Though it’s officially listed on The Mai-Kai’s legendary cocktail menu as an after-dinner drink, the Gardenia Lei is well worth checking out at any time, especially if you’re a fan of classic Tiki drinks.
It’s also a great showcase for the lost art of the ice shell. Our tribute to the Special Reserve Daiquiri, another drink that uses this same technique, includes instructions on how to make one. We saw how they were stored in the back bar’s freezer during our special tour in November 2011.
The Gardenia Lei is a vintage cocktail that has been on the menu since the opening of The Mai-Kai in 1956, with its roots going even farther back to Don the Beachcomber’s Mystery Gardenia. As we’ve pointed out in many other reviews, a majority of The Mai-Kai’s cocktails have their origins in the 1930s and 1940s when Donn Beach invented the tropical drink as we know it today. Related:The Mai-Kai’s tropical drink family tree
Many original Don the Beachcomber recipes have been unearthed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and published in his many highly recommended books. Berry’s dogged research resulted in a greater understanding of the art of tropical mixology and helped spur the Tiki cocktail revival that shows no signs of abating.
The 10th anniversary of The Hukilau, the annual gathering of Tikiphiles from around the globe that happens every June in Fort Lauderdale, is still fresh in our memory. But if we need a reminder, we just look to our mug and glassware collection, where Hukilau collectibles are a essential.
If you didn’t get a chance to hit the merchandise booth in June, or if you were unlucky enough to miss The Hukilau entirely, it’s not too late to pick up a wide assortment of goodies from the official Hukilau online store:
Tiki For 2, the commemorative mug set sculpted by Kevin Kidney and produced by Munktiki. These 4-ounce mugs (photo at right) feature the familiar “Huki” design by Kevin, similar to the full-size 2009 mug. One features a brown exterior glaze with green interior glaze, while the other features a vanilla exterior glaze with a orange sherbet interior glaze.
It’s 1937. A budding Oakland, Calif., restaurateur named Victor Bergeron ventures south to Hollywood to see for himself what all the hoopla is about surrounding a small tropical-themed bar called Don the Beachcomber. According to legend, Bergeron was inspired to adopt the same Polynesian theme and shortly thereafter changed the name of his restaurant from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s.
The rest is history, and Trader Vic’s remains the standard-bearer for Polynesian restaurants worldwide with more than 25 locations. The Don the Beachcomber chain disappeared, save for a lone corporate restaurant/bar location at the Royal Kona Resort in Hawaii and a recently closed one-off franchise in Huntington Beach, Calif., that’s reportedly reopening soon in a new location. Neither, however, have much tangible connection to founder Donn Beach. He officially left the company when his ex-wife, Sunny Sund, took the helm during World War II.
Our nation’s soldiers always held a special place in the heart of Beach, a veteran of the Army Air Corps during WW II and recipient of both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. One of the drinks on Beach’s menu in 1937 was the Q.B. Cooler, named for the Quiet Birdmen, a drinking fraternity of aviators founded by seven World War I pilots in 1921. Donn changed his Q.B. Cooler recipe over the years, but as cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry revealed in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the original version tastes remarkably similar to what Trader Vic later introduced to the world as perhaps the most famous of all tropical drinks, the Mai Tai.
As Berry theorized in the book and later demonstrated during a symposium at the 2009 Hukilau at The Mai-Kai, it’s likely that Bergeron created the Mai Tai by copying the flavor profile of the Q.B. Cooler. What’s remarkable is that the Mai Tai contains quite different ingredients (orange curacao, sugar syrup, orgeat syrup). The two drinks have only rum and lime juice in common. But it’s undeniable that the tastes are incredibly similar.
Of course, Bergeron later claimed that he invented the Mai Tai in 1944 and eventually won a court battle that established him as the originator of the famous cocktail. Berry puts forward the theory that Bergeron most likely did invent the Mai Tai as we all know it, but he was inspired by the Q.B. Cooler and re-created it using almost entirely different ingredients. In honor of the battle to make the best Mai Tai, the Royal Kona holds on popular bartending competition every year dubbed the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival.
The Moonkist Coconut is one of the most distinctive – and dodgy – drinks on The Mai-Kai’s vast and colorful cocktail menu.
Don’t get us wrong. This classic cocktail has been on the iconic Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s acclaimed tropical drink menu since it opened in 1956. And its quality and consistency are beyond reproach. It’s one of many “rum rhapsodies” on the menu that can be traced back to Tiki pioneer Don the Beachcomber. It’s a bolder and spicier option to the Piña Colada.
The trick is getting this puppy served in its trademark coconut. The young, green coconuts that The Mai-Kai fashions into drinking vessels are seasonal. And the off-season seemingly drags on forever. Not that you really should fret. When the smooth, heavy coconuts are unavailable (and also during happy hour), you’ll get your drink in a nice big old fashioned glass, often garnished with an orchid (see photo above). Note that you also will receive the drink in a glass during happy hour, when it’s half-priced.
In cocktail bars these days, every effort is made to let the customer know what their drink contains. And this is a good thing. Especially when we’re guaranteed “hand-crafted cocktails made with fresh squeezed fruit,” as we just discovered on the menu for the new Longboards restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach. Longboards goes even further, spelling out every ingredient (and their exact measurements). See the menu here. Now, we suspect that part of the reason for this is to give the inexperienced bartenders easy-to-find directions on how to make the cocktails. But no matter. As long as it raises the bar for quality tropical drinks, we’re all for it.
