UPCOMING EVENTS: The Rums of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau 2019
Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog will take guests on an virtual journey to the Caribbean to learn about the key rums and styles that have dominated The Mai-Kai’s acclaimed cocktails for more than 60 years. He’ll be joined by rum expert Stephen Remsberg for an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at Pier Sixty-Six hotel on June 8, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai Grand Finale on June 9. Fans of vintage rum, Tiki mixology, and The Mai-Kai’s cocktails are advised to clear their calendars for these special events at The Hukilau 2019.
NEW: CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL PREVIEW AND TICKET INFO
Photos, recap: How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai cocktail class at Hukilau 2018
AT THE HUKILAU: Exclusive news during the class and symposium on a new replacement for Kohala Bay rum at The Mai-Kai, plus more!
PAST EVENT: Special event: ‘Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon’ The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. Click here to check out our full event recap, including photos and highlights of our Demerara rum discussion.
Updated June 5, 2019
For more than 60 years, The Mai-Kai has carried on the tradition of Tiki forefather Don the Beachcomber by serving some of the world’s most acclaimed tropical drinks. The secret recipes created by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach) in the 1930s and ’40s became the basis for many of the exotic cocktails on the menu when Bob and Jack Thornton opened their Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale in 1956.
More on The Mai-Kai’s rums below
* Rums from Guyana star in classic cocktails
* The legacy of Jamaica’s dark rums
* Rating the Kohala Bay replacements
* Appleton rums: Jamaica’s gold standard
* Full list of sipping rums
Related: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide, reviews and ratings
* The Mai-Kai updates bar menu, adds ‘lost’ cocktail
To run the bar program, the Thorntons tapped one of Beach’s top mixologists, Mariano Licudine, who spent 16 years honing his craft at Don the Beachcomber in their native Chicago. Licudine brought more than skills, secret recipes and a penchant for creating his own distinctive cocktails. He brought a great appreciation for rum. That legacy continues today in the drinks that carry on the tradition of Beach, the Thornton brothers and Licudine.
Menu: Vintage Don the Beachcomber rum list from 1941
By their very nature, Tiki bars are known for their rums and cocktails highlighting cane spirits. But The Mai-Kai takes it to the extreme. The 48 drinks on Licudine’s original menu called for 43 different brands of rum, reports author and Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in The Mai-Kai chapter of Sippin’ Safari, the seminal 2007 book on Tiki’s unheralded bartenders that was recently expanded and enhanced for a 10th anniversary edition.
A membership card for the Okole Maluna Society, the short-lived rewards program that challenged guests to sample every cocktail on the menu, touted 52 different rums, “light and dark … obscure and renowned … robust and delicate.” The society has its own chapter in historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner‘s 2016 book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.
“Shortly after opening, The Mai-Kai became the largest independent user of rum in the U.S., pouring more than 2,000 cases of Puerto Rican rum in 1958 alone,” Berry wrote in Sippin’ Safari. Some 60 years later, lighter bodied rums from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands still make up a large chunk of the total volume of rum poured in The Mai-Kai’s secluded back bars. They play a key role in the many popular drinks on the tourist-friendly mild section of the menu.
But Beach’s true genius, as carried on by his brethren at The Mai-Kai, was the ability to blend rums of different body and character and create an entirely new and bold flavor profile. Many of The Mai-Kai’s most robust cocktails feature three and four different rums, such as the Zombie and Jet Pilot.
The rums that define The Mai-Kai style are straight out of Donn’s playbook. As a counterpoint to the Spanish-style column-stilled rums, Beach often added two English-style pot-stilled rums: The dark and funky rums from Jamaica, and the rich and smoky Demerara rums from Guyana. These have always been the distinctive flavors that define many of The Mai-Kai’s best cocktails, particularly those on the strong section of the menu.
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.
DEMERARA RUMS: Lemon Hart, Hamilton shine in strong, flavorful cocktails
The Mai-Kai began using the latest reboot of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, the iconic mixing rum from Guyana, in September 2016. This black blended overproof rum, which disappeared from the U.S. market in mid-2014, was reintroduced in the summer of 2016 and continues to regain distribution across the country. Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum (known as Original 1804) is making slower progress, and The Mai-Kai continues to use Hamilton 86 as its standard black blended Demerara rum as of mid-2018.
* Tiki Central: Latest updates on Lemon Hart’s return
It was during the two-year absence of Lemon Hart that Hamilton 151 and 86, also from Guyana, stepped up to fill the void. The Hamilton rums were embraced not only at The Mai-Kai, but at Tiki and craft cocktail bars across the country. While some bars have chosen to stick with Hamilton across the board, The Mai-Kai is splitting the difference with Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86.
Following is a list of the drinks at The Mai-Kai using Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums. The links will connect you with reviews and recipes.
