Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Updated September 2020
See below: Our Jet Pilot review | Ancestor recipes
UPDATED: Tribute recipes
NEW: Social media tributes
Related: The Mai-Kai offers ‘Gallons to Go’ of its most popular drinks
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

NEW: The Atomic Grog on The Tiki Trail Live

Test Pilot

Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot was one of the most copied drinks during the mid-century heyday of Polynesian cocktails. It morphed into the Ace Pilot, Space Pilot and Astronaut, among others. At The Mai-Kai, it became the Jet Pilot.

As discussed in the review of the vintage S.O.S. (Don the Beachcomber’s Three Dots and a Dash), Donn Beach was a decorated World War II veteran and always had a deep connection to the armed forces. In his honor, a B-26 Marauder was painted with a replica of the Don the Beachcomber driftwood sign on its nose. The plane and crew flew many successful missions in the Pacific.

The Test Pilot is also an interesting study in how Donn Beach constantly tweaked his drinks. A Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s or ’40s could be vastly different than one with the same name in the 1950s or ’60s.

The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be the strongest of the strong
The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be The Mai-Kai’s strongest of the strong. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Included below is a Test Pilot recipe unearthed by cocktail sleuth and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry from the 1940s. It’s one of the most popular in the Tiki revival, and it features many of the same ingredients as The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. We’ve also listed a later recipe from a book by Donn Beach’s widow, Phoebe. It’s slightly different but also very strong and has a similar flavor profile. Other popular old-school versions include the Jet Pilot served at Steve Crane’s The Luau chain in the 1950s (revealed by Beachbum Berry in Sippin’ Safari in 2007) and the Space Pilot, still served today at the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles (est. 1961).

In Minimalist Tiki by Cocktail Wonk blogger Matt Pietrek, a 2020 Spirited Award nominee for Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book, the Test Pilot and Jet Pilot are both listed among the “Classic 30” cocktails from the first golden era of tropical mixology.

Like Tiki Ti owner Ray Buhen, The Mai-Kai’s original mixologist, Mariano Licudine, worked for Donn Beach in the early days. In 1956, he was lured from the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago to design The Mai-Kai’s original tropical drink menu. So it’s likely he had a vast knowledge of multiple versions of the Test Pilot when he created arguably one of the best, The Mai-Kai’s high-octane Jet Pilot.

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The official menu description
Jet Pilot
JET PILOT
Fast and courageous, a vigorous blend of heavy bodied rums and zesty juices.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)
Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Dark and powerful rums, spicy and bitter notes with a hint of exotic sweetness.

Review: Very complex and intense. Not for the timid. Sweet, spicy and strong all at the same time.

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

Ancestry: The Jet Pilot dates back to The Mai-Kai’s original 1956 menu and is based on Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot.

Bilge: After the vintage recipes were published in Beachbum Berry’s books, the Test Pilot and Jet Pilot immediately caught the fancy of influential Tiki, rum and cocktail bloggers including Paul Clarke and Frederic Yarm. They then began showing up on menus at the new breed of Tiki bars popping up across the country. Since opening in 2012, Hale Pele in Portland has featured a version inspired by The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. Others inspired by The Luau version appeared at Forbidden Island (Alameda, Calif.), Lost Lake (Chicago), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), UnderTow (Phoenix), VenTiki (Ventura, Calif.), Last Rites (San Francisco), and False Idol (San Digo), among many others. The drink also makes an appearance at the modern mecca of Tiki cocktails, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. Bar owner and rum/Tiki authority Martin Cate included his version of Berry’s take on The Luau recipe in his award-winning book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki | [See photo].

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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ANCESTOR RECIPES

Test Pilot
(By Don the Beachcomber, circa 1941, from Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log and Remixed)

Two versions of the Test Pilot by The Atomic Grog. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)
Two versions of the Test Pilot by The Atomic Grog. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 3 teaspoons Cointreau
* Dash Angostura bitters
* 6 drops (1/8 teaspoon) Pernod
* 3/4 ounce light Puerto Rican rum
* 1 1/2 ounces dark Jamaican rum

Blend with 1 cup (8 ounces) crushed ice for 5 seconds, then pour into a double old-fashioned glass. Add more crushed ice to fill. Garnish with a speared maraschino cherry.

Cointreau and Pernod dominate this complex, strong and sour concoction that has a very old-school feel.

