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.
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 Air Corps 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. Be sure to pick up the expanded and updated 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, featuring many new and historic recipes, a new hardcover design with additional photos, plus forward and afterward that chronicle the years leading up to the Tiki revival plus the influence the book has had over the past decade.
July 2018 update: The S.O.S. was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai.” In the sold-out event, students learned tips and techniques for turning their home bars into a Tiki cocktail paradise by exploring the key elements of Mai-Kai cocktails.
(Atomic Grog photos from The Hukilau’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina on June 8, 2018)
After explaining the importance of fresh Florida juices, Hayward demonstrated how to make the S.O.S. tribute recipe while the class received sample drinks. The juices and syrups, along with a simplified rum profile, give the S.O.S. an altogether different flavor than Three Dots and a Dash, the students learned. The juices take a more prominent role, and the S.O.S. is a great spotlight for the fresh Florida orange juice used in many Mai-Kai drinks.
See photos from the class: Facebook | Flickr
A spirituous blend of full flavored Demerara Rum, tropical juices and West Indies syrups.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Flavor profile: Orange and tart lime juices mingle with rich honey, flavorful rums and the slightest hint of falernum.
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. Note: The Mai-Kai’s old menu image, which was unchanged for 57 years, is pictured above along with the new menu photo released in 2014.
* See the original 1956-57 menu
Bilge: If you’d like a modern take on Don the Beachcomber’s original, you don’t have to look far. Three Dots and a Dash has become one of the favorite classics on menus at the new generation of Tiki bars opening across the country. The acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco serves a reverential version, which was also published in the 2016 book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki. And you can’t be more reverential than the bar named for the cocktail, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. We’ve posted two versions of that bar’s signature drink: A recipe by Paul McGee from the bar’s early days, before he moved on to open Lost Lake. And a more recent reicpe by Kevin Beary that was served at The Hukilau 2017.
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Three Dots and a Dash
(1960s era Don the Beachcomber recipe, from Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)
* 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 or Rhum J.M. X.O. (Martinique), and an aged Demerara rum from El Dorado.
* 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 Hamilton (or Wray & Nephew if you visit Jamaica) as the best sources for this spicy, somewhat obscure ingredient.
Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s S.O.S.
By The Atomic Grog (updated September 2015)
* 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 86 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.
Now on The Grogalizer! This recipe and other Mai-Kai tributes have been added to this essential database of Tiki cocktail reviews, including the Beachbum Berry collection plus Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki. Help boost our ratings. It’s quick and easy to sign up.
* Go to The Grogalizer now
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’ve confirmed that The Mai-Kai uses fresh-squeezed juices from Kennesaw, a local brand that supplies pulpy 100% natural and non-pasteurized juices to restaurants and retail (Whole Foods, et al.) outlets. The OJ makes a huge difference in this drink, blending perfectly with the lime and honey to create a savory backbone for the rums and falernum.
* Tiki Central: Click here for a full guide to all the juices used at The Mai-Kai
* 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,” but during the latest update in 2018 it reverted back to the old wording. But be assured that Demerara rum is still featured. 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 Demerara rums at The Mai-Kai
* Falernum is another secret weapon of Donn Beach and used frequently in Mai-Kai cocktails. According to manager Kern Mattei, all of The Mai-Kai syrups are made in-house, with the exception of Fee Brothers falernum. Until recently, it was considered the closest you could get to the flavor of the old A.V. Stansfield brand that Don the Beachcomber and many other mid-century Tiki bars used. Now, thanks to Beachbum Berry and “Tiki Adam” Kolesar of Orgeat Works, we now have an all-natural alternative in Latitude 29 Formula Falernum. Both come extremely close to the old style that Donn Beach used and work great in classic Tiki cocktails.