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) UPDATED
Sidewinder’s Fang (86 proof)
S.O.S. (86 proof)
Special Planters Punch (151 proof)
Suffering Bastard (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
HISTORY: The saga of Demerara rums at The Mai-Kai
What exactly is Demerara rum and why is it so important to Tiki cocktails? According to Berry, aged Demerara rums “are the rich, aromatic, smoky ‘secret weapon’ in most truly memorable tropical drinks.” They hail from the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana, hence the name. The last remaining distillery in Guyana is Demerara Distillers, which produces its own extensive suite of rums under the El Dorado brand. It also supplies all of the world’s Demerara rum, including those bottled by Lemon Hart and Hamilton.
The historic distillery, aka Diamond Distillery, was established in 1670. The rums are made using molasses from local Demerara sugar, which along with the distillery’s special strain of cultured yeast, historic stills and Guyana’s tropical climate, provide a unique combination that yields some of the world’s richest rums. Diamond employs some of the oldest and unique stills the world, including the last wooden pot stills, which can be traced back to the 1730s.
There are more than 20 different styles of rum produced at the distillery, we learned in a 2014 seminar at the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami. Master distiller Shaun Caleb offered a fascinating look at the inner workings of Diamond Distillery and the excellent El Dorado rums.
The El Dorado range of Demerara rums was launched in 1992 and includes everything from budget mixing rums to luxury cask-aged sipping rums. We’re fans of many of them and keep a large array in our home bar. Even though The Mai-Kai doesn’t currently feature El Dorado rums, you’ll find references throughout our cocktail guide.
The 5-year-old and 8-year-old fine cask aged rums are fine replacements if Hamilton 86 and Lemon Hart Original 1804 are not available in your area. For a brief period before the arrival of Hamilton 86, The Mai-Kai also used El Dorado Superior Dark when the prior version of the 80-proof Lemon Hart rum became unavailable. You’ll also notice our endorsement below of El Dorado’s 12-year-old cask-aged rum in the recommended blend to replace The Mai-Kai’s late, lamented Kohala Bay. Finally, I would be remiss to not mention perhaps our all-time favorite sipper, the lovely El Dorado 21. It’s widely available and well worth the hefty price tag.
Lemon Hart has a much longer history as a brand, but unfortunately it faded from use just as the Tiki cocktail revival was emerging. Beachbum Berry first recommended it in his influential 1998 book, Grog Log , sending aspiring mixologists scrambling to obscure liquor stores in search of dusty bottles. It was probably already out of stock at The Mai-Kai at this point, but Lemon Hart has a long history there and elsewhere.
The Lemon Hart brand dates back to 1804 in Britain, when Mr. Lehman (“Lemon”) Hart became the first official supplier of rum to the Royal Navy. His blend of Demerara rums proved to be extremely popular, and the company honors his influence by naming the flagship Demerara rum Original 1804. According to legend, Lemon was just following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Abraham Hart, who began trading sugar and rum in the early 1700s.
Related: Rum and the British Navy
Lemon Hart’s son, David, took over upon his father’s death in 1845, bolstering the business and creating alliances that carried the company through World War II and beyond. The brand was owned by sugar planters from Guyana for 35 years, including the mid-century heyday that featured an iconic advertising campaign featuring artwork by Ronald Searle. The noted British cartoonist was reportedly an influence on everyone from Disney artists to a young John Lennon.
* More: Ronald Searle’s Lemon Hart art
By the 1980s and ’90s, Lemon Hart was the subject of multiple corporate sales and mergers. In 2005, Lemon Hart’s British-based owners, Allied Domecq, were acquired by their French rival, Pernod Ricard (Absolut vodka, Havana Club rum, Jameson Irish Whiskey, et al.).
* Official site: More Lemon Hart history
At The Mai-Kai, Lemon Hart rums were featured in cocktails during the early years and embraced by management. Leonce Picot, an assistant manager from 1957 until 1967, later edited a Lemon Hart cocktail book and contributed several of the restaurant’s recipes (Demerara Cocktail and Demerara Float). The paperback Mr. Lemon Hart’s Tropical Treats (1973) occasionally pops up online and is coveted by collectors.
By the 1980s, it was the dawn of the “dark days” of Tiki, when the entire pop culture phenomenon faded from consciousness and the art of cocktails hit rock bottom. Considering this, it’s not surprising that Lemon Hart faded from the U.S. market, though it remained a worldwide brand through thick and thin. As Tiki was revived in the early years of the 21st century, Lemon Hart 151 rum became an almost cult-like item.
For Tiki revivalists discovering the classic cocktails through Beachbum Berry, Lemon Hart 151 was the only overproof rum that provided the correct flavor profile needed to make the original Zombie and many other ground-breaking drinks created by Donn Beach. The only overproof rum under the El Dorado label is a harsh, unaged version. Most of the vintage recipes published by Berry strongly urged the use of Lemon Hart 151 with the disclaimer: “No substitutions.”