Test Pilot
(By Don the Beachcomber, from Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine)

* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce grape juice
* 3/4 ounce honey mix (equal parts honey, water)
* 3/4 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
* 2 dashes grenadine
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Blend with 6 ounces cracked ice. Serve in a double old-fashioned glass.

Super strong and bitter, with the rums and grape juice forming an odd but surprisingly drinkable mix.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* These are quite different drinks if you look at the ingredients, but much like the story of the Q.B. Cooler and Mai Tai, somehow they yield a similar taste.

* This is a very rum-forward drink, so be sure to use high quality spirits. Hamilton 151 rum from Guyana is a fine replacement if you can’t find Lemon Hart 151. There are many Puerto Rican and Jamaican rum options. Just err on the side of quality brands, such as Don Q and Appleton.

According to Donn Beach’s biographers, he created his cocktails for specific moods, climates, and times of day. The Test Pilot was reportedly intended for afternoon sipping. By today’s standards, it’s pretty potent to while away the afternoon with. But after a few of these, it will probably make for an interesting evening.

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NEW: Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot
By The Atomic Grog (version 5.0, updated September 2020)

Tribute to The Mai-Kai's Jet Pilot. The Hukilau 2016 glassware designed by Shag. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2020)
Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. The Hukilau 2016 glassware designed by Shag. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2020)

* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce rich honey mix (2:1 honey, water)
* 1 teaspoon falernum
* 1/4 teaspoon fassionola
* 1/2 ounce to 3/4 ounce passion fruit syrup ***
* 3/4 ounce white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum (Mai-Kai blend)
* 3/4 ounce 151 Demerara rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 1 drop Pernod
* 1/2 ounce club soda

(***) = Adjust based on the taste and pungency of your passion fruit syrup (details below).

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

Big, bold and bad to the bone. This latest and greatest version of the Jet Pilot should be approached with caution.

2020 update: Jet Pilots by the gallon offer adventure, danger

What’s more dangerous than enjoying multiple Jet Pilots during happy hour at The Mai-Kai? How about taking home a quart or a gallon via the new curbside pickup menu launched in April 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic? As one of the most popular drinks on the menu, the Jet Pilot has been a staple on the to-go menu for the past five months.

The Mai-Kai's Jet Pilot (left) is compared to our previous tribute recipe. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2020)
The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot (left) is compared to our previous tribute recipe. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2020)

For those of us lucky enough to live within driving distance, the ability to order from The Mai-Kai’s extensive food and cocktail menus has been a rare ray of hope in these dark times. Of course, the take-home cocktails also offer a bonus: A unique opportunity to examine the classic drinks in our home bar as we try to fine-tune our tribute recipes.

Check out our previous explorations and updated recipes for the Mai Tai, Barrel O’ Rum and Black Magic, three other cocktails on the take-out menu. I knew those could use refreshed tribute recipes. But the Jet Pilot posed a big question: With six versions already posted from 2012 to 2015 (see below), was there even a need for a seventh?

As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes! Like the others mentioned above, the changes ended up being slight but important. It’s amazing how much a few small tweaks can change the flavor profile. Also, as discussed in our Mai Tai tribute recipe, our take-home quart of Jet Pilots, packaged in a stylish mason jar, gave us the chance to more than just taste.

The color of the cocktail offered an important starting point in updating the tribute recipe. Even though our ingredients are admittedly not exactly the same as The Mai-Kai’s proprietary syrups and juices, we did want to achieve a similar color as well as flavor. When we compared our existing tribute recipe (version 4.5 below) to the real deal, the difference in color was obvious (see photo above).

Our adjusted Jet Pilot tribute recipe (right) comes much closer to the color (and flavor) of the real deal (left). Glassware by Tiki Triangle (left), Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2020)
Our adjusted Jet Pilot tribute recipe (right) comes much closer to the color (and flavor) of the real deal (left). Glassware by Tiki Triangle (left), Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2020)

The tribute version was way too red. While the Jet Pilot at The Mai-Kai has always been a shade of red, it has lately been more of an orange-red hue, not a bright red. The to-go version was exactly as we remembered it, flavorwise, but unfortunately the tribute did not compare favorably.

It had too much lime and Pernod, and it was out of balance. It needed to be sweeter, but not cloying, with a tighter and more cohesive blend of ingredients. By comparison, the quart we brought home had those classic Jet Pilot flavors right up front:
* Bold rums, notably the 151 Demerara.
* Honey and Angostura bitters.
* A sweet but not overpowering fassionola.

