Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Short-lived daiquiri disappared when Cuba fell

Updated July 2014
This is one in a series of reviews of drinks that appeared on the original 1956-57 Mai-Kai cocktail menu but were later retired. Included is the ancestor recipe that inspired it, plus a tribute that attempts to reinterpret what The Mai-Kai’s version would taste like today had it not disappeared.

See below: Ancestor/tribute recipe | Cuban Daiquiri review
Related: The story of the Floridita Daiquiri rivals any novel
Mai-Kai cocktail guide | More “lost cocktails”

Arguably the most definitive rum cocktail, perhaps even the prototype for all future tropical drinks, is the humble daiquiri. This simple combination of rum, lime and sugar mixed with ice can be traced back to Cuba in the early 1900s.

Cuban Daiquiri

From a Don the Beachcomber menu.

While not nearly as old as proto rum cocktails such as the British Navy Grog or pre-colonial punches, the Daiquri is distinctive for its precise craft and reliance on ice as a crucial ingredient. Though deeply linked to Cuba, the Dauquiri was reputedly invented by an American, mining engineer Jennings Cox, who was working in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

The drink quickly became a favorite among the military, then the tourists who flocked to the Caribbean island, especially during Prohibition. It’s likely both Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic) ran across the daiquiri during their travels in the Caribbean before opening their bars in California that kick-started the Tiki cocktail craze in the 1930s.

Cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry covers the fascinating history of the daiquiri extensively in his epic book, Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them, released in late 2013 by Cocktail Kingdom. It covers everything from the town that inspired the name, to all its reputed inventors, to its adaptation by mid-century Tiki bars.

The Beachcomber and Trader Vic menus are loaded with daiquiris, as is the menu at the iconic Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. Open since 1956, it still features many drinks traced back to Donn Beach (Special Reserve Daiquiri) but also the traditional Floridita Daiquiri and an acclaimed original creation of mixologist Mariano Licudine, the Derby Daiquiri.

But the most short-lived Mai-Kai cocktail was the Cuban Daiquiri, which lasted until 1958-59, when it likely became a victim of the era’s political upheaval, not to mention the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba that began in 1960 and lasts to this day. The word “Cuban” in a drink name was not a wise marketing move at this time. Before the 1958 revolution, Mai-Kai owners Bob and Jack Thornton were known to take weekend jaunts to the island aboard a private plane.

Royal Daiquiri

At The Mai-Kai, the acclaimed Derby Daiquiri took the Cuban Daiquiri’s place on the menu and the drink became largely forgotten. It continued to be featured at Don the Beachcomber restaurants, albeit under a new name (the Royal Daiquiri) and most likely a different rum.

While the daiquiri name was later sullied by cheap imitations and dreaded frozen slushie-style machines, the classic recipe has maintained a quiet dignity and has seen a resurgence during the craft cocktail revival that’s been brewing for the past several decades. It’s worth taking a look back at a true original.

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Cuban Daiquiri tribute by The Atomic Grog

Cuban Daiquiri tribute by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2013)

ANCESTOR/TRIBUTE RECIPE
Cuban Daiquiri

(Adapted from traditional version)

* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce rich sugar syrup
   (2:1 sugar to water, heated and cooled)
* 2 ounces silver Cuban rum

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass with an optional ice shell.

Notes

Like another lost cocktail in the daiquiri family, Liquid Gold, this drink appeared on the 1956 menu with a distinctive ice shell. However, just like the Don the Beachcomber ancestors shown above, it has a slightly smaller cove of ice. So I simply made both at the same time and modified the Cuban Daiquiri’s ice feature just a bit [see photo]. Also refer to the Special Reserve Daiquiri recipe for step-by-step instructions on making the shell.

The Cuban rum of choice in the 1950s was most likely either Bacardi or Havana Club. After the revolution, Bacardi was forced to flee to Puerto Rico, and the communist government took over the Havana Club business. The brand, co-owned since 1994 by Pernod Ricard, is one of the world’s top sellers. Except in the United States, of course. Due to the embargo, it’s considered contraband.