Lacking Lemon Hart, The Mai-Kai substituted the now-defunct Bacardi 151 in its cocktails. This Puerto Rican party rum was better suited to flaming up the Kona Coffee Grog and Bananas Bengali, not providing the key flavor in classic Tiki drinks. But to the credit of The Mai-Kai’s bar staff and the rock-solid recipes of Mariano Licudine, the cocktails hardly suffered a bit. They were so much better than every other tropical drink at that time, the loss of one rum was not a huge concern. Those were innocent times, before Berry’s books had made their full impact on the craft cocktail scene, and Demerara rums were still seen as optional.
But with the revival came a new demand for Lemon Hart 151. Under the auspices of Pernod Ricard, both Lemon Hart rums seemed to become more easily available. But they trickled out to consumers in fits and starts, here today and gone tomorrow. Lemon Hart 151 and its distinctive yellow label became a holy grail, bolstered by the fact that the blend from this era is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the style. It still tops the list of The Atomic Grog’s all-time favorite rums.
Lemon Hart 151 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. In 2009, reliable sources indicated that Demerara Distillers was no longer producing the rum. More panic and hoarding ensued.
Then, in 2010, Pernod Ricard sold the Lemon Hart brand to a smaller conglomerate, Mosaiq, a Canadian company with holdings that include Jose Cuervo tequila and Three Olives vodka. As often happens, however, corporate change can be protracted and tedious.
Mosaiq had no immediate plans for a new bottling of the famed elixir for the states, perhaps due to trademark issues with Demerara Distillers over the use of the term “Demerara rum.” According to rum expert Ed Hamilton in a thread on his Ministry of Rum website, Demerara Distillers began insisting that only rums blended and aged in Guyana be allowed to have those words on the the label to ensure the integrity of its brand. A U.S. trademark made this legally binding.
The same trademark restriction apparently did not apply to Canada. Pernod Ricard had been buying its rum from Demerara Distillers, then blending, aging, and bottling it as Lemon Hart north of the border. It was blended with a small amount of Canadian rum for tax purposes. This practice, though it produced one of the world’s most acclaimed rums, apparently was the root cause of this latest Lemon Hart crisis. It’s also likely what prompted Pernod Ricard to sell the brand to Mosaiq. Across the U.S., hoarding of Lemon Hart 151 reached a fever pitch.
At this point, when things seemed to be at their bleakest, a white knight stepped up to save the day. It was Hamilton, the minister of rum himself, who contracted with Lemon Hart to bring a new, revived Lemon Hart 151 to the United States from Demerara Distillers through his importing business, Caribbean Spirits. Composed of 100 percent Demerara rum that was blended and aged in Guyana, it featured a totally redesigned bottle and label.
As a bonus of being the sole U.S. importer, Hamilton was allowed to purchase the remaining old stock of “yellow label” bottles that had been sitting in warehouses and make them available again in the states. [Click here to see a press release Hamilton issued around that time.] They were quickly gobbled up by enthusiasts, whetting our appetite for what was to come. “I will do whatever I can to deliver Lemon Hart Demerara rums to retailers across the country,” Hamilton promised in a Ministry of Rum post.
With the “red label” version of Lemon Hart, Hamilton launched what became a renaissance of 151 Demerara rum in the U.S. that continues to this day. The resurrected Lemon Hart 151 began flowing into the United States again in March 2011, joining a small portfolio of rums Hamilton 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. Meanwhile, both Lemon Hart 151 and the 80-proof Original found a distributor in Europe.
The reviews were glowing, and fears of a new blend not living up to the Lemon Hart name were quickly dashed. Hamilton sat down with Tiki cocktail guru Martin Cate of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove for an honest, off-the-cuff tasting that was captured on YouTube. The verdict: “It still has that historic flavor,” Cate observed. “It continues to have that distinctive quality that just isn’t matched by any other 151 rum on the market. There’s no match for the rich, high-ester pot-still Demerara that’s at the heart of this product.”
Awareness spread mainly through word-of-mouth, but word quickly got out to the Tiki cocktail universe. Lemon Hart eventually pitched in with marketing muscle, creating a new website and launching its first social media presence with a Facebook page in early 2012. In some states, distributors were slow to come on board, but the red label slowly but surely starting appearing in stores and behind bars across the country.
Finally, immediately after a Florida distributor was secured, Lemon Hart 151 and a special in-house 80-proof blend returned to the bars of The Mai-Kai in late April 2012. This new, reliable flow of Lemon Hart revitalized and returned many of 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 to The Mai-Kai was ballyhooed on this blog and celebrated with a special event in June 2012, when we explored how the rum elevated some of the Tiki drink mecca’s most popular cocktails to even greater heights.
Atomic Grog coverage: ‘Mai-Kai Mixer’ shakes up South Florida with rockin’ retro cocktail party
* Cocktail flights soar, reveal revolutionary use of rums
The impact of the “red label” Lemon Hart 151 cannot be understated. It not only stoked excitement for the brand and the Demerara overproof style of rum across the globe. It hit the market at the perfect time to become integral to the classic tropical drinks that built appreciation of Tiki in the exploding craft cocktail revival. It paved the way for today’s embarrassment of riches where we have multiple brands of Demerara rum to choose from, including two excellent 151s.
