Mai-Kai cocktail review: Patriotism never tasted as good as the S.O.S.

Updated September 2015
See below: Our S.O.S. review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Most classic Mai-Kai cocktails can be traced back to tropical drink pioneer Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), and the S.O.S. is no exception. Most are easy to spot due to the similar names (Cobra’s Fang = Cobra’s Kiss, Pearl Diver = Deep-Sea Diver). But others are a little harder to trace.

Three Dots and a Dash

From a 1950s Don the Beachcomber menu.

The clue to the origins of S.O.S. is actually the garnish: the distinctive three speared cherries. In reviewing old Don the Beachcomber menus, it’s hard to miss the classic Three Dots and a Dash, a tribute to Americans fighting overseas. “Three dots and a dash” was Morse code for “victory” during World War II, when Donn Beach created the drink. Beach served in the Army and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Thanks to tropical drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, we also have the recipe to compare. Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine, who knew Donn Beach’s recipes well from his days slinging drinks at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and Chicago, simply changed the name to S.O.S. and tweaked the complex recipe to make it a bit more user friendly.

The result is a highly recommended cocktail from the mild side of The Mai-Kai’s menu, full of nuances yet still not too overpowering.

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The official menu description
S.O.S.
S.O.S.

A spirituous blend of full flavored Demerara Rum, tropical juices and West Indies syrups.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Mild

Flavor profile: Orange and tart lime juices mingle with rich honey, flavorful rums and the slightest hint of falernum.

S.O.S., April 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

S.O.S., April 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Review: Sweet and tangy with subtle exotic flavors. One of the best mild drinks at The Mai-Kai.

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

Ancestry: The S.O.S. dates back to the The Mai-Kai’s opening in 1956 and is based on Don the Beachcomber’s Three Dots and a Dash.

Bilge: If you’re looking for an authentic version of Three Dots and a Dash, you have several excellent options in the Tiki cocktail mecca (California). It’s one of many Donn Beach originals served at Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach, the only restaurant in the mainland United States to bear the historic name. Also highly recommended is the version served impeccably at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, the neo-Tiki craft cocktail bar that not only carries Donn Beach’s torch but also is pushing the envelope of mixology in great new ways. In 2013, a Tiki lounge bearing the Three Dots and a Dash name opened in Chicago to much fanfare. It serves both modern and classic cocktails, including the bar’s namesake.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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ANCESTOR RECIPE
Three Dots and a Dash

(1960s era Don the Beachcomber recipe, from Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)

Three Dots and a Dash by The Atomic Grog, January 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Three Dots and a Dash by The Atomic Grog, January 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce honey mix
   (equal parts honey and water, mixed until liquid)
* 1 1/2 ounces amber Martinique rum
* 1/2 ounce Demerara rum
* Dash of Angostura bitters
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 1/4 ounce pimento liqueur
* 6 ounces (3/4 cup) crushed ice

Blend at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a specialty glass, adding more crushed ice if necessary. Garnish with three speared cocktail cherries (the “three dots and a dash).

As served at Don the Beachcomber in Las Vegas, circa 1965.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* It’s very tricky to balance the flavors in this classic, which likely changed slightly over the years. Donn Beach was known to tweak his recipes often. The falernum, pimento liqueur and Martinique rum all compete for your palate’s attention. Our best advice is to not skimp on getting quality ingredients. Beachbum Berry recommends Fee Brothers falernum. We enjoy this drink mixed with premium rums such as Rhum Clement VSOP (Martinique) and 15-year-old El Dorado (Demerara).

* Pimento liqueur, made from allspice berries in Jamaica, pops up every so often in both Don the Beachcomber and Mai-Kai cocktails. We recommend St. Elizabeth and Wray & Nephew as the best sources for this spicy, somewhat obscure ingredient.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s S.O.S.
By The Atomic Grog (updated September 2015)

S.O.S. tribute by The Atomic Grog, March 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

S.O.S. tribute by The Atomic Grog, March 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 3/4 ounce rich honey mix
   (2 parts honey to 1 part water, mixed until liquid)
* 1/2 ounce Demerara rum
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican (or Virgin Islands) rum
* 1/4 ounce falernum

Pulse blend with 1 cup crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a stemmed glass, adding more crushed ice if necessary. Garnish with three speared cocktail cherries.

The Mai-Kai’s S.O.S. is a milder version of Three Dots and a Dash, yet no less tasty. I actually prefer it to the strong and spicy classic. It really goes down smooth and is arguably the best cocktail on the mild menu.

September 2015 update: Orange juice reduced from 1 ounce to 3/4 ounce; honey mix increased from 1/2 ounce to 3/4 ounce; falernum reduced from 1/2 ounce to 1/4 ounce. After repeated tastings following the early 2015 addition of Hamilton rum from Guyana (see below), we noticed a consistent up-front honey flavor, with falernum taking a back seat. Reducing the OJ slightly evened out the flavor and let the rum shine through.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* More juices and syrups and less rum give the S.O.S. an altogether different flavor profile than Three Dots and a Dash. The Mai-Kai’s orange juice is very sweet and distinctive, with a rich orange color. We’re not sure of the source, but we’re guessing it’s fresh from a Florida grove. We were able to come close to the taste with fresh Valencia orange juice, though the color is not quite as bold. If you can find the distinctive “orange-Honeybell blend” from Indian River Select, grab it. You can find further info in the Sidewinder’s Fang review.

* Use the best gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum you can find to serve as the base rum and fully complement the Demerara rum. The April 2012 return of Lemon Hart Demerara rum gave this drink a big boost, smoothing out the rough edges that tended to result from the prior use of Martinique rum. Note that the 2014 cocktail menu was updated to replace “Martinique” with “Demerara.” Unfortunately, Lemon Hart became unavailable in the fall of 2014, replaced briefly in this drink by El Dorado Superior Dark. It’s a fine replacement, containing some of the same smoky nuances. You could also try El Dorado’s 8- and 12-year-old cask-aged Demerara rums. But the preferred brand is now Hamilton, which The Mai-Kai put into service in early 2015. The 86-proof rum, distilled and aged on the banks of the Demerara River, adds weight and a punch of flavor.
* Full story on Hamilton rums introduced to The Mai-Kai

* Falernum is another secret weapon of Donn Beach and used frequently in Mai-Kai cocktails. We prefer the Fee Brothers brand of this distinctive syrup from the West Indies. It’s considered similar to the style that Donn Beach used and The Mai-Kai still uses.

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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2 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: Patriotism never tasted as good as the S.O.S.

  1. Steve says:

    I suggest the following to balance the S.O.S. rum/spice mix resulting in an ABV of 23%. This retains the original intended spiciness and lets the rum shine through…
    :
    1½ El Dorado Original Dark (Guyana 80 proof)
    ½ Pusser’s Blue (Barbados 84 proof)
    1/8 pimento dram Bitter Truth (Germany 44 proof)
    ¼ Fee falernum
    ½ lime juice (fresh)
    ½ orange juice (Minute Maid frozen Original)
    ½ honey syrup (8 honey:5 water)
    1dsh Angostura
    shake crushed, pour mai tai glass, lime wedge squeeze

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