Mai-Kai cocktail review: This daiquiri is special in more ways than one

Updated September 2015
See below: Our Special Reserve Daiquiri review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Mai-Kai’s Special Reserve Daiquiri is a throwback to another era with its classic recipe and flamboyant presentation in a frozen ice shell, a lost art that the Tiki cocktail mecca has almost single-handedly helped keep alive for the past half-century.

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry enjoys a Special Reserve Daiquiri at The Hukilau in April 2012

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry enjoys a Special Reserve Daiquiri at The Hukilau in April 2012. (Photo by Harold Golen)

The daiquiri – invented in Cuba in the late 19th century and popularized at El Floridita bar in Havana – is not a complex drink. The original recipe is simply lime juice, sugar and rum (shaken, not blended). But in the hands of a master like Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, this simple sonata became a baroque symphony. Beach, who invented the tropical cocktail in the 1930s and inspired the original Mai-Kai drink menu, had an arsenal of daiquiris. One of his early recipes likely inspired the Special Reserve Daiquiri.

The high quality and authenticity of the Special Reserve Daiquiri was confirmed in April 2012 at The Hukilau, when the big kahuna of tropical mixology, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, was spotted with the drink in his hands on multiple occasions over the course of the annual Tiki fest. The author of the definitive books on the subject is known to have a soft spot for aged Appleton rum, which is the star of this cocktail.

Special Daiquiri

Click above to see the full 1957 Mai-Kai cocktail menu.

Daiquiris often get a bad rap due the bland, sweet and slushy frozen versions served on cruise ships and at tourist traps. That’s certainly not the case at The Mai-Kai (try the frosty and delicious Floridita Daiquiri or Derby Daiquiri). But if you’re looking for a real-deal daiquiri made with the style and flair of the original masters of the craft, join “The Bum” in savoring this very Special Daiquiri (that’s what it was called on the 1957 menu).

We were thus inspired to come up with the tribute recipe you find below, complete with authentic ice shell.

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The official menu description
Special Reserve Daiquiri
SPECIAL RESERVE DAIQUIRI

Smooth, 12-year-old Appleton Jamaican rum makes this the perfect man’s daiquiri.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Small

Potency: Medium

Special Reserve Daiquiri, March 2011

Special Reserve Daiquiri, March 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Flavor profile: Lime, honey, aged Appleton rum, a touch of fruit syrup.

Review: A classic sweet daiquiri with simple, strong flavors and dazzling presentation.

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

Ancestry: An original Mai-Kai cocktail from the 1956 opening, the Special Reserve Daiquiri – originally called the Special Daiquiri – can be traced back to Don’s Special Daiquiri and the earlier Mona Daiquiri, which featured aged Jamaican rum. Old Don the Beachcomber menus also show a drink called Don’s Reserve Rum Daiquiri. By 1959, The Mai-Kai’s cocktail had also added “Reserve” to its name. See the menus: 1956-57 | 1959

Bilge: The ice shell glass is the same one used for the Gardenia Lei. We got a peek at them in the freezer during our back bar tour in November 2011. The tribute recipe below includes instructions on how to make one.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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Don's Special Daiquiri by The Atomic Grog, March 2012

Don's Special Daiquiri by The Atomic Grog, March 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

ANCESTOR RECIPE
Don’s Special Daiquiri

(From Beachbum Berry Remixed)

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce honey mix
   (combine equal parts honey and water, chill)
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce light Puerto Rican rum
* 1 ounce gold Jamaican rum

Shake with ice cubes. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

This is the 1970s version of Don the Beachcomber’s 1934 Mona Daiquiri, which called for 30-year-old Myers’s Mona rum.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Special Reserve Daiquiri
By The Atomic Grog (updated December 2014)

Special Reserve Daiquiri tribute by The Atomic Grog, July 2012

Special Reserve Daiquiri tribute by The Atomic Grog, July 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
   (2 parts honey to 1 part water)
* 1/2 teaspoon fassionola (see below)
* 2 ounces Appleton Estate Extra

Pulse blend with 1/2 cup crushed ice for 3-5 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, preferably one with a custom ice shell (instructions below). If not using the special ice feature, strain into a chilled coupe with a few ice cubes to simulate its chilling and dilution effect.

This is very similar to Don’s Special Daiquiri, with just a few tweaks. It’s likely that original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine, who worked for Donn Beach from the late ’30s until he came to Fort Lauderdale in 1956, was familiar with several versions of this simple classic.

The drink’s red hue led us to believe that something other than passion fruit syrup was used as a sweetener, but grenadine didn’t seem to do the trick. We ran into the same issue with the Tahitian Breeze tribute and solved it with a small dose of fassionola, an intense red bar syrup that we believe is also used in the Cobra’s Kiss and Jet Pilot. After some tweaking of the proportions, we came up with a worthy tribute.

But to truly pay tribute to the Special Reserve Daiquiri, an authentic ice shell is absolutely necessary.

December 2014 update: The recipe was tweaked to increase the lime juice from 1/2 ounce to 3/4 ounce, and to reduce honey mix from 3/4 ounce to 1/2 ounce. The result is not as sweet and more balanced. If using a 1:1 honey mix, the previous proportions should work fine.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

Step 1 of the ice shell: Pack the glass with finely crushed ice, pressing down in the center with a spoon to create the "shell."

Step 1 of the ice shell: Pack the glass with finely crushed ice, pressing down in the center with a spoon to create the "shell." (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2012)

* The 12-year-old Appleton is a great dark Jamaican rum and gives this drink a classic flavor that most likely comes somewhat close to the long-defunct Myers’s Mona used in the Donn Beach ancestor. It’s also a rum The Mai-Kai likes to spotlight on its menu. You’ll also find it in the Shark Bite and Mai Tai. For a list of more Appleton cocktails, click here.

