The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk about “Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon” during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled.
A big thanks to sponsor Lemon Hart & Son rum and brand ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis for all the assistance, including the photos below plus the promo materials featured at the event as well as a special Blackpool spiced rum package that was presented to a lucky charity raffle winner. The raffle raised $275 for the Humane Society of Broward County.
The event kicked off at 4 p.m. with an extra hour of happy hour that included our talk in The Molokai bar. There was a full house of close to 100 people on hand for the 30-minute presentation, plus two sample cocktails featuring Lemon Hart’s two traditional Demerara rums.
Lemon Hart 151 is a legendary Tiki cocktail ingredient and one of the world’s most distinctive rums. The Mai-Kai features it in seven of its most flavor-packed (and strong) cocktails, including the Jet Pilot and Zombie. Guests at the Jan. 19 event were treated to a mini version of the 151 Swizzle, a classic that showcases the rich and smoky overproof rum.
As a special treat, we also sampled the long-lost Demerara Float, perhaps the best of all the drinks from the 1956 menu that have been retired over the decades. It’s served only at special events, so it was a unique opportunity to try this Don the Beachcomber creation (originally known as the Demerara Dry Float) using Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum, aka Original 1804.
Historically, this is the rum used by Don the Beachcomber and The Mai-Kai in their mid-century masterpieces that you can still taste at the Fort Lauderdale Tiki temple. Be sure to check out the Yeoman’s Grog (aka Navy Grog), S.O.S. (aka Three Dots and a Dash) and Bora Bora (aka Donga Punch). These days, The Mai-Kai employs the 86-proof Hamilton rum from the same distillery as Lemon Hart, the famed Demerara Distillers in Guyana.
Attendees received my handy checklist documenting all The Mai-Kai cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86, with the strong warning that I don’t advise trying all 13 in one sitting. Or two. Or three. Take your time and savor them.
RELATED: See all the cocktails featuring Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai
Here are some nuggets of info from the 30-minute talk:
What is Demerara rum?
* The name “Demerara” comes from the geographic region on the north coast of South America that’s now part of Guyana. It was a Dutch colony until 1815 and a county of British Guiana from 1838 to 1966, when it became independent Guyana.
* Culturally, Guyana is a lot like the Caribbean with a love of calypso music and – of course – its rum.
* Demerara rum is an English style similar to those from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Demerara rums are blended from a combination of pot and column stills.
* Traditionally, Britain’s Navy rums were a blend from Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. The Jamaica and Guyana rums were the heavier components. Pusser’s, billed as the “original Royal Navy rum,” recently changed its blend to include only Demerara rums.
* In the 18th century, more than 300 sugar estates distilled their own rums in Guyana. Today, only Diamond Distillery (est. 1670) remains. The distillery inherited most of the historic stills in Guyana, including the last wooden pot stills in the world, dating to the 1730s.
* Demerara rums use molasses from local Demerara sugar. Other factors including a special strain of cultured yeast and Guyana’s tropical climate (along with those historic stills) combine to provide a unique combination that yields some of the world’s richest rums.
* Diamond is now owned by Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL), which also owns the El Dorado brand (created in the early 1990s). DDL produces more than 20 different styles of rum, from raw unaged white rums for the local market to blended, long-aged sipping rums such as El Dorado 21, a personal favorite.
* Before El Dorado, all the rum from DDL was sold in bulk to English rum companies including Lemon Hart. The current Lemon Hart rums, as well as the Hamilton rums and many others, are still produced under similar agreements.
The history of Demerara rum and Lemon Hart
* The Lemon Hart & Son brand dates back to 1804 in Britain, when Mr. Lehman “Lemon” Hart became the first official supplier of rum to the Royal Navy.
* Demerara rums proved to be extremely popular, and the company honors Lehman Hart’s influence by naming the flagship rum Original 1804.
* The “son” refers to Lehman Hart’s son, David, who took over upon his father’s death in 1845. The brand changed owners multiple times and was for a time owned by sugar planters from Guyana during the mid-20th century heyday that featured an iconic advertising campaign featuring artwork by noted British illustrator Ronald Searle.
* By the 1980s and ’90s, Lemon Hart was the subject of multiple corporate sales and mergers and had become difficult to find in the United States. It was around this time frame that The Mai-Kai stopped featuring it in cocktails. Distribution was just too unreliable.
* Despite the arrival of El Dorado on U.S. soil in the 1990s, Demerara rum was still very much a niche rum. Fortunately, in the late 1990s, the Tiki revival happened. Many of us first discovered Lemon Hart through Jeff “Beachbum” Berry.
* The current Lemon Hart rums are distilled, aged and blended in Guyana before being bottled in Canada and imported to the U.S. All of the Lemon Hart rums are the handiwork of master blender Michael Booth, who has worked with the brand for decades. That includes the new Blackpool spiced rum, which was introduced in 2017.
