Mai-Kai cocktail review: Tradition, quality give the Piña Colada a much-needed dose of respect

Updated September 2015
See below: Our Piña Colada review | Ancestor/tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

For better or worse (typically worse), the Piña Colada has been ubiquitous on tropical drink menus for more than half a century. Not surprisingly, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale – a haven for finely crafted Tiki cocktails – is one of the rare places that does it right.

Waiters at the kitchen service bar garnish and prepare to serve Rum Barrels, Mai Tais and other cocktails while a bartender finishes up a long line of Piña Coladas in The Mai-Kai's kitchen service bar.

Waiters at the kitchen service bar garnish and prepare to serve Rum Barrels, Mai Tais and other cocktails while a bartender finishes up a long line of Piña Coladas in The Mai-Kai's kitchen service bar. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2011)

I was skeptical at first. With some 50 classics to choose from on The Mai-Kai’s amazing menu, why order this butt of jokes normally associated with cruise ships and 1970s fern bars? Four words: Fresh ingredients, quality rum. And it doesn’t hurt that the drinks are crafted to high standards in The Mai-Kai’s service bars (see photo at right). The other key: Order it on the rocks, not blended.

Thankfully, this maligned drink is being rediscovered and reinvented by craft cocktail mixologists. In 2011, the Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans featured a Piña Colada competition challenging the world’s top bartenders to come up with their own take. The fact that the contest was held at one of the world’s premiere cocktail events, and was sponsored by Bacardi and the United States Bartenders’ Guild, proves that the Piña Colada is making a strong comeback in the credibility category.

The winning cocktail, by the way, was No Passport Required by Debbi Peek from Chicago. RumConnection.com has more on the competition while the Shake & Strain blog posted the recipe.

Ramon "Monchito" Marrero is credited with inventing the popular version of the Piña Colada.

Ramon "Monchito" Marrero is credited with inventing the popular version of the Piña Colada.

But the subject at hand is The Mai-Kai’s version, which sticks very close to the classic recipe (see below). There’s some dispute about the creation of the modern-day Piña Colada (strained pineapple in Spanish). The most popular story has Ramon “Monchito” Marrero creating the drink in 1954 at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar in San Juan. But there’s also a plaque outside The Barrachina restaurant in San Juan that claims the drink was invented there. Regardless, it’s accepted that the Caribe Hilton is responsible (or to blame, depending on your point of view) for spreading the drink worldwide. And major credit must also go to Ramon Lopez, who in 1954 patented commercial crème of coconut under the name Coco Lopez, thereby making mass popularity of the drink possible.

Purists may insist on light rum, but the upgrade to a gold aged rum can turn what is typically a mundane “umbrella drink” into a treat.

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The official menu description
Piña Colada
PINA COLADA

A smooth and rich blend of pineapple juice, coconut milk and golden rum. A Caribbean favorite.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Piña Colada, November 2010. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Piña Colada, November 2010. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Size: Medium

Potency: Medium

Flavor profile: Coconut, pineapple, gold rum.

Review: Served on the rocks, it’s one of the best Piña Coladas we’ve tasted. The blended version loses its punch and flavor amid the slushy ice.

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

Ancestry: Not on the original 1956-7 menu, the Piña Colada was added between 1966 and 1970 as the drink’s popularity took on a life of its own (see the story of its origins above). It’s one of The Mai-Kai’s few concessions to lowbrow popular tastes, along with the Banana Daiquiri and Strawberry Daiquiri.

Bilge: An alternative theory to the popular history dates the drink’s origins all the way back to the early 1800s, when a Puerto Rican pirate (Roberto Cofresí, aka El Pirata Cofresí) allegedly served some form of concoction that included rum, coconut milk and pineapple. Click here for more on the history of the Piña Colada in our review of a seminar by Ian Burrell at the 2012 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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ANCESTOR/TRIBUTE RECIPE
Piña Colada

(Adapted from The Essential Bartender’s Guide by Robert Hess, 2008)

Piña Colada by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)

Piña Colada by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)

* 2 ounces gold Puerto Rican rum
* 1 ounce coconut cream (Coco Lopez)
* 1 ounce heavy cream (or coconut milk)
* 6 ounces pineapple juice (fresh preferred)

Shake with 1 cup of ice cubes and pour into a large goblet or hurricane glass. Add more ice if necessary.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

Hardly a mystery (or rocket science), a proper Piña Colada like The Mai-Kai’s version nonetheless requires following a few simple steps:

* Use a high-quality gold rum. Cheap amber rums (or most light rums) just don’t add enough flavor to stand out from all the creamy sweetness. Since the drink was invented in Puerto Rico, we’d recommend sticking close to home with a premium rum from that locale. Bacardi 8, Bacardi Anejo and Ron Barrilito are all fine choices. But Cruzan (from the Virgin Islands) and Flor de Cana (from Nicaragua) are just as good and usually a better bargain. If those choices are too boring for you, feel free to experiment with other aged gold rums from Jamaica, Barbados or elsewhere. The Mai-Kai has also offered a special off-menu version (Black Colada) featuring Captain Morgan Black spiced rum.

* Don’t take a chance with an off-brand coconut cream and stick with the original, Coco Lopez. We suspect The Mai-Kai uses coconut milk instead of dairy cream, since it’s referred to on the menu. This gives the drink even more coconut flavor.

* When it comes to pineapple juice, fresher is always better. If you don’t have access to – or don’t want to deal with – a fresh pineapple, use canned or bottled juice with as few added ingredients as possible.

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.
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