After going virtual in 2020 and moving to a September weekend in 2021, The Hukilau is back on track with its traditional early June gathering of the Tiki tribe in South Florida.
The East Coast’s longest-running Tiki weekender will return to the cozy Beachcomber Resort & Club on the ocean in Pompano Beach for its 19th live event on June 9-12. The four-day format will remain similar to the Sept. 16-19 meet-up, which featured most of its activity in the many outdoor spaces at the 140-room boutique hotel. Once again, the entire resort is reserved for The Hukilau’s “villagers,” said organizer Richard Oneslager, noting that several other nearby venues will also be available for “the growing number of villagers” who continue to flock to the event each year.
Exclusive early access to reservations at the Beachcomber will be offered first to longtime villagers, Oneslager said. After “loyalty guests” have a chance to reserve rooms, the remaining inventory will be offered to the general public along with a streamlined menu of event tickets.
Oneslager promised the return of most of the event’s signature features, including a full slate of symposiums and musical guests, 15 pop-up bars from around the world, a massive vendor marketplace, plus a signature luau on the beach. Expect to see some new faces along with many popular returning entertainers and VIPs from the past, including everyone’s favorite global rum ambassador.
Unfortunately, The Hukilau 2022 will likely not include any events at The Mai-Kai, the beloved Fort Lauderdale restaurant that remains closed for a multimillion-dollar renovation expected to be completed later this year, Oneslager said. The ongoing work on the historic property will prevent it from hosting guests, he said. But he was happy to announce that The Mai-Kai will host a pop-up bar and bungalow party. In addition, the new ownership team will share the refurbishment plans in an exclusive presentation.
The Mai-Kai hosted its last outdoor cocktail party in the restaurant parking lot during The Hukilau on Sept. 18, just before announcing the partnership with Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality that will pump more than $5 million into restoring the 64-year-old landmark. A severe storm in October 2020 caused a roof collapse over the kitchen, crippling the back-of-house operations and forcing the founding Thornton family to seek out its new partners.
In addition to The Mai-Kai pop-up featuring the restaurant’s classic tropical cocktails, villagers will have the opportunity to sample many other drinks crafted by some of the Tiki scene’s top mixologists from bars near and far. The Beachcomber’s quaint bungalows will also host parties thrown by rum sponsors and other groups every night of The Hukilau.
Event passes will cover most of the weekend activities for one price, including symposiums and unlimited cocktails. Details on tickets, entertainment and the daily schedule will be announced along with general public room reservations.
We remain thankful for every bit of good news. While a few of the stories below are frustrating (No. 4) or bittersweet (No. 1), they’re far out-numbered by the explosions of creativity and collective talent that drove most of the year’s activity. For that, we toast the entire Tiki community with a new cocktail and The Atomic Grog’s picks for the 10 most newsworthy stories of 2021. Bonus recipe below:The Tiki Lover
1. ALOHA AND FAREWELL, OCEANIC ARTS
As sure as the sun rose in the east and set in the west, there was one enduring creative force over the past six decades of Polynesian Pop style. In November 2021, there was a total eclipse and extended period of mourning when it was announced that Oceanic Arts would be closing its doors as its 80-something-year-old founders embark on a well-deserved retirement. Established in 1956 in Southern California by Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz, the company was always the go-to provider of original and imported pieces of South Seas art and decor for everyone from home enthusiasts to theme park giants including Disney (the doors to Trader Sam’s in Disneyland are Schmaltz’ handiwork). Art and woodwork originating from Oceanic Arts has been featured in nearly every legendary Polynesian palace, from Don the Beachcomber to Trader Vic’s to The Mai-Kai. The company put together movie set pieces and provided the distinctive style of many of the mid 20th century’s Tiki-themed hotels and motels, bowling alleys, and countless other establishments. Buoyed by the Tiki revival, the small shop in Whittier became a mecca for Tikiphiles from around the world and inspired a new generation of carvers and artists in the 21st century.
While the closing seemed to have come out of the blue, Van Oosting and Schmaltz had been planning their retirement for some time. They joined forces with longtime friend Jordan Reichek, owner of Peekaboo Gallery in nearby Montrose, for an epic career-spanning retrospective coming in 2022. In the spring, look for what’s being called an “experiential Tiki exhibition” featuring art and artifacts from Oceanic Arts paired with special events that include live music and performances, panel discussions, an “epic Tiki bar,” and more. The events will culminate with the “ultimate Tiki auction” art show and sale. In the meantime, the gallery is taking pre-orders for a mammoth Oceanic Arts history book compiled and written by Reichek, who worked closely with Van Oosting and Schmaltz. Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki is a 500-page opus that documents the rich history of Oceanic Arts via thousands of photos, original artwork and historical documents from the archives. After 65 years, Oceanic Arts leaves an indelible mark on pop culture that is likely to last for many more decades to come.
The entire Tiki community heaved a sigh of relief in September when the announcement came that The Mai-Kai – the historic, 65-year-old restaurant in Fort Lauderdale that has been closed due to storm damage since October 2020 – was saved from extinction by a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into a restoration and refurbishment. The year started with much concern after press reports emerged about the roof damage that destroyed the kitchen. A “Save The Mai-Kai” petition gathered more than 10,000 signatures in less than a month as devoted fans united online to share their support and concerns. The skeleton crew of owners and staff continued to offer regular takeout cocktails and began a series of events in the expansive parking lot. The highlights were The Mai-Kai’s first-ever Tiki Marketplace in April featuring vendors, entertainers, cocktails, rum tasting and more. A follow-up event in July kept the momentum going while behind-the-scene negotiations were likely starting to ramp up.
The big announcement came in September, just after hundreds of Tikiphiles from around the country finally returned to Fort Lauderdale for the 19th edition of The Hukilau. Then, a week later, the long-awaited news dropped. The founding Thornton family released details on social media on Sept. 28, outlining the joint venture with a South Florida-based real estate investment and development company known for working with legacy businesses. Its sister hospitality company already operates several vintage venues in Miami’s Little Havana. “We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the announcement said. “We’re excited to bring back The Mai-Kai better than ever before — and for you to be a special part of it!” Check out links to our in-depth report above and latest updates below.
The crushing blow of the pandemic was not easy to overcome for event organizers, but we slowly came out of our homes in 2021 and began to gather again in safe and physically-distanced environments. Longtime online meet-ups – most notably Tiki Trail Live and Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour – continued to thrive. But many longed for live human interaction, and a handful of key (mainly outdoor) events delivered that experience in the year’s early months. Then, when vaccines became widely available, we saw the return of several major Tiki events starting with Arizona Tiki Oasis on April 22-25. Carefully organized by Baby Doe and Otto von Stroheim, the event paved the way for an active summer, including the couple’s flagship Tiki Oasis on July 28 -Aug. 1 in San Diego. Momentum slowed in the late summer and fall as the first of several coronavirus variants emerged, but Tikiphiles still flocked to scaled-down events including Ohana: Luau At The Lake in upstate New York, The Hukilau and Tiki Fever in Florida, and Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, Calif. Rum aficionados around the world also were able to get back into the swing of tasting events, from the Jamaica Rum Festival in March to the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in November. See the full list of major 2021 events below.
There was much rejoicing after the announcement in September 2021 that after being closed for nearly a year, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale would reopen under a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into an extensive refurbishment and renovations. A devastating roof collapse in the kitchen in October 2020 had shut down indoor service indefinitely.
Now, as we move toward the end of 2022 and work progresses, fans and supporters are eager to learn details. The Atomic Grog will keep you updated with the latest info on the refurbishment of the historic Polynesian restaurant. Bookmark this page and check back often.
NOV. 15 – The Mai-Kai announces potential reopening in spring 2023
Delays both expected and unexpected have pushed back the target reopening timeframe to the spring of 2023, according to an official announcement that went out to The Mai-Kai’s email list.
Here’s the full text of the announcement, titled “An official update from the Mai-Kai Team” …
First of all, we would like to thank all of our loyal Mai-Kai customers and fans for their unending support and most of all patience while we continue our restoration and repairs.
We are working very hard behind the scenes to bring The Mai-Kai back and better than ever. As we continue our updates which include interior décor renovations and repairs as well as new construction in heavily damaged areas, we are running into expected and some unexpected delays.
We are now looking at a potential reopening in the Spring of 2023.
We are very thankful for all of the outreach and support that we have been receiving from all of you and look forward to welcoming you back as soon as we can.
Check back for more detailed updates on the renovations.
NOV. 7 – Interior renovations shed light on The Mai-Kai’s historic lamp designs
As sometimes happens in multimillion-dollar construction projects as large in size and scope as The Mai-Kai, there are inevitable delays beyond anyone’s control. Most of the current wait involves city permits for multiple jobs, which are complicated by the restaurant’s local and national historic status. Something as simple as installing thatch needs to be executed with historic standards in mind.
But there is a silver lining amid all the red tape: Additional time becomes an asset to the managers and craftspeople working on restoring the interior decor in The Mai-Kai’s many elaborately detailed dining rooms. Manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller both have their hands full with multiple projects inside the building that they continue to work on during the slowdowns on the larger projects outside.
Mattei is coordinating the ongoing development of new glassware and Tiki mugs, plus T-shirt and Aloha shirt designs for both staff and customers. He was also happy to confirm recently that a deal was signed with noted artist Mcbiff to create signature artwork and merchandise for The Mai-Kai (teased in our Sept. 19 update below).
One of the most fascinating jobs on Mattei’s plate is the refurbishment of one of The Mai-Kai’s coolest hidden gems: The nearly 200 distinctive table lamps that cast a warm and exotic glow throughout the restaurant.
To the uninitiated, these small lamps themed to the Polynesian islands are most notable for the thousands of signatures and remembrances scrawled upon the shades by guests over the past several decades. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a lot more than meets the eye.
We got to check out that same prototype shade recently in the back office, where Mattei gave us the lowdown on the project. Gone are the shades covered in graffiti, a tradition Mattei believes started in the 1980s when he first started working there.
In their place, The Mai-Kai is sourcing unique tapa cloth patterns that are being installed on the refurbished lamps by local craftspeople, including one of the old Mai-Kai entertainers who’s also a talented artist and carver. “We’re keeping it in the family,” Mattei said, pointing out the new detail of rope trim added to the new shade (see photo above).
Previously, there were three different shade patterns in the restaurant, Mattei said. As of the time of our chat, he had confirmed six new patterns that met with the owners’ approval. But he said they were still searching for more. The goal is to have different tapa patterns for every room, though some may end up sharing patterns.
There are also multiple shade designs, from bell to hourglass to several other odd shapes. Mattei said the local artists are also trying to recreate a shade design that hasn’t been used in years.
“We’ll have different patterns, different shades, different colors, so each room is distinct,” he said. “This is a whole project in itself.”
Some of the tapa patterns may also show up in the restaurant as wallpaper, Mattei said. The artist who designed them is tweaking them to make them unique to The Mai-Kai.
Will guests continue to write on the shades? “Hopefully they won’t,” Mattei said with a chuckle.
The lamp bases are being cleaned up and repaired, but they will remain exactly as they have been for decades. These are one of those great “hidden in plain sight” details that makes The Mai-Kai special.
The current lineup of lamps includes nine unique designs, each corresponding to its dining area. “Every room, from Hawaii to Tahiti, will have their original Tiki-style bases,” Mattei said. Each base is distinctive to a specific South Seas island.
For example, The Molokai bar lamp features a New Caledonia design, the Samoa dining room lamps have Marquesan style artwork, and the Tonga room lamps include The Mai-Kai’s signature trio of cannibals from that part of the South Pacific.
The New Guinea base Mattei showed me is “typical of a Sepik style figure you’ll find in New Guinea,” he said. The other dining areas that have their own unique lamp bases are Moorea, the Garden (the area in front of the showroom stage), and the Lanai (the outdoor seating on the deck next to the Tiki garden). There are around 175 lamps total, ranging from seven on the Lanai to 39 in The Molokai.
Mattei also teased that several of the new Tiki mugs will be stylistically related to two of the lamp designs.
So where did the lamps come from? Most date back to The Mai-Kai’s last massive refurbishment in 1970, when two new dining rooms were added and The Molokai was totally redesigned.
To manufacture the lamps, The Mai-Kai turned to Oceanic Arts, the legendary California company that supplied decor and artifacts to nearly every major Polynesian bar and restaurant over the past six decades. Established in 1956 (the same year as The Mai-Kai), Oceanic Arts recently closed up shop after the retirement of founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting. One of Tiki’s most influential artists, Schmaltz passed away in June at age 87.
Many of the bases are the originals created by Oceanic Arts, Mattei confirmed. Some were damaged and replaced over the years, along with the periodic updates of the shades.
As documented in Jordan Reichek’s 2022 book Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki, Schmaltz and Van Oosting recommended designer George Nakashima to The Mai-Kai’s founding owners, Bob and Jack Thornton. Nakashima ended up handling the interior design for the 1970 expansion.
Nakashima, who worked on dozens of other Polynesian palaces throughout the U.S., “designed everything custom, such as lighting fixtures and wall trim” that was handled by Oceanic Arts and others,” according to the book. