Our expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.
Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were common during Tiki’s golden age. The ominous Shrunken Skull and its variations were among the most infamous. The idea was to conjure up a sense of danger lurking in your local tropical getaway. Classic Tiki bars offer the ultimate escape from the mundane day-to-day existence, and every island adventure needs a little bit of macabre yet kitschy risk-taking.
In this case, the danger lies in the strong rums that permeate this deadly concoction. The Shrunken Skull is one of only two current Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other also comes with an element of danger attached to its name: the Shark Bite.
The Shrunken Skull is also one of only a handful of Mai-Kai cocktails to come in its own custom mug, originally a vintage shrunken head design that can fetch more than $100 on the open market. It was replaced by a modern version that is not quite as rare but can still reach $50 or more for older versions.
The above links and info come courtesy of Ooga Mooga, the premiere website for Tiki mug collectors. This highly recommended resource lets users track their mug collection while showing it off to others. Loaded with photos of great vintage mugs, it’s worth checking out even if you don’t register as a collector.
The Shrunken Skull also often comes in an Abelam mug (average price: $30), which features a mask-like design of the Abelam people who live in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. A vintage Abelam mug is typically priced in the $100 range.
All of the above mugs have a handle, which is atypical of most Tiki mugs. It’s usually an indication that the mug does double-duty on the dessert menu as a vessel for hot coffee drinks. At The Mai-Kai, the current Abelam mug also can be enjoyed with an after-dinner classic, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog. The shrunken head mug is also used for the Tahitian Coffee.
I picked up both mugs in the gift shop, aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post. I’ll be monitoring their prices on Ooga Mooga like any good mug investor.
The 16 deadly drinks in the “strong” section are no doubt the stars of The Mai-Kai’s legendary cocktail menu. There’s a reason they comprise 13 of the Top 20 in our rankings. They’re by far the most inventive, mysterious and flavor-packed drinks on the menu.
Just be careful when imbibing. The Mai-Kai doesn’t use the word “strong” lightly. Some contain 3 ounces of rum (or more), others a healthy dose of overproof. Among these, there are “strong” drinks and then there are “STRONG!” drinks. In the latter category, one of the first cocktails that comes to mind is the classic 151 Swizzle.
Like many Mai-Kai drinks, this deliciously dangerous concoction dates back to Tiki originator Donn Beach (better known as Don the Beachcomber) and has been on the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s cocktail menu since its opening in 1956. It has become an iconic standard at some of the world’s top Tiki bars, from the 60-year-old Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles to the 5-year-old False Idol in San Diego. At Hale Pele in Portland, The Mai-Kai gets a shout-out in the menu description, and the presentation is very familiar. It’s likely they’re using a variation of one of our seven tribute recipes below.
Martin Cate, one of the world’s top rum and Tiki cocktail authorities, considers the 151 Swizzle his favorite drink on The Mai-Kai’s menu. [See interview] “When it’s made perfectly, it’s a wonderful drink,” he said. “That to me is my mothership.” At his acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, he serves a souped up version called the 2070 Swizzle, which he calls “my giant killer.” [See recipe]
Revealed in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s groundbreaking 1998 cocktail guide, Grog Log, the original Don the Beachcomber recipe is fairly simple (see below). As the cocktail sleuth pointed out in the book, it was originally served in a metal cup with a flared top, “but good luck finding one.” The Mai-Kai, of course, follows tradition and has always served its 151 Swizzle in a chilled metal cup.
Finding the correct cup outside of the handful of bars mentioned above, however, has traditionally been difficult. You could typically find a Mint Julep cup or other close approximation on eBay, but they fall short of the sleek, flared design of the original. Berry took matters into his own hands in May 2015, when he released a new line of Tiki barware via Cocktail Kingdom, including a Swizzle Cup. [See story]
Beyond the cup, The Mai-Kai’s version of the 151 Swizzle is unlike any other. Like many Mai-Kai drinks, it’s based on the Don the Beachcomber version but was given a unique twist by original owner Bob Thornton and mixologist Mariano Licudine, who learned his craft from Donn Beach. We’ve taken a stab at re-creating the same flavor profile and have posted an ever-evolving list of “tribute recipes” below. Like Thornton, his stepson Dave Levy also tinkered with the recipe from time to time when he was in charge over the past 30 years, especially when changes were made to the rums.
The recipe grew out of discussion on The Grogalizer, a site highly recommend if you’re a fan of classic Tiki cocktails. Developed by The Swank Pad’s Tim “Swanky” Glazner, The Grogalizer is a database of hundreds of recipes from all of Beachbum Berry’s books, plus a few select others. The site allows you to rate the drinks, see how other mixologists rank them and share comments on each.
Sign up (it’s easy) and keep track of your progress through all the great recipes in these books. It’s also a seamless way to keep track of all the various bar ingredients you’ll need to re-create these classics, which include many in this guide. After compiling your online bar, you can figure out which drinks you can make with which ingredients, as well as resources for buying hard-to-find stuff. In September 2016, Glazner released his long-awaited book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, an essential addition to any Mai-Kai fan’s collection.
The evolution of the tribute recipe has gone through several stages, as you’ll see below. The first big breakthrough came in March 2012, when I discovered Kohala Bay, a rare dark Jamaican rum that was a key ingredient in many of The Mai-Kai’s strong cocktails. In addition, a search of eBay yielded a set of metal cups that were similar to the real deal. With the cup and rum in my arsenal, I were able to come up a much more accurate tribute recipe.
But just when I thought I had it down pat, The Mai-Kai dropped a bombshell in late April 2012 with the reintroduction of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, which had been absent from its bars for some 15 years. This only made a great drink even better and returned it to its vintage recipe. This resulted in tribute recipes No. 2 and No. 3. The fourth variation of the recipe, created in early 2015 when Lemon Hart was replaced by Hamilton 151 rum from Guyana, is more complex and full of outstanding flavors.
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.
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.
Tropical drink revivalist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his “Rum Rat Pack” – four of the world’s most noted authorities on the cane spirit – banded together on stage at the legendary Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale during the afternoon of Saturday, June 12, to celebrate Tiki’s favorite elixir.
More than two hours and a thousand or so cocktails later, the 200 Tikiphiles attending this 10th anniversary Hukilau exclusive event were swept up in a movement not seen in these parts of the tropics since Fidel’s rise to power in another rum-soaked nation just to the south. But in the friendly environs of The Mai-Kai, which actually pre-dates Castro’s revolt by several years, the revolutionaries were armed only with good spirits. Lots of good spirits.
Before the symposium even started, several samples of high-end rums awaited us as we were seated in the Polynesian palace’s main dining room. Beachbum Berry wasted no time in introducing us to some of the fine rums on display this afternoon: Chairman’s Reserve from St. Lucia; Rhum Clement VSOP and La Favorite Rhum Agricole, both from Martinique; Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum from Guyana; and Dos Maderas (a blend of aged rums from Barbados and Guyana).
Of course, more than 50 cocktails from The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drink menu were also available, and many in the audience wasted no time in beginning the evening’s imbibing early (The Atomic Grog included). I opted for one of the restaurant’s signature drinks, the Derby Daiquiri, a refreshing frozen lime-orange concoction created by the late, great master mixologist Mariano Licudine. Mariano’s son, Ron, was in attendance for the festivities and was happy to entertain us cocktail geeks with stories from his youth when his dad ruled the tropical drink world.