Updated Sept. 25, 2016
As of September 2016, The Mai-Kai has begun using the latest reboot of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, the iconic mixing rum from Guyana. This dark overproof spirit, which disappeared from the U.S. market in mid-2014, was reintroduced this summer.
* Tiki Central: Latest updates on Lemon Hart’s return
* Official sites: LemonHartRum.com | Facebook
During the two-year absence, Hamilton 151 rum stepped up to fill the void, to much acclaim. At the same time, Hamilton 86 also became the standard-proof Demerara rum of choice at The Mai-Kai and elsewhere. While some bars have chosen to stick with Hamilton across the board, The Mai-Kai is splitting the difference: Lemon Hart 151 is being poured alongside Hamilton 86. There is no 80-proof Lemon Hart available in the states.
Coming soon: Our head-to-head review of the new Lemon Hart 151 vs. Hamilton 151, plus updates on The Mai-Kai’s cocktails featuring 151 rum from Guyana.
UPDATE BELOW: Appleton replaces Kohala Bay at The Mai-Kai
More Appleton cocktails
Related: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
Following is a list of the drinks at The Mai-Kai using Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums. As of September 2016, Lemon Hart was being used as the 151 pour and Hamilton 86 as the standard-proof poor (see updates at the top of this article). The links will connect you with reviews and vintage recipes. Many are due for updates, so stay tuned.
Guyana rum drinks at The Mai-Kai
151 Swizzle (151 proof)
Bora Bora (86 proof)
Jet Pilot (151 proof)
K.O. Cooler (151 and 86 proof)
Martinique Milk Punch (86 proof)
Oh So Deadly (86 proof)
Shrunken Skull (151 proof)
Sidewinder’s Fang (86 proof)
S.O.S. (86 proof)
Special Planters Punch (151 proof)
Yeoman’s Grog (86 proof)
Zombie (151 proof)
Retired cocktails featuring Demerara rum
In addition to the current drinks listed above, you can also sample a few recipes for drinks that are no longer featured on The Mai-Kai menu. Both of these have made comebacks at special events, so you never know when they will return for an encore.
Demerara Cocktail | Demerara Float
Hamilton rums from Guyana fill the Lemon Hart gap
In May 2014, when U.S. importer Ed Hamilton announced that Lemon Hart’s brand owner had decided not to bottle any more of the iconic 151 Demerara rum until at least the middle of 2015, he made a prophetic prediction: “I’m working on obtaining another overproof rum that will work in many of the cocktails you love.” Boy, did he deliver on that promise.
In January 2015, Hamilton’s Caribbean Spirits brought to market two new rums that made many Tiki cocktail enthusiasts in the United States quickly forget the latest Lemon Hart crisis. Distilled and aged on the banks of the Demerara River, these two new expressions (86 and 151 proof respectively), are a unique blend of rums distilled by Demerara Distillers in Guyana, which produces all of the world’s Demerara rums, including Lemon Hart and the distillery’s own El Dorado brand.
Demerara rums, particularly the bold and flavorful 151 rum, are the key ingredient in many classic tropical drinks. They have unique flavor notes that shine in Tiki cocktails: Rich and smoky with hints of dark fruit, tobacco, and spice. Hamilton 151 Overproof and Hamilton 86 proof, part of Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Collection, are quickly filling the gap left by Lemon Hart’s disappearance.
The Mai-Kai quickly joined other notable Tiki cocktail bars – Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco), Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 (New Orleans), Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake (Chicago) – in adopting the Hamilton brand as its go-to Demerera-style rum. Berry, also a respected Tiki cocktail historian and author, was quoted as calling it “a lovely rum you can sip or use in cocktails.” In an interview with Eater.com, he said: “It takes you on this journey, you get tastes that range from cigar to chocolate to caramelized fruit to that charred wood, smoky taste. There are so many things going on. It’s a lush, rich pour and reasonably priced. I like that it’s 86 proof, which gives a more concentrated taste.” Hamilton showed his appreciation for Berry’s influence on the rum’s popularity by including a shout-out on the label. [See photo]
The Hamilton rums from Guyana are a blend of pot and continuous still rums, according to the Caribbean Spirits website. Hamilton said on his Ministry of Rum website that the youngest rum is more than 18 months and the oldest is less than 5 years. Demerara Distillers is famous for its wide range of column and pot stills, some dating back hundreds of years. The distillery’s historic wooden pot and column stills are the last of their kind operating in the world. Beyond the unique distillery, Demerara rums get their distinctive flavor from the molasses from the venerable Guyanese sugar mill, which contains one of the highest sugar contents of any molasses in the Caribbean.