The pantheon of 21st century 151 Demerara rums: It’s not a stretch to say the current two labels on the right may not have been possible without the success of the short-lived “red label” Lemon Hart in 2011-2014. (Atomic Grog photo, September 2016)
At The Mai-Kai and across the Tiki cocktail universe, there was much rejoicing during those heady “red label” years. But the party didn’t last long. In May 2014, a little over three years after re-introducing Lemon Hart 151, Hamilton announced that Mosaiq had decided not to bottle any more of the iconic Demerara rum for at least a year.
But he also made a prophetic prediction: “I’m working on obtaining another overproof rum that will work in many of the cocktails you love.” Though it was short-lived by historic rum standards, “red label” Lemon Hart 151 joined the old “yellow label” version as a classic “lost rum” and continues to be sought out by Tikiphiles and rum collectors.
As supply dwindled, it was déjà vu all over again as hoarding ensued and Tiki Central discussion heated up anew. “Lemon Hart 151 may become the Bitcoin of Tiki,” one poster observed.
The reason for Mosaiq’s move was not clear at the time, but in retrospect we now know that they were making plans to re-launch both the 151 and Original 1804 labels with a larger importer. Apparently, the new red label blend had done well enough to justify this move. And the demand for the classic 151 Demerara rum continued to surge in the Tiki and craft cocktail communities.
The decision was made to end production and let the red label stock clear off the shelves so the new products would get a fresh start. Predictably, this didn’t take long. And, as usual, we learned to practice patience. Good things eventually came, but there was one more lean period to deal with.
When The Mai-Kai’s Lemon Hart stock ran dry in October 2014, the bars adapted by using Gosling’s Black Seal 151 (a non-Demerara rum from Bermuda) 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.
When you’re a large company like Mosaiq, it takes time and money to properly re-launch a revered brand such as Lemon Hart. It was a worldwide effort that involved much more than simply rejiggering the existing product. We appreciate that this task was not taken lightly. Restoring both the 151- and 80-proof products to their former glory likely involved many moving parts. Beyond the nuts and bolts of the actual rum and its new blend, much effort and thought probably went into strategic planning, marketing and hiring a brand ambassador, among many other details.
But we Tikiphiles can be an impatient lot. We wanted our 151 Demerara rum, and we wanted it now. Once again, Ed Hamilton came to the rescue. With his smaller operation and existing relationships, he was able to ramp up rather quickly and bring to market two new rums from Demerara Distillers. In January 2015, just eight months after he announced the end of his Lemon Hart relationship, Hamilton’s Caribbean Spirits introduced Hamilton 151 Overproof and Hamilton 86 proof as part of the Ministry of Rum Collection.
The Hamilton rums from Guyana are a blend of pot and continuous still rums, the youngest more than 18 months and the oldest less than 5 years. The rum is blended and aged in Guyana, then imported in bulk containers and bottled in Westfield, N.Y. The first shipments went out to distributors in January 2015.
Hamilton personally introduced his rums to The Mai-Kai at the end of January, and they were almost immediately put into use in all the classic cocktails that formerly contained Lemon Hart (see list above). 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, the 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 have the same smokiness and complexity of previous Lemon Hart blends, but they 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.
Note that after the original batch of rum was shipped, a legal issue forced Hamilton to change the wording on the labels. This is related to the same pesky “Demerara Rum” trademark issue that dogged Lemon Hart earlier. Though Lemon Hart now held a license to use that term, Hamilton did not. From that point on, the rums were considered to be Guyana rum “distilled and aged on the banks of the Demerara River.” If you find one of the old bottles, you may have a collector’s item.
Related: Guyanese Zombie featuring Hamilton 86 and 151
Hamilton’s small and nimble company allowed him to move quickly to market and capitalize on the demand for quality Demerara mixing rums, especially the fabled 151. While The Mai-Kai and other bars have switched to the new Lemon Hart 151 release, many (including Beachbum Berry) have stuck with Hamilton. And The Mai-Kai kept Hamilton 86 as it’s “standard proof” Demerara, its sweet and savory cocktails benefiting from the extra heat.
Consumers immediately embraced the no-nonsense appeal of the Hamilton rums, from the owner’s DIY marketing ethos to the website’s transparency in the rum’s production and bottling methods. There’s always a place for high-quality, independently produced rums like those from Caribbean Spirits. As Hamilton himself said on a Ministry of Rum forum: “It is more important for me to build a brand that represents honesty and integrity than commercial success.”
We recommend checking out the many other Hamilton releases, especially the Jamaican Pot Still Black and Navy Strength blends. Hamilton also produces a delicious, authentic Jamaican Pimento Dram. Check the website for info on distributors across the U.S.