When all was said and and done, we think we came up with a spanking new version that comes closer than ever to The Mai-Kai’s deadly cocktail. Before we break down the reasoning behind it, here are the adjustments:
* Lime juice was reduced from 1 to 3/4 ounce.
* Fassionola was cut from a teaspoon (roughly 1/8 ounce) to 1/4 of a teaspoon. But we added 1/2 ounce of rich passion fruit syrup, which is more balanced between sweet and tart. Use up to 3/4 ounce if you’re using a less intense syrup, or if you’re leaving out the fassionola entirely.
* Bitters was doubled to two dashes, and Pernod was cut to one drop.
* Club soda (1/2 ounce) was added to cut the richness and brighten the drink.

Similar to what happened with the Mai Tai recipe, we were able to boost the rum and bitters while also enhancing the sweet core with these small tweaks. It’s no coincidence that club soda was added to both. It helps dilute the rich flavors while also adding brightness and fizz. Version 5 of the Jet Pilot is rich, savory and strong. Bursts of sweetness offset the rum, tempered by the sour and bitter notes.

The added soda and passion fruit syrup boost the balance, evening out the super-strong overtones of the previous version. This is what a Mai-Kai cocktail is supposed to taste like!

A Jet Pilot in one of The Mai-Kai dining rooms. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January, 2012)
A Jet Pilot in one of The Mai-Kai dining rooms. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January, 2012)

Disclaimer 1: Jumbo Jet Pilot
Version 5 clocks in at 5 3/4 ounces, slightly more than the previous version (5 1/2 ounces). It fits nicely in a double old-fashioned glass like all the others below. But the size of the drink raises a nagging question I have avoided in all the previous tribute recipes: It’s obviously larger than the Jet Pilot you’ll get in The Molokai bar, which comes in a lowball glass and likely contains around 4 ounces total. I tried to scale it back, but the measurements would end up being too clunky. At the end of the day, I don’t think anybody will complain about this supersized version. And since we’re not as cost-conscious as a commercial bar, we’re throwing caution to the wind. Just beware that the version you get at The Mai-Kai will be only two-thirds as large. This also makes the take-home quart and gallon a tremendous bargain considering the number of drinks they contain.

Disclaimer 2: The passion/fassionola dilemma
Many will make note of the addition of passion fruit syrup, which typically doesn’t appear in other Jet Pilot recipes. Most rely on cinnamon syrup as the main sweet element, but not at The Mai-Kai. We confirmed back in 2016 that no cocktails feature cinnamon. More recently, we’ve begun re-thinking how we approach fassionola and passion fruit syrup in Mai-Kai tribute recipes. Both are made in-house and are well-guarded secrets. It’s almost impossible to find or make one-to-one replacements, so our new approach is to mix and match to achieve the proper flavor. In this case, mixing the two in the proportions outlined above achieves the best flavor. There’s no telling which syrup is used in The Mai-Kai’s actual recipe, but that’s what makes this whole exercise fun and challenging. It’s also worth noting that passion fruit syrup is employed in a Jet Pilot tribute at Suffering Bastard in Sanford, Fla., one of the outstanding new Tiki bars on the scene. The Astronaut by Christopher Bell is strikingly similar to our latest Jet Pilot tribute, featuring 3 ounces of rum (including 151), lime, falernum, honey, passion fruit syrup, bitters and Herbsaint.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

Rather than specify particular brands of juice, syrups and rum, I wanted to use this opportunity to point out the utilitarian nature of the Jet Pilot. To make the recipe above shine, you really don’t need a host of arcane or expensive ingredients. Accessibility is what makes this cocktail special. There are many options, so go ahead and use whatever rums and syrup brands you prefer and you’ll likely end up with a stellar cocktail. That being said, there are a few keystone elements you don’t want to mess with. Here’s a breakdown:

Portland-based cocktail syrup purveyor BG Reynolds has always had its finger on the Tiki pulse. We find the Honey Mix, Red Fassionla and Gardenia Mix all high quality ingredients that work well in our Mai-Kai tribute recipes. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2018)
Portland-based cocktail syrup purveyor BG Reynolds has always had its finger on the Tiki pulse. We find the Honey Mix, Red Fassionla and Gardenia Mix all high quality ingredients that work well in our Mai-Kai tribute recipes. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2018)

* Fresh-squeezed lime juice is always preferred, and absolutely necessary. If you want to go the extra step and duplicate the tart juice used at The Mai-Kai, make a 50/50 blend of fresh-squeezed Persian lime juice and bottled key lime juice. It’s richer and more tart, and the blend ensures consistency.