The rum is imported by Hamilton’s Caribbean Spirits in bulk containers and bottled at Five & 20 Distillery in Westfield, N.Y. The first shipments went out to distributors in January 2015. Hamilton personally introduced it to The Mai-Kai at the end of January, and it was almost immediately put into use in all the classic cocktails that formerly contained Lemon Hart (see list above).
After the Lemon Hart supply dried up in late October 2014, The Mai-Kai had been using Gosling’s Black Seal 151 rum from Bermuda and 80-proof El Dorado Superior Dark from Guyana. But the Hamilton rums were a clear step up from those and, in some cases, superior to Lemon Hart. The Hamilton rums have the same smokiness and complexity, but also seem to be a little less polished, which can be a good thing in sweet Tiki drinks. The 151 rum especially packs a slightly harder punch, while Lemon Hart 151 is just a bit mellower. In the end, it’s a toss-up, but those who prefer their rum to be slightly more aggressive will enjoy mixing with the Hamilton rums.
After the original batch of rum was shipped, however, a legal issue forced Hamilton to change the wording on the labels. A new batch of rum with the current “Demerara River” label did not go out until April, but luckily The Mai-Kai was well stocked and never ran out of its supply. You may notice bottles with the original label in photos on The Atomic Grog and elsewhere. The problem apparently was the use of the trademarked name “Demerara Rum,” but the issue was resolved.
Background: The saga of Lemon Hart 151
Until recently, Lemon Hart was the only Demerara brand with a 151 rum that provided the correct flavor profile needed for the original Zombie and many other ground-breaking drinks created in the early days of Tiki by Prohibition-era rum-runner and pioneering tropical mixologist Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber. In fact, if you check most the vintage recipes unearthed by historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (published in his outstanding books and Total Tiki app), you’ll see references to Lemon Hart 151 with the disclaimer: “No substitutions.” But it’s clear that Hamilton 151 rum is now an exception to that rule.
“While I didn’t try to match the flavor profile exactly to that of the latest batch of Lemon Hart 151, I consider this to be a better substitute for Lemon Hart 151, a view that has been shared by a few people who run Tiki bars,” Hamilton wrote on the Tiki Central message board. “This is a blend of aged, up to five years, pot and column still rum from DDL, the distillers of Lemon Hart and all of the El Dorado rums we know and love.”
But despite its current popularity among Tiki cocktail enthusiasts, a rum like Hamilton 151 or Lemon Hart 151 wasn’t always so easily available. During the dark days of tropical mixology (aka the 1980s), Lemon Hart began disappearing just as quickly as the vintage Tiki bars that served it in cocktails. By the mid-1990s, even The Mai-Kai – one of the last bars in the world to serve the original secret recipes of Don the Beachcomber – had discontinued using the obscure and nearly extinct Lemon Hart 151. In the ensuing years, tropical mixology has enjoyed an ongoing renaissance, pushed to even greater heights by a booming classic cocktail revival.
And with the revival came a new demand for Lemon Hart 151. The El Dorado range of Demerara rums was launched in 1992, but the Lemon Hart brand lagged behind. It seemed to trickle out to consumers in fits and starts. The unique 151 rum attained near mythical status in Tiki cocktail circles and became an endless topic of discussion on Tiki Central. Some shared their discoveries of locations where you could find the rare elixir like modern-day treasure hunters, while others bought cases to hoard as if preparing for the apocalypse. I can’t disagree with the mania since I recently placed Lemon Hart 151 at the top of my rum ratings.