See also: The Atomic Grog’s review of Hamilton 86 from Guyana
While Hamilton’s new rums from Guyana gained a beachhead in the Tiki and craft cocktail worlds, exciting changes were brewing at Lemon Hart. After getting its footing as owner of the brand, Mosaiq instituted a “return to heritage” campaign that included making Lemon Hart & Sons the brand’s official name. More importantly, it began working on a re-launch of Lemon Hart (both the 80 and 151 proof rums) in the United States. Along with this came a return of the iconic yellow label along with new bottlings of Lemon Hart 151 and Original 1804. Under a new agreement, the rums were to be distilled, aged and blended in Guyana before being bottled in Canada and imported to the U.S.
Word of Lemon Hart’s relaunch in the U.S. became public in March 2016, nearly two years after the brand’s last 151 Demerara rum (aka the “red label”) ended its importation agreement with Ed Hamilton’s Caribbean Spirits. This coincided with Mosaiq appointing Demerara Distillers to be the exclusive U.S. importer. Now, Lemon Hart was under the same umbrella as the entire El Dorado portfolio, which has always received ample distribution. The days of Lemon Hart being an elusive elixir appear to be behind us.
In addition to the 151- and 80-proof Demerara rums, Lemon Hart introduced its first black spiced rum, the robust and 86 proof Blackpool. The 151 rum was the first to hit the Florida market in the summer of 2016. After much deliberation, The Mai-Kai began using it in cocktails in place of Hamilton 151 in September. It was decided that the blend was a little more consistent from case to case, with Hamilton occasionally showing inconsistencies. With no 80-proof option yet available from Lemon Hart, The Mai-Kai stuck with Hamilton 86.
By late 2017, all three (151, 80 and spiced) Lemon Hart rums were readily available in Florida and elsewhere. The Blackpool official launch was in November. All of the Lemon Hart rums are the handiwork of master blender Michael Booth and tropically aged in Guyana. They’re shipped to Canada, where they’re bottled. Check out this deep dive into all the new Lemon Hart rums.
Booth spent 25 years as a blender at Hiram Walker and has been involved with the Lemon Hart brand since the early 1980s. He also had his hands on other well-known brands, including Lamb’s Navy Rum and Kenny Chesney’s new Blue Chair Bay.
* For more information: LemonHartRum.com
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For the authentic and tribute recipes in our Mai-Kai Cocktail guide, we recommend using the same rums used in the back bars at the restaurant: Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86. But you wouldn’t be far off if you also use Hamilton 151 and Lemon Hart 80.
Today, in mid-2018 with Lemon Hart firmly back on the U.S. market, there are suddenly multiple choices for bartenders when mixing classic Tiki cocktails. It’s not a bad problem to have. We recommend stocking both Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums and using them in different applications as you see fit. While you’re at it, throw Plantation O.F.T.D. into the mix and you’ll have a home bar that could possibly make even Don the Beachcomber envious.
JAMAICAN RUM: Appleton sets the standard, but Kohala Bay is still missed
The godfather of Tiki cocktails, Don the Beachcomber, had a soft spot for Jamaican rums. This is evident when you look at his rum list (dominated by Jamaican rums) and his legacy of classic tropical drinks featuring the distinctive, pot-stilled spirit (Planter’s Punch, Navy Grog, Zombie, et al.).
In fact, it could be argued that Donn Beach’s inspiration for this entire cocktail style springs from Jamaica’s indigenous Planter’s Punch, a simple yet potent combination of lime, sugar and dark rum. From these humble beginnings sprung the famous mantra, “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak,” the basis of all Caribbean rum punches. Of course, Beach took these one-riff classics and turned them into symphonies with his rhum rhapsodies. But he always turned to dark Jamaican rum when he needed it.
The black blended Jamaican rum Beach most famously employed was J. Wray & Nephew Dagger Punch, a flavorful and power-packed rum that works perfectly in his cocktails. This style of rum simply sings when used in concert with the smoky Demerara rums discussed above. Combined with a base of lighter-bodied Spanish-style rums, the end result is a robust flavor nobody had ever tasted before.
This “punch style” of rum made its way to The Mai-Kai when former Don the Beachcomber mixologist Mariano Licudine started the bar program in 1956. Armed with Donn’s secret recipes culled from his prior 17 years working at the Beachcomber restaurants in Hollywood and Chicago, Licudine was able to take his tropical drinks to a new level. Though we lost Licudine in 1979, his recipes and high standards remain today.
The Dagger label eventually fell by the wayside in the 1990s, but Wray & Nephew continued to produce a little-known substitute called Kohala Bay. The full Dagger and Kohala Bay story is discussed below. You probably know how the story ends if you’re reading this far. Kohala Bay joined Dagger in the history books in April 2016, and we’re now in search of a proper replacement.
Kohala Bay is among the storied “lost rums of Tiki” profiled in a recent story in the online magazine Punch. There’s no true replacement for Kohala Bay yet, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction. Matt Pietrek, who penned the Punch article, has written extensively and expertly on the state of Jamaican rums on his blog, Cocktail Wonk.
When Kohala Bay joined the ranks of lost rums, The Mai-Kai settled on one of the Appleton Estate rums as the preferred dark Jamaican mixer. In mid-April 2016, Kohala Bay ceased distribution in the U.S. While other options are still being explored, longtime rum partner Appleton stepped up to fill the void. While the Reserve Blend was briefly employed, The Mai-Kai went with the more budget-friendly Signature Blend in most cocktails that previously used the funky Kohala Bay.
Signature Blend (formerly known as V/X) is the entry level rum in the Estate line-up. The flavor profile is very similar to the Reserve Blend (formerly simply Reserve), and you could consider them interchangeable in most of the cocktail applications discussed here. According to Appleton, Signature is a blend of 15 rums, aged for an average of four years. Reserve Blend features 20 rums, aged for an average of six years. There is no age statement on either bottle.
Note that these differ from the third rum in the collection, Rare Blend, which you could consider to be Appleton’s flagship premium rum, both in price and quality. It’s a blend of select aged rums, all matured for at least 12 years in American oak barrels. While the Signature and Reserve blends can serve as a dark Jamaican mixing rum in traditional Tiki cocktails, the Rare Blend is a bit more sophisticated. It makes a fine sipping rum, and it’s also featured in select cocktails at The Mai-Kai such as the Shark Bite and Mai Tai. If you’re looking for an even more luxury experience, Appleton offers 21-year-old and 50-year-old Estate rums as well.
While these are all world-class rums, the popular Estate rums from Jamaica’s esteemed J. Wray & Nephew distillery lack the funk of the darker (and higher proof) Kohala Bay. Since The Mai-Kai lost Kohala Bay, enthusiasts may notice that the flavor profile of some of the cocktails has changed slightly.
Here’s our take on how the new versions compare. The following notes are based on tasting the cocktails both at the bar (using Signature Blend) and at home (using both Signature and Reserve). In a few cases, using the slightly funkier Reserve makes a tiny difference, but it’s not worth noting. For a bolder flavor, we recommend you experiment with our complete list of Kohala Bay substitutes below.
Former Kohala Bay cocktails now featuring Appleton Estate
* Different, but in a good way. The Appleton Estate rums work 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 Signature and Reserve blends give these drinks a welcome new twist:
151 Swizzle | Bora Bora | Jet Pilot | Oh So Deadly | Suffering Bastard
* Missing the funk. While Appleton Signature and Reserve are quality rums, they lack 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
JAMAICAN PUNCH: The story of Appleton, Dagger and Kohala Bay at The Mai-Kai
In an August 2017 interview with online magazine Punch, The Mai-Kai’s manager, Kern Mattei, revealed that the bar actually used Appleton Punch up until the 1970s, when it stopped production and was replaced by Dagger Punch. Kohala Bay replaced the defunct Dagger in the ’90s, he said. Since all were produced by Wray & Nephew, we can assume that the blends were similar, though the proof of each product varied.
The vintage bottles of Appleton Punch we’ve spotted online are 97 proof, while the Dagger that still sits on an upper shelf in The Mai-Kai’s back bar (see photo above) is 87.6 proof. The final version of Kohala Bay is also 87.6 proof. We’ve heard of earlier versions of Dagger also being 97, so perhaps the proof was lowered in its final incarnation.
Students of Don the Beachcomber might have heard of the distinctive “punch brand” dark Jamaican rum. It’s not impossible to find a bottle of Dagger, but it’s extremely rare and extremely pricey. In late 2016, a pint bottle from the 1960s was auctioned by the Whisky Auction website for roughly $500 (see photo).
* Hear a vintage Dagger Punch radio ad from Jamaica
According to the label, Kohala Bay was distilled and blended in “the fertile valley of the black river parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. … Here, Kohala Bay is hand-blended slowly, carefully, and in small batches.” It proved to be yet another missing link back to Don the Beachcomber by way of Mariano Licudine and The Mai-Kai..
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 recently 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) Kohala Bay 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.
* Check this Tiki Central thread for updates
Sadly, however, what was originally called a temporary interruption in mid-2016 became a permanent outage. Supply quickly dried up, though miraculously a dozen bottles recently turned up at an obscure South Florida retail outlet (see photo above). Apparently forgotten and undisturbed for years, they were quickly snapped up by a local rum collector.
Kohala Bay is very similar to a traditional London Dock style of Jamaican rum such as Smith & Cross, but with darker and bolder flavors and less complexity and heat. 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 (now featuring Appleton Estate Signature Blend):
* 151 Swizzle*
* Special Planters Punch*
* Barrel O’ Rum
* Cobra’s Kiss
* Jet Pilot*
* Yeoman’s Grog*
* Black Magic
* Suffering Bastard*
* Oh So Deadly*
* Bora Bora*
This list contains 10 strong drinks, one medium and one mild. And it’s interesting to note that eight 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 May 14, 2017
Even before Kohala Bay went off the market in April 2016, there was a need for stand-ins that approximated its fiery and funky flavor. Besides The Mai-Kai, it was available only at a handful of Florida retail outlets. But spurred by demand for the authentic flavor found only in the above Mai-Kai cocktails (along with the growing popularity of our recipe guide), demand grew.
