces with a 37.8 ounce drink. That could explain the different reports of how much alcohol the drink contains. The Tiki Farm edition weighs a whopping 7 pounds.

What makes the Mystery Drink extra special is the Mystery Girl. But was this copied as well? Some may cite a drink with the same name and a similar ceremony featuring a hula dancing waitress that was popular at the Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio, during the early 1960s. But the Kahiki didn’t open until 1961, and Glazner’s evidence points to the Mystery Drink appearing on the first Molokai menu in 1958-59.

From The Mai-Kai's 1959 Molokai bar menu

From The Mai-Kai's 1959 Molokai bar menu. (Courtesy SwankPad.org)

So it’s more likely that the Kahiki copied The Mai-Kai, where the the Mystery Drink and the Mystery Girl live on in all their vintage glory. As Johnny and Ed probably said after receiving one, “Heyo!”

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

The official menu description
Mystery Drink
MYSTERY DRINK

This Polynesian bowl contains the potent Mai-Kai Mystery Drink … served in the Molokai Bar with appropriate rituals – a Chinese Gong, an island Goddess and a fresh lei of orchids from Hawaii … but beware! For its contents can lead to exciting and perhaps dangerous things.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Extra, extra large
(serves four or more)

Potency: Strong

The Mai-Kai's Mystery Drink, March 2009.

The Mai-Kai's Mystery Drink, March 2009. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Flavor profile: Orange juice, lime juice, rum and other liquors, bitters, a hint of orgeat/amaretto.

Review: Nicely balanced considering all the liquor, but also very tart and fruity. It also contains brandy and at least one other liquor not normally associated with Mai-Kai drinks.

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

Ancestry: The Mystery Drink is The Mai-Kai’s take on the ever-popular Scorpion Bowl, which was a mainstay in most mid-century Tiki bars. Trader Vic’s version is arguably the first and the best, so we’ve included that recipe below.

Bilge: Bob and Jack Thornton, the late Mai-Kai owners who built the restaurant in 1956, regularly visited the Trader Vic’s restaurant in Chicago during their youth. Could the idea of the Mystery Drink have been hatched then?

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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

ANCESTOR RECIPE
Scorpion Bowl

(From Trader Vic’s Tiki Party)

Trader Vic's Scorpion Bowl.

Trader Vic's Scorpion Bowl. (Photo from TraderVics.com)

* 6 ounces silver rum
* 6 ounces orange juice
* 4 ounces lemon juice
* 1 1/2 ounces orgeat syrup
* 1 ounce brandy
* 3 cups crushed ice,
   plus additional ice cubes
* 1 gardenia for garnish

Combine the rum, orange juice, lemon juice, orgeat syrup, brandy, and crushed ice in an electric blender and pulse for a few seconds, just until combined. Pour into the bowl and add ice cubes to fill. Garnish with the gardenia and serve in a Vic’s Scorpion Bowl or other decorative bowl with four long straws. Serves four.

Among the many communal drinks that Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron saw in his world travels, he was particularly fond of the famous Hawaiian punch made with rum and okolehao, a local moonshine distilled from the ti plant. Brandy is used in his Scorpion Bowl in place of that high-octane spirit.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Orgeat syrup is one of the key ingredients in Trader Vic’s Mai Tai as well as the Scorpion Bowl. Until recently, a good orgeat syrup, made from almonds, was hard to find. But today there are many choices, including Trader Vic’s own brand. There are also many do-it-yourself recipes online, including cocktail blogs Art of Drink and Kaiser Penguin. Recently, it appears that The Mai-Kai has switched to using amaretto, an almond-flavored liqueur.

* For explicit instruction on making Trader Vic’s Scorpion Bowl, check out this video on The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess. Of course, you can also sample it at Trader Vic’s locations worldwide.

A similar drink recipe unfortunately does not replicate the pomp and circumstance of an authentic Mystery Drink served at The Mai-Kai. You’ll have to make the trip to Fort Lauderdale for the complete experience.

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 2012, Cocktail reviews, Cocktails, Cocktails, Culture, History, History, Hukilau, Mai-Kai, Recipes, Rum and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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