* Honey mix is easy to make. Just combine with water, shake and store in the fridge. No need to heat, as you may have been told elsewhere. We like the Florida orange blossom style, which is likely what The Mai-Kai uses, but feel free to experiment. BG Reynolds also makes a very good honey mix that works well in Mai-Kai cocktails and is shelf-stable.

* Other standard ingredients are club soda and the ubiquitous Angostura bitters, both of which should be very easy to find. Pernod, an easily available anise liqueur, is another Mai-Kai signature, used in very small doses to add a hint of exotic flavor. Herbsaint and absinthe also work fine. If you’re a fan of the time-saving “Herbstura” blend (equal parts Angostura and Herbsaint), go ahead and use two dashes, thereby combining two ingredients into one.

* The Mai-Kai uses the rich and sweet Fee Brothers falernum, which is said to duplicate the style Don the Beachcomber preferred (discussed in more detail below under version 4.5). Latitude 29 Formula falernum from Orgeat Works is very similar. But if all you have is a different brand or your own homemade syrup, don’t sweat it. There’s such a small amount in this drink, it won’t be that noticeable.

Gallons of the powerful Jet Pilot await labeling on April 3 during the early days of The Mai-Kai's "Gallons to Go" cocktail program. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Gallons of the powerful Jet Pilot await labeling on April 3 during the early days of The Mai-Kai’s “Gallons to Go” cocktail program. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* As noted above, it’s impossible to duplicate The Mai-Kai’s fassionola and passion fruit syrups, but we have our preferences. In both cases, richer and bolder syrups are better able to stand up to the tart lime and strong rums. Jonathan English has long been our preferred fassionola, but we’ve found that BG Reynolds is just as good and also contains more natural ingredients. Other brands we’ve tried are just not as bold and flavorful, but feel free to use what you have. In a pinch, a rich grenadine will also work. You just need a small punch of fruit flavor and red color. Our preferred passion fruit syrups include all the high-quality commercial brands (Real Syrups, Aunty Liliko’I, Small Hand Foods, BG Reynolds, Monin) as well as our own rich homemade version.

* The rums of The Mai-Kai are discussed in depth below (and on this page) so we won’t go into too much detail here. The white and gold Spanish-style rums are likely The Mai-Kai’s workhorse well rums, so you’ll be fine using any standard brand (Don Q, Cruzan, Bacardi, et al.). There’s no need to use upscale bottles as these rums simply provide a backbone for the other two, which bring the flavor. A 151 Demerara rum is essential to the flavor profile, so you’ll want to stick with Lemon Hart or Hamilton. There are few other options, though replacing both the Demerara and Jamaican rums with Plantaton O.F.T.D. would not be a bad idea. As for the dark Jamaican rum, The Mai-Kai has for the past two years been using its own proprietary blend, much to our delight. It comes very close in flavor and 87.6 proof of the late, great Kohala Bay (a descendant of Dagger, a Don the Beachcomber staple). It’s also quite similar to one of our suggested Kohala Bay replacements, of which there are many. Experiment with any of these blends, or just go with a slightly overproof Jamaican rum of your liking.

See more notes and tips below under version 4.5 below.

Cocktail quarts join gallons as The Mai-Kai expands takeout menu
Cocktail quarts join gallons as The Mai-Kai expands takeout menu
Check out the full coverage of how The Mai-Kai is handling the pandemic, from developing unique take-out offerings to reopening to the public under social distancing rules.