* Before this tribute was completed, a commenter below noted a mystery flavor, probably a result of the honey and fassionola joining forces. Fassionola – discussed in much detail in the Cobra’s Kiss and Jet Pilot reviews – is basically a complex fruit punch syrup with cherry, raspberry and orange flavors. It’s made by Jonathan English under the name Fassionola Red Syrup (Tropical Gold Fruit). Unfortunately, this stuff is difficult to find (we located a bottle on eBay), but there’s a very good substitute. Simply combine equal parts grenadine (a dark, rich brand such as Fee Brothers works best) and Smucker’s Red Raspberry Syrup. It yields the perfect combination of flavor and color. An alternative to Smucker’s is raspberry simple syrup from Royal Rose, which I recently found at a Total Wine store. It’s 100 percent organic and contains no chemical preservatives, added colors or artificial flavors. You can also find more discussion of fassionola on Tiki Central.

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Step 2: After slightly thawing, slide the shell up and pack the glass with more ice before returning to the freezer

Step 2: After slightly thawing, slide the shell up and pack the glass with more ice before returning to the freezer. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2012)

The ice shell

If you want a truly authentic experience, give an ice shell a try. I found great instructions in Beachbum Berry’s books as well as this post by Mai-Kai expert Tim “Swanky” Glazner on his SwankPad.org blog, which I’ve taken from liberally in the instructions below.

* First, make sure you have the right glass. It can’t be too deep and it needs a rounded bottom. The bottom of the glass will serve as the base of the shell as it’s frozen. A 5-ounce stemmed cocktail glass should work fine. The Mai-Kai uses a specialty glass without the stem, but as long as it’s the right size and shape, you should be OK.

* Finely crushed ice is essential. It can’t bee too chunky and has to have an almost sno-cone-like consistency. I used a similar ice to make the Navy Grog ice cone. I have this ice crusher from Deni, which works fine. For normal crushed ice for drinks, I like the Waring Pro, which makes chunkier ice in larger quantities. If you’re planning on making shells on a larger scale, Swanky recommends the Oster Sno-Flake.

Step 3: All the effort is worthwhile when you can pour your classic cocktail into your freshly frozen ice shell

Step 3: All the effort is worthwhile when you can pour your classic cocktail into your freshly frozen ice shell. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, July 2012)

* Pack the glass with crushed ice (see Step 1 photo above), pressing down on the inside with the back of a spoon to create a bowl effect. Make sure the entire inside of the glass is covered and that the layer of ice is thick (but not too thick) and consistent. Put the glass in a freezer for several hours to overnight, making sure it gets good and hard.

* Remove the glass and let sit at room temperature for around 5 minutes, or until the shell starts to become loose from the glass. The shell should remain intact if it was properly packed in Step 1. Swanky’s tip is to also warm the glass with your hands, though I didn’t need to do this with my thin cocktail glass. Once it’s free, just slide the shell up toward the edge of the glass and pack it with more finely-crushed ice. This should keep the shell in place in its final position (see Step 2 photo above). Pack down the ice in the glass with a spoon tightly, creating another bowl where you’ll pour the drink. Freeze the glass in a safe spot in your freezer. I left it overnight to make sure it got very solid. Just make sure it’s protected since it can be fragile. I had something fall in my freezer and crush my first attempt.

* After preparing your cocktail, just remove your glass from the freezer and pour (see Step 3 photo above). The frozen shell should be good and solid … and worthy of this vintage drink. There’s nothing like a classic cocktail in a classic presentation.

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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5 Responses to Mai-Kai cocktail review: This daiquiri is special in more ways than one

  1. Sunny&Rummy says:

    Damn, that is a just plain awesome drink. When I was sipping one of these during Swanky’s Hukilau seminar and saw Jeff drinking the very same thing . . . well, that was pretty cool!

  2. Sunny&Rummy says:

    Interestingly. . . this is a Mai Kai cocktail that my wife and I both LOVE, but we have differing opinions on the ingredients that contribute to the flavor profile. I think the Beachcomber Ancestor Recipe is pretty much spot on, but my wife swears there is a subtle coconut flavor element in the Mai Kai Special Reserve Daiquiri that is not present in the Don’s Special Daiquiri when I mix that up at home. Can you shed any light on this, and is there a Tribute recipe in the offing that might point me in the direction of the hidden flavor element my wife is tasting?

  3. Hmmm, that’s an interesting question/proposal. We’ll have to revisit the Special Reserve Daiquiri and see if we can come up with a tribute recipe.

    The wild card is the mystery ingredient that gives the drink its distinctive red hue. Perhaps there’s coconut lurking in there somewhere.

    Mahalo!

  4. Steve says:

    I found Don’s Original ancestor recipe to be too sweet. The Tribute was also a bit sweet, especially with smooth 12 YO Appleton Rare. I ended up with a more daiquiri-like cocktail with the recipe below. The white rum reduces the overall sweetness, and with a 27% ABV, it better simulates a served up daiquiri.
    1 Coruba Dark (Jamaica 80 proof)
    1 Trader Vic’s Silver (WI 80 proof)
    ½ fresh lime juice
    ¼ honey syrup (orig ½)
    ¼ passion fruit syrup (Trader Vic’s) orig ½
    shake, pour up martini, ice sliver

    • Steve, nice alternate recipe. Mahalo.

      If anyone finds either the ancestor or tribute recipe too sweet, I’d also suggest adding a few dashes of bitters. Angostura and other variations (such as ‘Elemakule Tiki Bitters) can immediately balance a sweet Tiki drink.

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