Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you’re ‘Passionate’ about tropical drinks, this one’s for you

Updated October 2019

See below: Our Piña Passion review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe NEW
Related: What says ‘Tiki’ better than a drink served in a pineapple?
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

One of the most iconic images of the tropical drink is a vessel made from a hollowed-out pineapple. This over-the-top cocktail experience has been perfected at The Mai-Kai with the classic Piña Passion.

The Mai-Kai's Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Mai-Kai’s Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Piña Passion is served in a fresh pineapple that guests can take home. The one exception is during happy hour in The Molokai bar, when you’ll have to settle for having the drink in an old fashioned glass.

If you ever get a chance to take a peek into The Mai-Kai’s main service bar, tucked way behind the kitchen and hidden from guests, you’ll find cases of pineapples awaiting their fate. [See photo]

Drinks in pineapples were staples on tropical-themed cocktail menus across the country during Tiki’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. You can still find them at old-school establishments such as San Francisco’s Tonga Room (est. 1945) and Chicago’s temple of Witco, Hala Kahiki (est 1966). In the Hawaiian language, a pineapple is called “hala kahiki.”

A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

Even in the dark days of Tiki in the 1970s and ’80s, pineapple drinking vessels remained essential on cruise ships and resorts in exotic locales. They go hand-in-hand with the concept of a tropical paradise.

They’re not as easy to find at today’s smaller Tiki and craft cocktail bars, which tend to favor traditional glassware and ceramic mugs. But this is changing in a big way thanks to a new breed of craftsmen who are taking Tiki hospitality to a whole new level.

At Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, one of the most popular events presented by owner Martin Cate and his team is Domingo de Piña (Pineapple Sunday), which features a selection of cocktails served in pineapples. We recommend Cate’s book – Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016) – for more in-depth info and recipes for several tasty drinks served in pineapples.

There's nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)

There’s nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)

Italy’s Daniele Dalla Pola, who built upon the success of his Nu Lounge Bar to open Esotico Miami in August 2019, is also a big proponent of the spiky fruit. His new exotic bar and restaurant features both food and drink served in fresh pineapples. At The Hukilau 2017, he presented two Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classes called “Pineapple Paradise” with information and advanced techniques on using the hospitable fruit in tropical drinks.

Of course, the pineapple is iconic as the worldwide symbol of hospitality. It was so sought-after in colonial times that people would rent them for a day to use as a party decoration. Considered the world’s most exotic fruit, pineapples were brought back to Europe by Columbus and other explorers. George Washington praised the fruit in his diary, noting that among his favorite foods, “none pleases my tastes” like a pineapple.

Because of their scarcity and high price, pineapples were typically served only to prestigious guests, and even those who could not afford them picked up on the image to share the sentiment of a special welcome. Towns, inns and households began displaying images of the pineapple to convey a sense of welcoming. You can find pineapple images on historic buildings around the world.

Pi Yi

While associated with tropical islands, pineapples originally came from South America. Today, a third of the crop (and more than half of canned pineapple) comes from Hawaii, cementing the link to Polynesian culture. They may have arrived on the island in the 16th century, but large scale production didn’t begin until the late 1800s.

Like the majority of cocktails on the menu at the Fort Lauderdale Tiki mecca, the Piña Passion owes its existence to tropical drink pioneer Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber. His Pi Yi is the obvious ancestor, with the same combination of pineapple and passion fruit juices complementing an exotic mix of sweet syrups and rums. Below you’ll find an authentic Pi Yi recipe.

But Don the Beachcomber and The Mai-Kai weren’t the only Polynesian Palaces serving up tasty cocktails in pineapples. You can find quite a few recipes in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s essential Tiki cocktail books and app. Among our favorites are Pineapple Paradise from the Hawaiian Room in the Hotel Lexington in New York City; and Piña Paradise from Sam Denning’s Club Luau in Miami.

In the 1950s and '60s, guests at The Mai-Kai were welcomed in the Surfboard Bar and seated on pineapple barstools. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

In the 1950s and ’60s, guests at The Mai-Kai were welcomed in the Surfboard Bar and seated on pineapple barstools. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

Beyond The Mai-Kai, there’s historically one other notable Florida Tiki location known for its potent rum cocktail served in a pineapple. Since the 1970s, visitors to Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort have flocked to Tambu Lounge for a taste of the iconic Lapu Lapu, which may seem mild but includes a healthy floater of 151 rum.

When The Mai-Kai opened in 1956, its Surfboard Bar featured a Disney-esque diorama that portrayed a Polynesian village, complete with a campfire and daily sunrise and sunset, writes Tim “Swanky” Glazner in his 2016 book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant. Guests sat at the bar, which was made from surfboards brought back from Hawaii, on distinctive pineapple barstools.