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PREVIOUS VERSIONS

The Jet Pilot now holds the record for most versions in The Mai-Kai Cocktai Guide with seven, beating out the six variations of the 151 Swizzle. These are two of the strongest drinks on the menu, so we definitely urge caution. But it would an interesting experiment to try them all in sequence … for research purposes of course.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot
By The Atomic Grog (version 4.5, updated September 2015 and July 2017)

Tribute to the Jet Pilot in The Atomic Grog. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2015)
Tribute to the Jet Pilot in The Atomic Grog. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2015)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce rich honey mix (2:1 honey, water)
* 1/8 ounce falernum (Fee Brothers)
* 1/8 ounce fassionola (see tips below)
* 3/4 ounce white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum (see update below)
* 3/4 ounce dark 151 rum (see update below)
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
* 3 drops Pernod

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

July 2017 update: As Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei points out in this story, where he shares our tribute recipe (mahalo!), the Jet Pilot requires the right kind of quality rums. It’s also interesting to hear Mattei’s take on The Mai-Kai philosophy of making cocktails: “The way we balance cocktails at The Mai-Kai is by regulating the sweet versus the sour. They are the yin and yang of your cocktail. The Jet Pilot has equal parts sweet to equal parts sour. It is a very basic theory in cocktail making, but one that many overlook.” He also touts the importance of quality ingredients and fresh-squeezed lime juice.

Here are a few new tips on the ingredients currently used at The Mai-Kai. We’ve discovered that the distinctive lime juice used in the bar is not only fresh-squeezed, it’s a special blend containing a tart Key lime juice. A rich honey mix is also crucial. Florida orange blossom honey is most likely the style used at The Mai-Kai.

We recommend Fee Brothers falernum for all the recipes on this page not only because it’s the brand used by The Mai-Kai, but also because it’s the one that most closely resembles the A.V. Stansfeld Genuine Falernum (long extinct) that Don the Beachcomber would have used in his original recipes. While there are many new, quality brands hitting the market, some may not have the same flavor and consistency of the distinctive lime-almond-ginger-clove syrup. Many of those are also liqueurs, made in a slightly different style more traditional to the Caribbean. The new Latitude 29 Formula Falernum from Orgeat Works is the next best brand for Mai-Kai cocktails. It was created to Berry’s specifications by Adam Kolesar with the aim of recreating “the same lush, crisp, flavor-bomb character of A.V. Stansfeld’s.” Of course, you can also make your own falernum, and there are many recipes available online. Just make sure it’s the correct flavor profile if you’re trying to duplicate Don the Beachcomber and Mai-Kai cocktails.

Fassionola is discussed below and in depth on the Cobra’s Kiss tribute recipe. The recipe listed in the article that quotes Mattei is easy to make. It includes 1/4 cup Smucker’s raspberry syrup (or raspberry puree), 1/4 cup grenadine or cherry syrup, and 1/2 teaspoon orange extract. Bottle and refrigerate with a small amount of neutral spirits (white rum or vodka) to keep it from crystalizing. It should last for a few weeks at the least.

September 2015 update: Honey mix reduced from 1 ounce to 3/4 ounce; falernum and fassionola reduced from 1/4 ounce to 1/8 ounce (1 teaspoon); Pernod increased from 2 drops to 3. Seemingly trying to emulate Donn Beach, I can’t stop tinkering with this classic cocktail. But there are good reasons. The Mai-Kai also has been known to modify their recipe, and the latest change was noted by an alert reader (see comments below). Version 4 was indeed very sweet, and this update tampers the sweetness to yield a drier and very traditional Jet Pilot.

Prior to this update, The Mai-Kai made a major enhancement to this and other cocktails by introducing Hamilton 151 rum from Guyana in early 2015 (see full story), replacing Goslings Black Seal 151. Our initial review noted that the smoky Hamilton rum added complexity and depth to the Jet Pilot, cutting the sweetness significantly. But the recipe remained the same for months until we noted the reduction in honey, falernum and fassionola that resulted in a less intense and more balanced drink.

With the return of 151 Demerara rum in April 2012, the Jet Pilot became supersonically strong. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
With the return of 151 Demerara rum in April 2012, the Jet Pilot became supersonically strong. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The back story

As you can tell, this recipe has gone through many changes and has evolved quite a bit over time. It all started on an old Tiki Central thread that included a very accurate recipe by “Anestiki.” He introduced many of the key elements of The Mai-Kai’s version, borrowing liberally from the Jet Pilot recipe in Sippin’ Safari that Beachbum Berry traces back to The Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills, circa 1958. It includes many of the same ingredients used in both Donn Beach’s versions and The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. Interestingly, The Luau also had an outpost in Miami Beach, not too far from The Mai-Kai. Drink names, flavors and ingredients spread like wildfire when tropical cocktails reached their peak in popularity. This explains why Donn Beach and The Mai-Kai went to great lengths to keep their recipes secret.

