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

Updated December 2014
See below: Our Jet Pilot review | Ancestor recipes | Tribute recipes
Related: Rums of The Mai-Kai: Legendary Lemon Hart returns to the promised land
* Cocktail flights soar at Mai-Kai Mixer, reveal revolutionary use of rums
* Mai-Kai cocktail guide

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.

Test Pilot

As discussed in the review of the vintage S.O.S., 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.

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 includes many of the same ingredients as The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. But I’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 versions include the Jet Pilot served at The Luau chain in the 1950s and the Space Pilot, still served today at the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles (est. 1961).

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

Jet Pilot. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January, 2012)

Jet Pilot. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2012)

Size: Medium

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: Since the release of Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log in 1998, the Test Pilot has caught the fancy of rum and cocktail bloggers such as Blair Reynolds and Paul Clarke. Reynolds also features his version of the Jet Pilot on the menu at his acclaimed Portland Tiki bar, Hale Pele. The recipe is featured in the Summer 2014 edition of Tiki Magazine & More, which also includes another recently unearthed version of the Jet Pilot from a 1960s bar guide that was revealed on Tiki Central.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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ANCESTOR RECIPES

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

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

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

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce falernum (Fee Brothers)
* 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. If you can’t find Lemon Hart 151, use Goslings Black Seal 151, as The Mai-Kai does when the classic Demerara rum is in short supply.

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

Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2012

Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce rich honey mix (2:1 honey, water)
* 1/4 ounce falernum (Fee Brothers)
* 1/4 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
   (Kohala Bay or equivalent; see tips below)
* 3/4 ounce dark 151 rum (see below)
* 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.

December 2014 update: 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 has a sweetness and drinkability that was missing from the tribute. But by simply cutting in half the amount of bitters and Pernod, I got a sweeter and richer Jet Pilot, very close to the version currently served. If you perfer a little more spice, just go back to 2 dashes and 4 drops of the last two ingredients.

Version 3.5 was tweaked in June 2012 to bring more sweetness from the honey and fassionola to the forefront. Dial back the honey and/or fassionola if it’s too sweet for your tastes. Or, if you prefer a super strong Jet Pilot, I suggest version 3.0, which includes the same ingredients but different proportions: 3/4 ounce lime juice, 3/4 ounce honey mix, 1/2 ounce falernum, 1/2 teaspoon fassionola, 3/4 ounce white rum, 1 ounce gold rum, 3/4 ounce dark Jamaican rum, 1 ounce dark 151 rum, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, 6 drops Pernod.

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 included 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.

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 on Oct. 31. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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 15-year 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. (Lemon Hart became unavailable again in the fall of 2014, as noted above.)

But the story doesn’t end there. 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.

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 above. Without orange juice, which was in the earlier version, the drink gets its hint of fruit flavor and color from the mysterious fassionola. I dropped the cinnamon syrup and, lo and behold, the combination of rums (particularly Kohala Bay) and falernum conspire to give the illusion of cinnamon. The original recipes are included below for reference.

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 in depth 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. A more natural option to Smucker’s came to light in late 2014, when I discovered organic raspberry simple syrup from Royal Rose.

* If you still have access to Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, by all means use it in this drink. It plays well off the bold and also very potent Kohala Bay, the London-style dark Jamaican rum that was formerly known as Dagger. This key combination of dark 151 and dark Jamaican rums is used in several other of the top-rated strong drinks, such as the Zombie and 151 Swizzle. Kohala Bay is almost impossible to find outside of Florida, so I recommend substituting equal parts of Smith & Cross and El Dorado 12-year-old Demerara rum. Or in this case, you might want to just use straight Smith & Cross since there are already so many rums at play. If you can’t find Lemon Hart or Goslings 151, you may be forced to use a gold 151 rum. But make sure you use one that’s flavorful and highly rated.

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.

Okole maluna!

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Postscript

Much like the 151 Swizzle, the above recipe evolved over time. But our two original versions are fine drinks in their own right so I’ve included them below.

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

Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, January 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Jet Pilot tribute by The Atomic Grog, January 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce falernum (Fee Brothers)
* 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
   (2:1 honey, water)
* 1 teaspoon cinnamon syrup
   (rich 2:1 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 (1/8 teaspoon) 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: If you don’t have Lemon Hart, see the substitution suggestions above. Version 1 contained 1 1/2 ounces of gold rum and 1 1/2 ounces of dark rum, before the return of Lemon Hart. This is also a very viable version, especially 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.

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

  1. Arriano says:

    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. Blake Sturges says:

    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. Tikichaser says:

    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…

    • 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. Sunny&Rummy says:

    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. Brian Stamp says:

    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. Sunny&Rummy says:

    Brian, where did you find the Kohala Bay??

  8. Swanky says:

    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.

  9. Tonga Tiki says:

    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.

  10. Donnie says:

    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?

    • 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.

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