The pineapple barstools and Surfboard Bar are long gone. The Molokai was added in 1958 and the Surboard was removed in a 1970 dining room expansion. But the Piña Passion remains, serving as a beacon of The Mai-Kai’s commitment to hospitality and historic tropical cocktails.

The Piña Passion is front-and-center in this early postcard photo taken in the Surfboard Bar. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

The Piña Passion is front-and-center in this early postcard photo taken in the Surfboard Bar. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

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The official menu description
Piña Passion
Piña Passion
Icily refreshing. A thirst-quenching concoction of rums and juices, served in a fresh pineapple you can take home.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Medium

Piña Passion

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

Flavor profile: Pineapple, passion fruit, gold rum, a hint of bitters.

Review: A perfect combination of sweet and tart juices, with a touch of rum and addictive underlying creamy sweetness balanced by a dash or two of bitters.

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

Ancestry: One of many drinks dating back to opening day in 1956, Piña Passion is The Mai-Kai’s version of Don the Beachcomber’s Pi Yi.

Bilge: Hawaii still dominates the U.S. market, but China is the world’s leading pineapple producer. Florida also produces pineapples, but not enough to be considered a market leader.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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ANCESTOR RECIPE

Pi Yi

Pi Yi, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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

* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce honey cream mix (see below)
or rich honey syrup
* 1/2 ounce fassionola (see below)
or real pomegranate grenadine
* 1 ounce passion fruit juice
* 3 ounces pineapple juice
* 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 1 dash falernum

Blend with 1/2 cup of crushed ice for 15-20 seconds. Serve in a hollowed-out pineapple. Our Mixology Monday post during The Pegu Blog’s 2012 Tiki Month provides a step-by-step guide to turning a fresh pineapple into a drinking vessel (see photo below).

I made a few slight tweaks to the recipe from the Hawai’i book, plus some substitution recommendations below. The Pi Yi is more complex and features a darker rum profile, but it’s very similar to the Piña Passion.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

How to core a pineapple

* Honey cream mix pops up from time to time in old Don the Beachcomber recipes (see Pearl Diver’s Punch, Don’s Pearl and Mystery Gardenia). Combine equal parts of sweet, unsalted butter and honey after heating them separately in the microwave. Whisk until blended and use immediately. A rich honey mix (2:1 honey to water) is fine as a substitute, just not quite as creamy (or authentic).

* Fassionola is discussed in depth in our Cobra’s Kiss review. It’s an intensely fruity syrup (mainly orange and cherry) found mostly in old-school recipes. One of our readers suggested a very viable alternative to this hard-to-find ingredient: Mix equal parts grenadine and Smucker’s Red Raspberry Syrup. It provides the same flavor burst and added color.

* Passion fruit juice is typically easy to find in Florida (Ceres is a good brand), but other areas of the country may not be so lucky. Canned passion fruit nectar (such as the Goya brand), which has added sugar and is a bit more intense, might be more readily available. There are a lot of sweet flavors at play here, so you may want to adjust to suit your tastes.

* Rums can also be adjusted to boost the intensity. Spanish-style gold and dark Jamaican rums are two of the most popular styles on early Tiki menus, a tradition carried on at The Mai-Kai. Experiment with your favorites to find the right balance. We suggest starting with Don Q gold and Coruba Dark, then moving up to more intense rums (such as Cruzan Single Barrel Estate and Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black) if your taste buds desire.

* Falernum and Angostura bitters are Don the Beachcomber staples, so it’s no surprise they appear here.

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NEW: Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Piña Passion
By The Atomic Grog (October 2019)

Piña Passion tribute by The Atomic Grog, September 2019. Flaming Tiki swizzle stick by Grider Adventure Art. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Piña Passion tribute by The Atomic Grog, September 2019. Flaming Tiki swizzle stick by Grider Adventure Art. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 3/4 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 3/4 ounce rich honey mix
* 1 ounce white Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounce lightly aged gold rum
* 1-2 dashes Angostura bitters

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5-8 seconds. Pour into a hollowed-out pineapple or old fashioned glass.
* Our step-by-step guide to coring a fresh pineapple

A slightly stripped-down version of the Pi Yi, yet still full of nuanced flavors, treading the line between simple and complex. The pineapple and passion fruit flavors stand out, as they should in a drink so named. The honey and bitters are less up-front but still easy to distinguish. The rum is merely a whisper, but it works in the context of all the other flavors. A prototype approachable Tiki drink.

This is a long-awaited, forever-in-the-works tribute recipe that I originally thought was unnecessary since the Piña Passion seemed to be so close to the Pi Yi. But upon repeated tastings I determined that it deserved its own unique treatment.

As we’ve detailed elsewhere in this guide, Mariano Licudine, the original Mai-Kai mixologist from 1956 to 1979, distinguished himself by elevating Don the Beachcomber’s recipes to a new level in Fort Lauderdale under the guidance of owners Bob and Jack Thornton. In some cases, such as this one, that involved stripping out extraneous ingredients and concentrating on the core flavors. That approach works flawlessly here.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Like most of the rest of the world, The Mai-Kai uses canned Dole pineapple juice in its drinks. While the kitchen and bar crew put fresh pineapples to good use as a garnish and in delicious dishes, the amount of juice produced would never be enough to keep up with the high volume of cocktails coming out of The Molokai and main service bar. I prefer Dole’s refrigerated carton to the can, and when I core a pineapple I like to add at least 1/2 ounce of fresh juice to the mix to brighten the drink.

Dole's refrigerated cartons are your best bet when making tropical drinks that call for fresh pineapple juice. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Dole’s refrigerated cartons are your best bet when making tropical drinks that call for fresh pineapple juice. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* If you ever notice a decidedly tart lime flavor in The Mai-Kai’s cocktails, it’s because the bar uses a distinctive key lime blend. To duplicate the flavor, we recommend equal parts of bottled key lime juice and fresh-squeezed Persian lime juice.
* Tiki Central: Detailed guide to The Mai-Kai’s juices

* The Mai-Kai’s passion fruit syrup is extra rich and tart, a house blend that’s hard to duplicate. The closest I’ve come is the recipe in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari. Among the bottled options, the Aunty Lilikoi and Small Hand Foods brands are the best, but they can be pricey to ship. Among the budget brands, we recommend Monin and Finest Call.

* While honey cream is featured in a handful of drinks at The Mai-Kai, this isn’t one of them. Instead, the more straightforward honey mix (2 parts orange blossom honey to 1 part water) is included in this and many others. We counted 23 drinks using honey mix before our “How To Mix Like The Mai-Kai” class at The Hukilau 2018. By comparison, there are an estimated 15 using passion fruit syrup and eight using pineapple juice. Lime juice shows up in a whopping 46 recipes while Angostura bitters appears in 19, our research showed.

* Another common Mai-Kai cocktail ingredient is the white Spanish-style rum that holds down the fort as the base spirit in an estimated 39 recipes. For the most part, this is the bar’s workhorse well rum that’s used to add body but not necessarily flavor. Currently, the Ron Castillo brand (a bulk rum from Bacardi) is featured, but feel free to substitute a higher-end Bacardi, Don Q, Cruzan or other budget-friendly mixing rum. This drink’s hint of rum flavor should come from the lightly aged gold rum, likely another well rum from Ron Castillo or perhaps an aged rum from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (both Cruzan 5-year-old and Brugal Anejo are used in The Mai-Kai’s well). Note that the Pi Yi featured on the Don the Beachcomber menu at the top of this page refers to “light Cuban rums,” which would yield a similar flavor profile. But I swear I can taste a bit of Jamaican funk, though not quite as strong as the ancestor recipe above. So I like to use an approachable gold Jamaican rum such as J. Wray Gold or Appleton Estate Signature Blend in my Piña Passion.
* Related: Appleton master blender Joy Spence’s rum tasting at The Mai-Kai

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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9 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you’re ‘Passionate’ about tropical drinks, this one’s for you

  1. Brad Stroden says:

    Question: how much of the Pat O’Briens powder are you adding to the half ounce of water? I just got some in the mail to use in this and the Cobras Kiss, but I can’t find any proportions. Thanks!

    • Brad,

      I haven’t experimented with the proportions, but I’d suggest starting with a mix that’s twice as intense as the package suggests. From my experience, the O’Brien’s mix is too thin.

  2. Kala says:

    Someone posted this recipe on tikiroom several years ago saying it’s the Piña Passion recipe. I don’t know if it’s accurate at all, but it sure is delicious. And it does share several ingredients as Pi Yi.

    http://www.tikiroom.com/tikicentral/bb/viewtopic.php?topic=5286&forum=10&vpost=217677

  3. Steve says:

    The ABV on this one is just over 10%, mostly a fruit mix. The Ceres “Passion Fruit Juice” in my locale is mostly pear juice per the Ingredients (smells and tastes like). This cocktail needs lots of help, a tribute is, I believe in order. Looks like they threw a lot of ingredients into a top notch presentation (a real pineapple), and failed the arguable proper tiki cokctail ABV test of 20 – 30%.

  4. Surfboard Bar was around until 1970 when the big renovations took it out for more and better show seating. Molokai came along in 1958 as a second bar.

  5. Arriano says:

    It’s unfortunate that in several cases the only published recipes for some Don the Beachcomber recipes is that Arnold Bittner book. I don’t think they’re accurate, even if he did marry Don’s widow. I would argue that your Mai Kai tribute recipe is likely to be a lot closer to what Don served.

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