Amid this revival, a newly repackaged and re-branded Lemon Hart 151 began flowing into the U.S. again in March 2011, thanks to Hamilton. [See story]. He added it to the small portfolio of rums he had been importing since 2005. His boutique labels garnered him a small amount of acclaim, but by picking up the Lemon Hart mantle in the U.S., he became an instant hero in tropical drink circles.
Both Lemon Hart 151 and a special 80-proof blend returned to the bars of The Mai-Kai in late April 2012, just after a Florida distributor was secured. The reliable flow of Lemon Hart returned The Mai-Kai’s cocktails to their original recipes for the first time in decades. The 11 drinks that once featured Lemon Hart were quickly restored to their original splendor. The return of Lemon Hart in 2012 was ballyhooed on this blog, where we noted that the rum elevated some of the Tiki drink mecca’s most popular cocktails to even greater heights. [See story]
Thanks to Berry and his research, The Atomic Grog has been able to document in The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide the direct connection between The Mai-Kai’s cocktails and those Donn Beach classics. [See full breakdown] When brothers Bob and Jack Thornton opened The Mai-Kai in 1956, they tapped longtime Don the Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine to create their cocktail menu.
Longtime managing owner Dave Levy, stepson of founder Bob Thornton, says that the brothers made a concerted effort to not have their cocktails be exact copies of Donn Beach’s. He said that Bob worked with Mariano to tweak and adjust all the recipes, resulting in what some consider a menu even better than the revered Don the Beachcomber. In most cases, the drinks are more accessible and user-friendly. For nearly 60 years, those iconic drinks have kept regulars and tourists flocking to The Mai-Kai year after year, an attraction arguably second only to the restaurant’s legendary Polynesian Islander Revue.
A key aspect of these drinks is the particular rums that impart unique tastes. High on this list are the distinctive Demerara rums with their rich, smoky flavor. When The Mai-Kai’s Lemon Hart stock ran dry in October 2014, the bars adapted by swapping out Gosling’s Black Seal 151 and El Dorado Superior Dark. The drinks were still the same high-caliber classics. After all, these are iron-clad, time-tested recipes. But some hardcore fans noticed an extra punch of flavor missing in some of the cocktails featuring the 151 rum.
The arrival of the Hamilton rums from Guyana made any arguments moot. Now, in mid-2016 with Lemon Hart back on the market, there are suddenly multiple choices for bartenders when mixing classic Tiki cocktails. It’s not a bad problem to have.
Coming soon: A review of the new Lemon Hart 151, plus a head-to-head comparison vs. Hamilton 151 and the two previous Lemon Hart releases.
See also: The Atomic Grog’s review of Hamilton 86 from Guyana
APPLETON RESERVE IS NEW STAND-IN FOR KOHALA BAY RUM
September 2016 update: With the odds growing that Kohala Bay may never return, at least in its last incarnation, The Mai-Kai has entered a second month featuring Appleton Estate Reserve Blend in all cocktails that formerly called for the distinctive dark Jamaican rum. While plans are afoot to bring a new dark Jamaican rum to market especially for The Mai-Kai, longtime rum partner Appleton seems to be the best short-term solution. There are other recommended substitutes (see below) for home mixologists, but in the interest of providing updated reviews for guests of The Mai-Kai, here’s our take on how the drinks that formerly featured Kohala Bay now stack up (updated Sept. 19):
* Different, but in a good way. Appleton Estate Reserve works well in these drinks, though you will notice a difference if you’re familiar with the funky 87.6-proof Kohala Bay. The rich flavor and added sophistication of the 80-proof Reserve give these give drinks a welcome new twist:
151 Swizzle | Bora Bora | Jet Pilot | Oh So Deadly | Tiki Swizzle
* Missing the funk. While Appleton Reserve is a quality rum, it lacks the funkiness and higher proof punch that Kohala Bay brought to these signature cocktails. The difference is noticeable in these four drinks:
Barrel O’ Rum | Black Magic | Cobra’s Kiss | Mutiny
August 2016 update: Still no progress during the dog days of summer that’s now known as the great Kohala Bay outage of 2016. With distribution of the distinctive dark Jamaican rum halted until further notice, The Mai-Kai continues to struggle with a replacement. As of Aug. 1, the latest rum to fill the void is Appleton Estate Reserve Blend (formerly Appleton Estate Reserve). This high-end rum from Wray & Newphew distillery lacks the funk of the darker (and higher proof) Kohala Bay, but it works well in most of the cocktails that call for a dark Jamaican rum.