I used this as a jumping off point for my first tribute recipe. I was quite happy with it, but it turns out I was off base on several fronts. With just two rums, it lacked the intensity of the real deal. In late April 2012, Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum returned to The Mai-Kai after a long absence and we quickly learned that it was included in the Jet Pilot. This immediately gave the drink a huge boost, and version 2 of the tribute appeared on The Atomic Grog in May of that year.

Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2012)
A Jet Pilot in The Molokai lounge. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2012)

But the research continued, fueled by the interest of enthusiasts on Tiki Central and followers of this blog. One of the comments below points out the drink’s red hue and theorizes about the inclusion of the intense fassionola syrup. I also started questioning the use of cinnamon syrup after a similar revision of the 151 Swizzle recipe. Then, the Jet Pilot’s appearance as one of the drinks in the flights served at The Atomic Grog’s Mai-Kai Mixer in June 2012 gave us a chance for further examination and revealed even more secrets.

At that event, Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei told us that the Jet Pilot actually contains four rums, and he clued us in to what they were. Also, he said, the only fresh juice contained in the drink is lime. This forced us to totally re-examine our recipe and resulted in the version 3 updates below. Without orange juice, which was in the earlier version, the drink got its hint of fruit flavor and color from the mysterious fassionola. I dropped the cinnamon syrup and, lo and behold, the combination of bittters, Pernod and falernum conspire to give the illusion of cinnamon.

A Jet Pilot tribute featuring a 50/50 mix of Fee Brothers grenadine and Smucker's Red Raspberry Syrup (left) is compared to a version containing fassionola
A Jet Pilot tribute featuring a 50/50 mix of Fee Brothers grenadine and Smucker’s Red Raspberry Syrup (left) is compared to a version containing fassionola. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2012)

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Fassionola, discussed extensively in the Cobra’s Kiss review, is a very obscure bar syrup. It’s a rich, intense and concentrated mix that adds color along with sweet berry notes. Fassionola Red Syrup (Tropical Gold Fruit) from Jonathan English appears to be the best product on the market, and it’s often available on eBay. However, home bartenders may want to try an easy solution suggested below by Atomic Grog follower Brian Stamp. A mix of equal parts of a dark and rich grenadine (try Fee Brothers, or make your own) and Smucker’s Red Raspberry Syrup works splendidly (thanks Brian!). The taste and color differences between the two drinks (see photo) are barely noticeable. There’s also a small movement among craft bartenders to make their own fassionola (see story).

The Jet Pilot is served at The Mai-Kai's 2014 Hulaween party
The Jet Pilot is served at The Mai-Kai’s 2014 Hulaween party. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* Hamilton 151 and Lemon Hart 151, both distilled by Demerara Distillers in Guyana, are equally excellent in this drink. If you can’t find Hamilton or Lemon Hart, Goslings 151 will work, as noted above. Complementing the rich and smoky Demerara rum perfectly is the bold Kohala Bay, a blended dark Jamaican rum that was formerly known as Dagger. This key combination of dark 151 and dark Jamaican rum is used in several other of the top-rated strong drinks, such as the Zombie and 151 Swizzle. Unfortunately, Kohala Bay went off the market in April 2016, so you’ll need to use one of our many suggested substitutes. Our No. 1 option remains equal parts of Smith & Cross Jamaican rum and El Dorado 12-year-old Demerara rum.

It’s not easy to one-up the master, but Mariano Licudine and The Mai-Kai did so with the soaring Jet Pilot. On a menu full of potent potations, it’s perhaps the strongest of the strong. You have been warned.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot, v.4
By The Atomic Grog (December 2014)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce rich honey mix
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 1/4 ounce fassionola
* 3/4 ounce white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 3/4 ounce dark 151 rum
* 1 dash Angostura bitters
* 2 drops Pernod

Pulse blend for with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

Note: When Lemon Hart 151 rum suddenly became unavailable (see story), The Mai-Kai was forced to switch to Goslings 151. While not a Demerara rum from Guyana like Lemon Hart, the blended black rum based in Bermuda does hit some of the same smoky flavor notes. And the 151 version packs the same overproof punch. While revisiting the recipe, I also noticed that The Mai-Kai’s version had a sweetness and drinkability that was missing from the tribute. But by simply cutting in half the amount of bitters and Pernod, we achieved a sweeter and richer Jet Pilot, very close to the version served at the time. If you prefer a little more spice, check out version 3.5 below.

