This is the 51st weekly review in our yearlong series exploring the cocktails at the iconic Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, and it marks the completion of all the drinks on the current menu. Next week, we conclude our odyssey with a historic drink that’s no longer on the menu.
One of the great rituals at The Mai-Kai is ordering the Kona Coffee Grog, a potent after-dinner drink that’s served tableside with a flamboyant pouring of flaming 151 rum. The traditional preparation and presentation of this classic has been passed down to generations of servers, and it remains one of the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian restaurant’s signature experiences.
The Kona Coffee Grog is just as much a throwback to the early days of Tiki as the Zombie or Mai Tai. And the fact that it’s still served in the exact same style only enhances the authenticity. Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, served many hot drinks in the early days of tropical mixology. There was Hot Buttered Rum, Hot Tiger’s Milk, and Don the Beachcomber’s Coffee Grog. The Kona Coffee Grog was likely a variation of the latter.
In his great book on classic Tiki cocktails and their creators, Sippin’ Safari, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry says that in the 1930s, Donn himself would perform the tableside presentation of his “after-dinner pièce de résistance.”
When The Mai-Kai opened in 1956, master mixologist Mariano Licudine borrowed heavily from his former boss. It’s no surprise that 30 cocktails that can be traced back to Don the Beachcomber remain on the current Mai-Kai menu. The Kona Coffee Grog is one of the most distinctive.
Though perhaps not as fun and exotic as the Mystery Drink, it’s all about the presentation and the experience. And the glassware is pretty cool too: An Abelam mug that pays homage to Papua New Guinea with a mask-like design created by the Abelam people of the East Sepik province. You may also see the same mug used for the Shrunken Skull.
The official menu description
KONA COFFEE GROG
Flaming Bacardi Rum and our combination of coffee, honey cream and secret spices, set ablaze at your table for a sensationally different after dinner drink.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Potency: After dinner
Flavor profile: Kona coffee, dark rum, honey, cinnamon.
Review: A blazing after-dinner (or anytime) drink with sweet and spicy notes and just the right amount of powerful rum.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)
Ancestry: Dating back to the original 1956 menu, the Kona Coffee Grog is undoubtedly a slightly different take on the Don the Beachcomber drink of the same name. This was the first hot coffee drink offered at The Mai-Kai, before there was a full after-dinner menu.
Bilge: The Kona Coffee Grog isn’t the only menu item that you can have prepared and served to you on fire at your tableside. After dining, try one of the classic flaming desserts: Bananas Bengali (fresh bananas sauteed in flaming rum sauce, served over vanilla ice cream) and Cherries Hawaiian (bing cherries, in flaming rum sauce, served over coconut ice cream).
Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!
Kona Coffee Grog
(By Don the Beachcomber, from Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine)
* 2 cups hot Kona coffee
* 3 teaspoons honey cream mix
* 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
* 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum (Kohala Bay or equivalent)
* 1 ounce 151 rum (Lemon Hart Demerara recommended)
* 6 strips of lemon peel
* 6 strips of orange peel
Important note: Before attempting, read the safety precautions below.
In a heat-proof pitcher, combine the rum, cinnamon and citrus peels. Stir, set aside and let the rum soak into the peels.
Into a small pan, pour the hot Kona coffee and add the honey mix. Slowly heat. Pour heated (but not boiling) mixture into a coffee grog mug. Take the pitcher and coffee mug to a serving table.
With chopsticks, remove a piece of the orange or lemon peel and set afire. Plunge the peel back into the pitcher, setting the rum mixture ablaze (see photos below).
If possible, pick up the flaming citrus peel pieces and drop them into the coffee grog mug. Pour the flaming rum into the glass, stir with chopsticks and serve. The Mai-Kai adds a cinnamon stick, which is a nice touch.
If you have the Hawai’i book, you’ll notice that the ingredient proportions have been increased and tweaked to fit The Mai-Kai’s Abelam mug. Adjust according to the size of the mug you’re using. I’ve also tweaked the directions slightly.
Notes and tips for home mixologists
* Freshly brewed Kona coffee is essential, of course. So is honey cream mix, which has been discussed in previous recipes (Gardenia Lei, Hidden Pearl). In separate small bowls, heat equal parts sweet (unsalted) butter and honey. Then combine and whisk until well blended. Use immediately since it’s very hard to store without it becoming a sticky mess. We suspect The Mai-Kai uses an even more complex mix with their “secret spices” and perhaps a creamier butter. There could be a dash of heavy cream as well. The drink is quite a bit lighter than straight black coffee. Most likely, it’s a variation of Donn’s Coffee Grog Batter (also known as Pearl Diver’s Mix and used in the Pearl Diver, an ancestor to The Mai-Kai’s Deep-Sea Diver). Check that ancestor recipe for directions on making the mix (butter, honey, cinnamon syrup, vanilla syrup, pimento liqueur).
* Any good dark Jamaican rum, such as an aged Appleton, should work fine and give this drink a great flavor. It’s possible The Mai-Kai uses Kohala Bay since it’s slightly overproof. In lieu of that, you could try Smith & Cross, or a mix of Smith & Cross and El Dorado 12 (the recommended Kohala Bay substitute).
* Of course, this wouldn’t be a flaming coffee grog without 151 rum. The Mai-Kai has a relationship with Bacardi, so it’s the rum currently used in the drink. (We noticed recently that Bacardi was added to the menu descriptions of this drink, plus the Tahitian Coffee and Mai-Kai Blizzard in an apparent promotional deal. It’s not really crucial in any of them, IMHO.) Of course, Lemon Hart Demerara recently returned the The Mai-Kai in other cocktails, but apparently the deal with Bacardi precludes its use in the Kona Coffee Grog. Nonetheless, we highly recommend it here, not only because it’s the original rum used by Don the Beachcomber, but also because it adds a great smoky flavor and mixes perfectly with the dark Jamaican rum.
* And it goes without saying that great care is urged when lighting any flaming rum drink. Use the proper tools and be very, very careful you don’t set your Tiki bar ablaze. If in doubt, leave it to trained professionals. Or at least, play it safe like me and don’t try to stretch out the flame several feet long. A 6-inch flame in a dark home bar is just as impressive. Use gloves and a flame-proof surface if necessary. It will still impress your friends. Especially when they taste it.
But by all means, relax and enjoy the experience. Then sit back and savor this one-of-a-kind classic.