April 2016 update: As of mid-April 2016, Kohala Bay ceased distribution in the U.S., reportedly for several months. The Mai-Kai’s manager, Kern Mattei, reported that the supply line was cut off at the distillery, and that no new shipments were expected through their distributor. By mid-June, most of the South Florida retail outlets have also run dry.
Here’s our original report on Kohala Bay:
THE MAI-KAI KEEPS JAMAICAN ‘PUNCH BRAND’ RUM ALIVE AND WELL
Demerara rums aren’t the only obscure, distinctive and delicious spirits mixed in The Mai-Kai’s cocktails. According to legend, a rum known as “Dagger” was a key ingredient in many classic tropical drinks. But until recently, we didn’t know much about this long-defunct product. As it turns out, a rum still exists with a similar flavor profile, but it’s very hard to find.
Dagger Punch was a proprietary dark Jamaican rum produced by Wray & Nephew. It was a 97-proof rum with a distinctive funky (in a good way), woody flavor that was very popular in cocktails. But production reportedly ended in the 1950s. So what replaced it? We found out during our November 2011 back-bar tour of The Mai-Kai. General Manager Kern Mattei showed us a bottle of Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum, reportedly the remnants of the old Dagger brand. Note that both labels use the distinctive “punch brand” designation.
* Listen to a vintage Dagger Punch radio ad from Jamaica
Kohala Bay – distilled and blended in Kingston, Jamaica, at 87.6 proof – isn’t as strong as Dagger but still packs a punch. The label touts that it comes from “the fertile valley of the black river parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. … Here, Kohala Bay is hand-blended slowly, carefully, and in small batches.” Besides being lower proof, it’s reportedly sweeter than the original Dagger. But that’s a small quibble. It shines in vintage Mai-Kai recipes, keeping them faithful to Mariano Licudine’s original vision.
Finding this elusive rum was not easy, however. We discovered that it was imported only to Florida, so we tracked down the importer in March 2011 and discovered that only two bars (The Mai-Kai and a Miami Beach hotel) and one retail outlet had ordered the product. Miraculously, the south Miami package store still had bottles on the shelf, and the owner was happy to order more for us. Availability elsewhere was sketchy, but over the course of several years (aided in part by this blog and postings on Tiki Central) it appeared at other Florida retail outlets, one of which offered mail order. We even heard reports of it being introduced elsewhere in the U.S.
Sadly, however, with the outage that has stretched into the fall of 2016, the supply has apparently dried up.
* Check this Tiki Central thread for updates
Kohala Bay is very similar to a traditional London Dock style of Jamaican rum such as Smith & Cross, but with darker and bolder flavors. You can approach the Dagger/Kohala Bay taste by combining equal parts Smith & Cross and El Dorado 12-year-old Demerara rum. This combination has the same sweet, smooth and earthy notes but lacks just a bit of the intensity and deep flavors of Kohala Bay. Check below for other recommended substitutions.
Here are The Mai-Kai’s cocktails, rated from highest to lowest, that formerly featured Kohala Bay:
* 151 Swizzle*
* Special Planters Punch*
* Barrel O’ Rum
* Cobra’s Kiss
* Jet Pilot*
* Yeoman’s Grog*
* Black Magic
* Oh So Deadly*
* Bora Bora*
* Tiki Swizzle
This list contains 10 strong drinks, one medium and one mild. And it’s interesting to note that seven of these (* noted) also include dark 151 rum from Guyana. This combination of high-proof dark Jamaican and overproof Demerara is a great combination of potent and flavor-packed rums that dates back to Don the Beachcomber and the early days of Tiki.
Recommended Kohala Bay substitutions
Updated Sept. 25
1 – Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum and El Dorado 12 Demerara rum (equal parts). This remains the preferred substitute. Richer and not quite as fiery as Kohala Bay, but excellent as a mixer in all of the above cocktails.