* Original 1804 is the gold standard for 80-proof Demerara mixing rums. It’s full-bodied, complex and extremely flavorful with smoky molasses overtones and hints of spice, dried fruit and caramel toffee.
* Lemon Hart 151 is even more iconic, an overproof mixing rum of the highest order. It features a lot of heat but also lots of flavor. The smoky, pot-stilled funkiness makes for a heavy, bold mixing rum that adds a wonderful punch to any cocktail. It’s also works well with other rums, which caught the attention of Don the Beachcomber in 1933.
Tiki arrives with Don the Beachcomber
* A former bootlegger named Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt opened the world’s first Tiki bar in 1933, the day Prohibition ended. Named Don’s Beachcomber and later Don the Beachcomber, this Hollywood haunt immediately became a sensation and talk of the town. Ernest legally changed his name to Donn Beach and developed a cocktail style that we’re still marveling at today. The cocktails were amazing for the time, featuring fresh citrus and proprietary syrups that nobody had ever tasted before.
* The key to the success of what were then called tropical cocktails or exotic drinks was Beach’s use of rum. It was easier to find and much cheaper than whiskey or gin, which had dominated the bar scene in the pre-prohibition days. Don knew the many styles of rum very well from his years traveling in the Caribbean. And he knew the region’s classic cocktails, such as the Daiquiri and Planter’s Punch, that he could use as a launching pad to come up with much more complex creations.
* Beach decorated his bar with the South Pacific decor that he had been collecting from his many travels. He loved the Pacific the best, and he ended up retiring there (Donn died in Hawaii in 1989). For his food menu, he tapped into California’s pool of talented Cantonese chefs and tweaked what was then an unusual style of cooking to make it seem even more exotic.
* The cocktails were all about the Caribbean … and the rum. Beach called his drinks “rum rhapsodies” and considered rum the “nectar of the gods.” He featured more than 120 different bottles in his rum cellar, unique at the time. He personally chose many of those rums based on qualities such as flavor, body and mixability. But Beach’s true genius was his instinctive ability to blend rums of different body and character and create an entirely new and bold flavor profile. Many of his most robust cocktails feature three and four different rums, and that tradition is carried on today at The Mai-Kai.
* 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. There are eight cocktails that combine a dark Jamaican with a Demerara on The Mai-Kai menu.
* Among the most famous of Beach’s cocktails using Demerara rum are the 151 Swizzle, Cobra’s Fang, Demerara Cocktail, Demerera Dry Float, Navy Grog, Pearl Diver, Q.B. Cooler, Rum Barrel, Rum Julep, Three Dots and a Dash, and Zombie. If some of those names sound familiar, it’s because the Mai-Kai serves pretty much some of the same recipes with slightly tweaked names.
The Mai-Kai, Mariano Licudine and mid-century Tiki
* The Mai-Kai was created by Bob and Jack Thornton, two young guns who fell in love with the Polynesian restaurants of the mid-century, especially Don the Beachcomber in their native Chicago. They ended up hiring away many top employees from the Chicago location, including their opening day manager and chef.
Related: Heeeeeeere’s the rich history and lost stories of The Mai-Kai
* To run the bar program, the Thorntons tapped one of Beach’s top mixologists, Mariano Licudine (1907-1980), who spent 16 years honing his craft at Don the Beachcomber in Chicago. He started working for Donn Beach in 1939 in Hollywood after spending five years as Laurel & Hardy’s chauffeur and personal mixologist.
* Considering the connection to Don the Beachcomber, it’s no surprise that the original menu from 1956 is dominated by Beach’s drinks. Of the original 43, all are Don the Beachcomber descendants except for one Mariano Licudine original: the Black Magic. All of them were tweaked and adjusted by Licudine and Bob Thornton to create a new, more accessible range of cocktails. Of those 42, 33 are still on the menu today. The other 10 are considered to be among the “lost cocktails.”
Related: Mai-Kai tropical drink family tree
Lemon Hart at The Mai-Kai: Yesterday and today
* At The Mai-Kai, we know that Lemon Hart rums were featured in cocktails during the early years. It was spotted on a 1956 rum list, and assistant manager Leonce Picot edited a Lemon Hart cocktail book featuring several of the restaurant’s recipes.
* During the 1980s or early 1990s, unfortunately, 151 Demerara rum became hard to find. It was replaced by what many of us who mixed drinks during that time period thought was the only 151 rum in existence: Bacardi. But The Mai-Kai’s cocktails hardly suffered. They were so much better than every other tropical drink at that time, the loss of one rum was not a huge concern.