The Mai-Kai, on the other hand, is a throwback. Not a throwback to the dark days of cocktails when ham-fisted bartenders used artificial ingredients to create abominations that gave tropical drinks a black eye. But a throwback to the golden age of Tiki, when cocktail pioneers such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic created complex, iconic drinks that were so over-the-top delicious that the recipes became closely guarded secrets. They’re made behind closed doors, in back bars away from public view. And even the bartenders preparing the drinks aren’t completely aware of every ingredient. Proprietary mixes and syrups with cryptic names and numbers are common.
The Mara-Amu is one of the most popular of the 47 tropical drinks on The Mai-Kai’s vast menu, due in part to the fact that it’s the only one that comes in a Tiki mug you can take home after quaffing your cocktail (others require a special trip to the gift shop). The mugs have remained generally the same over the decades, but occasionally you’ll discover a different glaze or an entirely different design (see bottom photo).
Since they’re given away with the drink, Mara-Amu mugs aren’t especially rare or hard to find. Check the Ooga-Mooga mug collectors site for recent prices and lots of photos. The mug is iconic, however, and inspired a Tiki that now stands in a prominent spot in The Mai-Kai’s famous outdoor gardens.
The Mara-Amu Tiki is unique, created by South Florida artist Will Anders when he was toying with the idea of making Tikis from foam. The idea was they could withstand the elements better than wood, and be easy for people to install in their outdoor pools and Tiki bars. They ended up being more difficult and costly to carve (and also susceptible to lots of superficial damage inflicted by unrespectful guests), so the idea never took off.
One of Anders’ claims to fame is his role in restoring the smaller Tikis in The Mai-Kai’s gardens. He was given access to molds created by late owner Bob Thornton from the original wooden Tikis, and over the years has re-created many of them in concrete. As you meander through the lush tropical paths in the gardens, much of what you see are re-creations by Anders. He also carved a giant new wooden Tiki, dubbed King Kai, that stands near the Mara-Amu in the gardens. See the full story and photos of the creation and installation of this 10-foot icon in May 2016.
When you think of the Mint Julep, you immediately think of the Kentucky Derby. In 1959, when the organizers of the $100,000 Florida Derby sought a similar drink to promote their race, they turned to The Mai-Kai.
The Derby Daiquiri, created by mixologist Mariano Licudine, became the race’s official drink. The Florida Derby, which began in 1952, is still run today every spring with a purse now set at $1 million. Winners usually go on to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
The Derby Daiquiri immediately gave the race and The Mai-Kai a huge publicity boost. It also won first prize in a Rums of Puerto Rico cocktail competition and was featured as Esquire magazine’s drink of the month.
Hurricane Hayward joined the Austin Rum Society online to reveal several new rum blends that hope to duplicate The Mai-Kai’s late, great dark Jamaican mixing rum. In the video below, we also enjoyed a Rum Barrel featuring the new recipe and discussed the history of The Mai-Kai …
APRIL 2020 UPDATE: Building a better Barrel
The new tribute recipe was revealed on The Trader Brandon Transmissions on Instagram …
Don The Beachcomber had the Zombie. Trader Vic had the Mai Tai. While Fort Lauderdale’s iconic Mai-Kai has many cocktails worthy of classic status, it’s the mighty Barrel O’ Rum that has become the 55-year-old landmark’s signature drink, and possibly the most underrated tropical drink in history.
Sure, it’s hugely popular. Just wind your way through The Molokai bar during any busy happy hour and you’ll see more Barrels than BP lost in the Gulf. Among the general public and popular media, the Barrel O’ Rum and The Mai-Kai are synonymous.
But among the the cocktail intelligentsia, the Barrel just doesn’t quite measure up. What gives? Come on guys, this is an incredible drink. A deceptively deadly celebration of rum and citrus that manages to be both simple and complex. This is a work of art courtesy of The Mai-Kai’s inimitable mixologist, Mariano Licudine, who took an often muddled concept and perfected it for the thirsty, rum-swilling masses during Tiki’s heyday. A half century later, it’s a timeless classic, often copied, never duplicated.
Bartending contest highlight of Tiki event’s kickoff party
On Thursday night, June 9, The Hukilau kicked off with a bang as five tropical drink mixologists created their own take on the classic Rum Barrel, squaring off live on stage at the Bahia Cabana Beach Resort.
Using predetermined sponsor rums and mixers, plus other ingredients of their choice, they each had seven minutes to make one fully-garnished drink plus samples for the judges. Hosted by author and tropical drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the contest was a combination of cocktail seminar and Tiki party, with colorful drinks made in rapid-fire precision by the contestants and passed around the judging table.
Judging the contest were some of the top rum authorities in the world: UK Rumfest organizer Ian Burrell, San Francisco bar owner Martin Cate, journalist and author Wayne Curtis and New Orleans rum historian Stephen Remsberg. The Rum Barrel Challenge judges (aka the Rum Rat Pack) will also be participating in Beachbum Berry’s “Rumposium” special event on Saturday, June 11, at The Mai-Kai.
* Check out Wayne’s review of the Rum Barrel Challenge
The Master Mixologist Rum Barrel Challenge was sponsored by Montanya Rum and Fee Brothers, and both products were incorporated into all the drinks. Judges rated each drink on its originality, creativity, adherence to the theme, use of the required ingredients, taste (including balance and use of rums), and presentation.
As the only “amateur mixologist” at the first-ever “Zombie Jamboree” at The Mai-Kai, the kickoff of the annual spirits extravaganza known as Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, I had to come up with something special. After all, The Mai-Kai is my home turf and the Zombie is one of my favorite all-time drinks. The Mai-Kai’s version, with lineage traced back to the original Don The Beachcomber classic, is my favorite drink at the legendary Polynesian palace.
So what I came up with is a riff on the classic with contemporary stylings. It has that great classic Zombie flavor profile but with a few special twists. I hope you dig it.