2 – (Tie) – Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum and Appleton Estate Reserve Blend. A logical alternative to straight Appleton Reserve, this newly recommended mix features the funky flavors of the 114-proof Navy-style rum, its rough edges smoothed out by the mellower Appleton. It simply lacks the complexity and some of the intense flavors of our No. 1 choice.
2 – (Tie) – Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum and Myers’s dark Jamaican rum and Gosling’s 151 rum (equal parts). An alternate mix that achieves the right amount of heat with the 114- and 151-proof rums included, plus a slightly more aggressive flavor than the other No. 2 pick. It’s in the ballpark flavorwise but falls just a little short in depth and complexity.
3 – Coruba Original Jamaican rum. Very close to Kohala Bay in flavor and body, which makes sense since it likely comes from the same distillery. Probably the easiest substitute, but at 80 proof it lacks some of the punch.
4 – Denizen Merchant’s Reserve. Another excellent Jamaican rum with close to the same proof (86). It’s not quite as dark but it comes close in flavor and body, though it has a funkier back end. Unfortunately, distribution is not widespread.
5 – Appleton Estate Reserve Blend. Often overlooked as part of the venerable Appleton Estate suite of rums that includes the high-end dark Appleton Estate 12 and the versatile gold Signature Blend (aka V/X). Like Coruba, its’s produced at the same distillery (Wray & Nephew) that’s responsible for Kohala Bay, so there are some similarities. It works well in many Mai-Kai cocktails and is readily available, which is why it’s the current substitute at the restaurant’s bars. If you don’t have access to the other options above, this is not a bad choice.
See below: More on Appleton cocktails
6 – (Tie) – Bacardi Black and Ron Carlos Black were both used by The Mai-Kai out of necessity when Kohala Bay’s supply first ran out. They could not get Coruba from their distributor, and the blends are not feasible considering the high volume of rum they require. Bacardi has an overall similar flavor and body, but it lacks the punch (and funk) of Kohala Bay. Ron Carlos is similar, but even more low-key. It’s fine as a general mixer (and probably used elsewhere on the menu), but it falls short as a Kohala Bay stand-in. Use either of these only in a pinch.
Not recommended: Myers’s and another Jamaican rum, Blackwell, just don’t measure up on their own. Myers’s has its own distinctive flavor, heavier on the molasses and dark brown sugar. Blackwell also leans toward the dark side, but it has more vanilla and caramel notes leading the way. It’s a decent rum, just not the same flavor as Kohala Bay.
JAMAICA’S APPLETON: THE MAI-KAI’S GO-TO PREMIUM RUM
Not all the best rums are rare or obscure. Perhaps the most popular and recognized Jamaican rum brand, Appleton, is also the most high-profile rum at The Mai-Kai. It’s mentioned by name in four drink descriptions, and it’s featured in many others. Bacardi is the only other rum to earn that high-profile privilege, with three drinks on the after-dinner menu.
Appleton has been making hand-crafted spirits since 1749, from standard white and gold to an outstanding variety of aged rums. With Appleton Estate Reserve Blend now appearing in 12 cocktails that formerly contained Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum (see list above), the respected label now dominates The Mai-Kai menu. Beyond that Reserve list above, here’s an unofficial tally of 14 Mai-Kai cocktails (listed from highest to lowest in our ratings) that may contain another flavorful Appleton rum, from the gold Special to the aged Estate 12 (aka Rare Blend). Those touted on the menu are designated with an asterisk (*).
Special Planters Punch
Special Reserve Daiquiri*
Hot Buttered Rum
For the rum connoisseur
It’s no surprise that most of the top-rated Mai-Kai drinks contain at least one of the rums discussed above. They’re a huge part of the formula – along with the classic recipes and fresh ingredients – that makes these cocktails classic.
But if you’re not a cocktail aficionado, and more interested in sipping fine spirits, The Mai-Kai has updated its spirits menu to include more than 50 rums, from Appleton to Zacapa. Click here for the full story on the new menu and see the rums here.
More on The Atomic Grog
* The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
* Exclusive tour of The Mai-Kai’s bars and kitchen (December 2011)
* Lemon Hart tops The Atomic Grog’s list of favorite rums (August 2013)