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Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2012. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau.
Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2012. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot, v.3.5
By The Atomic Grog (July 2012)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce rich honey mix
* 1/4 ounce falernum
* 1/4 ounce fassionola
* 3/4 ounce white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 3/4 ounce dark 151 rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 4 drops Pernod

Pulse blend for with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

Note: This update brought more sweetness from the honey and fassionola to the forefront. If you prefer something a bit more potent, check out version 3 below.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot, v.3
By The Atomic Grog, (June 2012)

* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce rich honey mix
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 1/2 teaspoon fassionola
* 3/4 ounce white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce dark 151 rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 6 drops Pernod

Pulse blend for with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

Note: A major update with the addition of a fourth rum, falernum and fassionola plus the removal of OJ and cinnamon. We learned much later, in March 2016, that The Mai-Kai does not use cinnamon syrup in any of its cocktails, so our suspicion proved to be correct.

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Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, January 2012. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, January 2012. Glassware by Tiki Kiliki / The Hukilau. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot, v.2
By The Atomic Grog (May 2012)

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
* 1 teaspoon cinnamon syrup
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 6 drops Pernod

Pulse blend for with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

Note: The addition of 151 Demerara rum really makes this cocktail take flight. Some still consider this dynamic version their favorite.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot, v.1
By The Atomic Grog (February 2012)

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce falernum
* 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
* 1 teaspoon cinnamon syrup
* 1 1/2 ounces gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 1 1/2 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 6 drops Pernod

Pulse blend for with 1 cup of crushed ice for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, adding more ice if necessary. Garnish with a speared pineapple finger.

Note: This is a viable alternative if you don’t have dark 151 rum. This was the standard before the return of Lemon Hart. It’s also a good option if you want to turn the intensity down a notch. Which is not really in the spirit of the Jet Pilot, but you’ll thank yourself in the morning.

Okole maluna!

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Social Media tributes

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Mai Kai Jet Pilot at 3PM on a Friday, because why not? No garnish, just how it’s served there, except I don’t have two little red coffee straws to drop in. Recipe comes from the one and only @theatomicgrog, and it’s a doozy: 1 lime 1/8 oz falernum 1/8 oz fassionola 3/4 oz honey mix (2:1, as all MK drinks are) 3/4 oz white PR rum (Havana Club) 3/4 oz gold PR rum (Don Q Añejo) 3/4 oz dark Jamaican rum (Coruba) 3/4 oz 151 Demerara rum (Hamilton) Dash of Ango 3 drops Pernod The ’56 Steve Crane Jet Pilot might be my favorite cocktail, and I had heard awesome things about the Mai Kai version, which differs dramatically. It was the first drink I ordered on my first visit there and I gotta say…I was disappointed. It was too sweet, tasted almost medicinal, and not at all what I was expecting. It made me worried that my drink snobbery was going to stop me from fully enjoying a classic place that I had just flown across the country by myself to visit! The 151 Swizzle I got next saved the day and every other drink I have ever had there between three visits (so just under 20 drinks ??) has been very good to great. Maybe the bartender in the back was just getting into the swing of the day since I was the first one in the door and the first drink served ??. Anyway, this tribute recipe, despite the looks of it, is really well-balanced and really really tasty. I’m looking forward to my next trip back to the Mai Kai where I’ll be giving their Jet Pilot another shot!

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Mai-Kai Jet Pilot ?? #tiki #tikidrinks #rum #maikai #atomicgrog #lairwaldorfgoestiki #tikiphilly

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17 Replies to “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors”

  1. I’ve stated this before on Tiki Central, but I think it’s interesting that the Luau’s Jet Pilot has the exact same ingredients as the ’34 Zombie from Don the Beachcomber – only the amounts of the ingredients are different.

  2. According to Beachbum Berry in “Sippin’ Safari,” Steve Crane (who owned the Luau and Kon-Tiki chain) got Donn Beach’s recipes by hiring away his bar managers. Bob and Jack Thornton had the same idea when they opened The Mai-Kai. We’re very lucky that Mariano Licudine was more creative in his re-interpretations.

  3. Thanks for the mahalo and publishing of the recipe. Let me know when you get to the Dark Magic. I have a tweaked recipe for that one too.