I was lucky enough to snag a couple bottles a few years ago, however. Though my supply is dwindling, I had to break it out to make this cocktail. A traditional daiquiri contains only silver rum, and Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei basically confirmed that the above recipe is accurate. However, feel free to use 1 ounce of gold along with 1 ounce of silver rum to amp up the flavor a bit. Most U.S. residents may need to find a substitute rum. I’d recommend both the silver and gold “Cuban-style” rums from Ron Matusalem, an award-winning brand from the Dominican Republic with family roots that go back to Cuba.

Also, there are slightly different recipes floating around with varying amounts of lime and simple syrup. Imbibe magazine considers this one the “classic.” Adjust to your own taste, but I went with a dose of rich syrup that’s heavier than some to keep it in line with the rest of the sweet and savory cocktails on The Mai-Kai menu.

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CUBAN DAIQUIRI

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Cuban Daiquiri

Size: Small

Potency: Mild

Flavor profile: Tart lime, light yet flavorful rum and a touch of sweetness.

Review: A classic daiquiri using the finest ingredients.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks). On today’s menu, it would rank at the lower end of the rankings due mainly to its simplicity and lack of a “wow factor.”

Ancestry: The Mai-Kai’s take on a traditional daiquiri from the land where the drink was invented was also likely an exact copy of the same drink on Don the Beachcomber’s menu (see story above). It was featured on the original 1956 Mai-Kai menu but quickly removed and doesn’t appear on the 1958-59 menu, most likely to avoid any reference to the embattled nation just 90 miles south of Key West.

Bilge: The name Daiquiri comes from a beach near Santiago, Cuba. It’s also the name of an iron mine in the region.

Agree or disagree with this review? Share your comments below!

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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3 Responses to Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Short-lived daiquiri disappared when Cuba fell

  1. Sunny&Rummy says:

    Nice writeup. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to go to a bar where they can’t even make a decent shaken Daiquiri. Went out last week to a place in Melbourne Beach that is considered to be better than average as far as their cocktails, and was met with a blank stare when I ordered a shaken daiquiri, strained, up. What I actually ended up being served was a short pour of rum served to me on ice with way too much simple syrup and. . . ROSE’S FRIGGIN’ LIME JUICE! The dude was 3 feet from a basket full of beautiful fresh limes and a benchtop juicer on the back bar that apparently was just for decoration. Biggest waste of 10 Cane rum I have ever been served.

    My perfect rum/lime/simple ratio is the one Rumdood posted a few years back: 2 oz rum, 0.75 oz lime, and just 1 tsp. simple. Dialing back both the lime and the sugar while keeping them in balance with each other lets the rum notes stand out a bit more which I like. I’ll also go traditional Floridita at home as often as not at home with a bit of Maraschino liqueur, or Hemmingway on the very rare occasions where I can find fresh white grapefruit.

    • Thanks for the spot-on comments. I too have been in the same situation. I once went to a local “rum bar” that had a very impressive selection but no clue on how to make a daiquiri. They claimed they didn’t have fresh limes in the building, even though the bar also had a restaurant that served Caribbean dishes, so I’m sure they did. Not surprisingly, it closed not too long after. A great rum collection totally gone to waste.

      I just had a great Hemmingway Daiquiri recently at the Rum Renaissance Festival at the Papa’s Pilar seminar. Check out this new rum inspired by Hemmingway … it should be available throughout Florida:
      http://www.papaspilar.com

      I’ll be posting a review of the rum and the seminar soon.

  2. Rum tiki says:

    Plantation 3 star is the best rum to use when Cuban rum is called for (can’t buy the real Havana Club here). I use P3 in all my daiquiris. La Florida bar has the best seminal rum recipes of any I’ve made and tasted.

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