* Even though Beachbum Berry’s books and the opening of a new generation of Tiki bars spurred interest in Demerara rums, a good 151 was still very hard to find. El Dorado made only a harsh white rum similar to Bacardi. In Florida, sightings of Lemon Hart 151 in retail stores were spotty. After Canadian spirits firm Mosaiq bought the Lemon Hart brand in 2010, it took its time in revamping and rebranding this valuable property. In the meantime, Ed Hamilton, the minister of rum, contracted with the Lemon Hart brand 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 (aka Lemon Hart “red label”).
* As a bonus, 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. Lemon Hart 151 “red label” was released in the United States in 2011 and reintroduced 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.
Past coverage: Cocktail flights soar at Mai-Kai Mixer, reveal revolutionary use of rums
* In May 2014, Hamilton announced that Mosaiq had decided not to bottle any more of the iconic Demerara rum for at least a year. Apparently, the new red label blend had done well enough to justify a full-blown relaunch of the brand. As the red label stock quickly cleared off the shelves, there was another brief outage of 151 Demerara rum and bars like The Mai-Kai had to briefly switch to an alternative, such as Gosling’s Black Seal 151 (a non-Demerara rum from Bermuda).
* Hamilton quickly came to market with two new rums from Demerara Distillers. In January 2015, he introduced Hamilton 151 Overproof and Hamilton 86 proof.
* By this time, Lemon Hart and Mosaiq were finally ready to launch their “return to heritage” campaign that included making Lemon Hart & Son the brand’s official name. This included a re-launch of Lemon Hart (both the 80 and 151 proof rums) in the United States along with the “rum always” marketing campaign. This came with a return of the iconic yellow label and new bottlings of Lemon Hart 151 and Original 1804.
* Lemon Hart’s relaunch in the U.S. became public in March 2016, nearly two years after the red label version went off the market. This coincided with Mosaiq announcing Demerara Distillers as 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.
* The rebranded Lemon Hart 151 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.
* Now, all three (151, 80 and spiced) Lemon Hart rums are readily available in Florida and elsewhere. Please seek them out.
Mixology magic: Demerara’s greatest hits
* DEMERARA FLOAT: In addition to the 13 drinks on the current menu using Demerara rum, there are two retired drinks from the 1956 menu: the Demerara Cocktail and Demerara Float. The latter is my favorite of all the lost classics. It’s very simple, just lime juice, passion fruit syrup, dark Jamaican rum (Appleton Estate Signature Blend) and a float of Demerara rum (such as Lemon Hart 80 proof). Though some recipes call for a 151, this version does not. It’s a tribute to how Licudine and the Thornton brothers tweaked Donn Beach’s recipes to make them more approachable. It’s dry yet sweet, with a potent rum combination of rich and dark Jamaican and Demerara rums. There’s still enough fruit and tart flavors to keep everything in perfect balance. All the components meld perfectly, with the result a very smooth and not-too-strong medium drink, similar to the Shark Bite. Not coincidentally, both are served in the same glass with the same ice feature and a floater on the side.
* 151 SWIZZLE: Another great example of how The Mai-Kai improved and updated Don the Beachcomber’s classic recipes. The 151 Swizzle is dominated by the strong and flavorful rums, but you can also taste the sweet syrups including falernum, and a touch of anise. It has that distinctive Demerara flavor that was featured in the original but it has its own Mai-Kai twist with a bit of Appleton rum along with distinctive juices and syrups.
For more on the saga of Lemon Hart and Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai, check out The Atomic Grog’s deep dive:
* Rums of The Mai-Kai include potent, funky flavors from Guyana and Jamaica
Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images)
Photos courtesy of Miles Maximillian Vrahimis and Lemon Hart Rum
See also: Flickr gallery
Shortly after 5, several dozen guests who purchased the dinner package adjourned to The Mai-Kai’s showroom for dinner and the always spectacular Polynesian Islander Revue. Meanwhile, many of us stayed in The Molokai for the conclusion of happy hour (7 p.m. nightly) and beyond. Thanks to those who stuck around to chat.
Mahalo to everyone who made the event happen, especially Kari Ryan and Typhoon Tommy of the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Jupiter Jones of Retro Rekindled. Be sure to patronize their future events. The next magical meet-up at Disney World will encompass two days and nights on April 5-6, including adult beverages at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Also on the agenda is a party at the soon-to-open Tiki bar Suffering Bastard, featuring interior design and decor by Typhoon Tommy. You also may have seen his work at Disney World and Universal Orlando, as well as his key contributions to The Field Guide to Tiki Decorating book with Trader Brandon (and Tiki Tony). The next Retro Rekindled gathering at The Mai-Kai is Sunday, Feb. 10.
Social media links
* Magical Tiki Meet-Up: Facebook | Instagram
* Retro Rekindled: Facebook | Instagram
* 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