    Blake Sturges (aka Anestiki)

  4. I think the Mai Kai tribute jet pilot recipe is quite close, especially as there is definitely 151 in this drink. My observation, having had many jet pilots, is that the Mai Kai version is Quite red, and sometimes quite sweet -and it seems the more red the more sweet. I suspect a version of Fassionola is included? Many of their drinks seem to have this red, sweet tinge. Ideas?
    this syrup may also add to the smooth mouthfeel…

    1. Tikichaser,

      Have you had the updated version with Lemon Hart 151 yet? It’s definitely for the “fast and courageous.” The Lemon Hart’s overwhelming flavor has doused the sweetness a bit, but it’s still the same red/orange color (note that the drink looks nearly identical in the two photos above).

      Instead of straight fassionola, I suspect that it perhaps contains what old recipes call “#7”, a combination of falernum, grenadine and a few other unknown elements (some fassionola perhaps?). We’re pretty sure the 151 Swizzle contains this mysterious syrup, and if you check out my latest photos you’ll note that it’s a very similar color.

      Of course, if wouldn’t be The Mai-Kai if all the mysteries were solved.

      Okole maluna!

  5. I had to make a trip to Miami for work at the end of this past week, so I took full advantage of the opportunity to time my drive back north to put me at Mai Kai during happy hour yesterday. Had a Black Magic and a Jet Pilot. I had just had a non-LH 151 Jet pilot the month before at Hukilau, and the Lemon Hart 151 in the drink now makes ALL the difference in the world! If I didn’t have to get back to work today I could have drank those all night. Returned to all its former glory, this may well be my new favorite Mai Kai cocktail.

    Really looking forward to trying your tribute recipe — maybe tonight if I get the chance.

  6. I used the Kohala Bay rum I picked up after your “tip” to me at your Mai Kai cocktail flight. (Thanks you very much, bought 2 bottles). I made a fassionola substitute w/ my home made grenadine and Smuckers Raspberry Syrup (1/2 & 1/2) (I make the Blinker- 2 oz rye, 1 oz. grapefruit juice, 1 tsp Raspberry Syrup w/ it) . Definitely worked on the taste test. Life is good and it keeps getting better. I’m holding back on buying the Fassionola, but I know eventually I’ll have buy it and to put it up against my mix.

  7. Since this was on the 1956 drink menu as the Jet Pilot, I was curious as to whether it was the DtB recipe “Test Pilot” or what. The Bum’s Jet Pilot is preferred over the DtB Test Pilot and the Mai-Kai is closer to that than the Test Pilot, but The Bum says that is a Steven Crane recipe. Your tribute is closer to the later DtB recipe and the Luau version. I am inclined to think the Luau and Mai-Kai versions are takes on the later DtB version, which was a pre-56 version. The Mai-Kai renamed the drink the Jet Pilot and just happened to coincide with the Luau name, but not the same recipe. I confirm the honey as it was allowed to slip by a Mai-Kai insider.

  8. Ok…first of all i want to say the Mai Kai is one of my favorite places in the world. However they have changed the recipe of the Jet Pilot and I’m not sure it was for the better. I had one tonight and realized something was changed. I was able to confirm that they no longer use falernum. Our Molokai Maiden also stated that the recipe had changed recently with Mr. levy’s approval. I think the v2 recipe is the best version of the Jet Pilot..even better than the one currently served at the Mai Kai. Oh btw… I sometimes add just enough fassionola to give it a slight red color.

    1. Tonga, we’ve confirmed that the Jet Pilot was tweaked slightly and probably no longer features falernum (as of late July). Also, the fassionola was probably reduced. But we’re holding off on posting these changes above until some time goes by and we’re sure that it will remain this way. We already have more than enough variations of the Jet Pilot, but I suppose one more won’t hurt.

  9. Has anyone had the Hamilton Jamaican Black alongside Kohala Bay rum? I have had Kohala Bay at Mai Kai only in a cocktail. I’m wondering if the Hamilton Black could be used as a substitute?

    1. Donnie,

      I’ve tried the Hamilton Black and it’s got way too much of that pot-stilled funkiness to be substituted for Kohala Bay. It’s more comparable to a darker Smith & Cross, whereas Kohala Bay is closer to something like Corbua, with a little extra heat and funkiness. It’s a nice rum though.

  10. Just noticed that version 3 of Jet Pilot has a typo (14 oz of dark 151 rum). I’m assuming it’s 1/4? or is it 3/4 oz?

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