After documenting my saga of discovering Kohala Bay, I came up with a list of recommended substitutes when this rum guide was first posted in 2012. The consensus No. 1 choice was always a 50/50 mix of Smith & Cross from Jamaica and El Dorado 12 from Guyana, but other blends emerged over the years. In addition to Appleton Estate Signature and Reserve, recommended single-rum options have included Coruba and Denizen.
Spurred by Kohala Bay’s disappearance, plus the arrival on the market of several excellent new rums (most notably Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black and Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof), many options have been suggested by Tiki Central members on the Kohala Bay thread starting in November. This plethora of choices inspired the great Kohala Bay taste-off of May 2017, at which I sought to rate and rank the many options and hopefully find a few favorites.
Over the course of a week, blind tastings were conducted of 14 different rums and rum blends. Some had already been posted here while some were new ones gleaned off Tiki Central. There were four single rums, three 2-rum blends, six 3-rum blends, and one 4-rum blend. The following 11 rums were used, many in multiple blends in different proportions. Not all are available in all parts of the U.S., or the world, but you should be able to find an option that works for you. Most have distinctive blends and flavors and should not be substituted. The one exception is Lemon Hart 151, which can be replaced with Hamilton 151, another fine overproof Demerara rum (see full details above).
Kohala Bay replacement rums
* Appleton Estate Signature and Reserve blends (Jamaica, 80 proof)
* Coruba Dark (Jamaica, 80 proof)
* Denizen Merchant’s Reserve (Jamaica and Martinique, 86 proof)
* El Dorado 12 (Guyana, 80 proof)
* Gosling’s 151 (Bermuda, 151 proof)
* Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black (Jamaica, 93 proof)
* Lemon Hart 151 (Guyana, 151 proof)
* Myers’s (Jamaica, 80 proof)
* Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof (Jamaica and Guyana, 138 proof)
* Plantation Original Dark (Jamaica and Trinidad, 80 proof)
* Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum (Jamaica, 114 proof)
BLIND TASTINGS: Rating the replacements
The May 2017 blind tastings broke the results into four tiers. All are perfectly viable, but only the top tier rums hit all the same notes as Kohala Bay. The rums in the middle tiers are all great, but they fall just short of the top 3. The middle and bottom groups are listed in no particular order, but the top 3 were put through additional tests in a Barrel O’ Rum and Don’s Daiquiri to determine a No. 1. Check out the Tiki Central thread for more details and comments on the tastings. Note that the proofs of the blends were calculated via simple arithmetic, not using a hydrometer. It’s worth noting that Kohala Bay is 87.6 while the older version of Dagger was 97 proof. It’s no coincidence that those rated lower had lower proofs.
TOP TIER (3): Great substitutes for Kohala Bay, featuring the same perfect balance of flavor and heat, funky hogo and dark body. Our longtime recommended substitute emerged as a very close but clear winner, in both the rum and cocktail blind tastings.
No. 1 — Equal parts Smith & Cross and El Dorado 12 (97 proof). Facing tough competition, this simple yet effective blend remains the preferred substitute. Richer and not quite as fiery as Kohala Bay, but excellent as a mixer in all of the above cocktails.
No. 2 — 5 parts Appleton Reserve, 1 part Lemon Hart 151, 1 part Hamilton Black (93 proof). Very close in flavor to Kohala Bay, just not as balanced as No. 1. This blend created by Quince_at_Dannys on Tiki Central wisely combines the richness of Appleton Reserve with the funkiness of Hamilton Black, plus just the right amount of Lemon Hart to raise the proof and add heat.
No. 3 — 4 parts Coruba, 2 parts Hamilton Black, 1 part Plantation O.F.T.D. (92 proof). The difference between No. 2 and No. 3 is ever so slight. This is slightly funkier, but it doesn’t have the breadth of flavors of No. 2 or the sophistication of No. 1. This blend was the handiwork of LeftArmOfBuddha on Tiki Central.
UPPER MIDDLE TIER (4): Powerful and flavorful, these hit many of the right notes. Just not quite perfect like the upper tier. The balance of funk or heat is a little off.
* 1 part Smith & Cross, 1 part Appleton Signature/Reserve (97 proof).
* 1 part Smith & Cross, 1 part Myers’s, 1 part Gosling’s 151 (115 proof).
* 5 parts Coruba, 1 part Smith & Cross, 1 part Lemon Hart 151 (95 proof).
* 5 parts Coruba, 1 part Hamilton Black, 1 part Plantation O.F.T.D. (90 proof).
LOWER MIDDLE TIER (5): Very close, but lacking subtle flavors or heat that distinguish Kohala Bay.
* Coruba (80 proof).
* Denizen (86 proof)
* 6 parts Coruba, 1 part Plantation O.F.T.D. (88 proof)
* 5 parts Appleton Signature/Reserve, 1 part Hamilton Black, 1 part Plantation O.F.T.D. (90 proof).
* 5 parts Appleton Signature/Reserve, 1 part Hamilton Black, 1 part Plantation O.F.T.D., 1/2 part Coruba (90 proof).
BOTTOM TIER (2): Use only if necessary. The flavor is in the ballpark, but lacks the heat and bold flavors.
* Appleton Signature or Reserve (80 proof)
* Plantation Original Dark (80 proof)
Note that the above rankings are based on one not-so-simple task: Replacing the unique flavor of a legendary mixing rum. Some personal preference also enters the picture, so your tastes may be different. Feel free to experiment and use whichever rums suit your fancy.
POSTSCRIPT: New and obscure contenders arrive
We seem to be entering a renaissance of Jamaican rum, which is a very good thing. New expressions and new bottlings are constantly being released, and we’re all the better for it. We’ve yet to see a black blended Jamaican rum in the vein of Kohala Bay, but we have our hopes up. If you follow Cocktail Wonk on Facebook, you won’t miss any news on this front.
One new contender that we’re looking forward to trying is Two James Doctor Bird Jamaican Rum, a 100-proof pot-still rum that we’ve heard is much in the same style as Smith & Cross. It may not be a 1-to-1 sub for Kohala Bay, but it will interesting to try it in some multi-rum blends. It’s not yet available in Florida, but it’s been appearing regularly across the country since its release in 2017.
Also on the horizon is a new expression from Plantation, Xaymaca Special Dry. Cocktail Wonk has already deconstructed this upcoming 100 percent pot still, blended rum from Alexandre Gabriel and his team. At 86 proof, it’s in the same wheelhouse as Kohala Bay but we suspect it will be a quite a bit more sophisticated. It will soon be widely available, so look for it in stores that carry Plantation’s “Signature Blends” series.
We also sometimes come across Jamaican rums that are either defunct or not available in the United States that show great promise as a 1:1 stand-in for Kohala Bay.
In the former category is Jack Tar (aka Jack Tarr), a dark rum that the label says was “produced in Jamaica, bottled in South Africa.” A search turned up a South African importer’s website that described it as an 86-proof blend of rums imported from Jamaica and Guyana, then “balanced with a small proportion of the finest South African light rum.” It appears to have been briefly imported into the U.S., but very little info exists beyond a review from 2006.
A dusty cache of Jack Tar was discovered recently in a South Florida store, so we had to put it to the test. I was surprised to find it rate right alongside Coruba and Appleton Estate Reserve/Signature in terms of raw quality as a sipper. It’s big and bold with lots of Jamaican funk, though not as good a mixer as the others. Good luck finding a bottle, however, unless you happen to be in South Africa.
More encouraging is a rum that’s readily available in Jamaica but not imported to the U.S. The 86-proof Edwin Charley Black Label is amazingly a nearly exact replica of the essence of Kohala Bay, just a bit more sophisticated.
Little can be found online, so here’s a link to the back label. It’s a tall tale of a rum that reportedly dates back to 1892, but we learn very little of its actual source or production. However, we’ve seen an industry document that indidates that it’s a product of the J. Wray & Nephew distillery (same as Kohala Bay and Appleton). My guess is that it’s from a similar bulk rum stock as Kohala Bay, then aged a bit more (note the “extra old” designation on the label) and obviously lacking the caramel color.
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 dozens of others.
Appleton, owned by J. Wray & Nephew since 1916, has been making hand-crafted spirits since 1749, from standard white and gold to an outstanding variety of aged rums. With Appleton Estate Signature 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. In addition to that list above, here’s an unofficial tally of 13 other Mai-Kai cocktails (listed from highest to lowest in our ratings) that may contain another flavorful Appleton rum, from the gold Special (now known as J. Wray Gold) to the aged Estate 12 (now known as Rare Blend). Those touted on the menu are designated below with an asterisk (*).
We also featured Appleton in these recipes for retired Mai-Kai cocktails (in addition to the Dagger/Kohala Bay list above):
Demerara Cocktail | Impatient Virgin | Island Queen
Last Rites | Liquid Gold
Final tally of recipes featuring Appleton rum: 25 from the current menu, 10 from past menus.
The Mai-Kai’s managing owner, Dave Levy (left), with Appleton senior blender David Morrison before a special tasting event in the restaurant’s Tahiti Room in August 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
FOR THE CONNOISSEUR: Exceptional and elite sipping rums
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 vintage 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 a menu that includes more than 50 rums, from Abuelo to Zafra. The menu was most recently updated in May 2018.
The Mai-Kai: Official site | Trading Post | Twitter
* Facebook: Official page | Friends of The Mai-Kai group
* Instagram: Restaurant | The Molokai bar | Trading Post
* Mai-Kai history: Book and official website | Facebook page
* Google Maps: Explore The Mai-Kai in 3-D
More on The Atomic Grog
* The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
* Mai-Kai tropical drink family tree
* Heeeeeeere’s the rich history and lost stories of The Mai-Kai
* Tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen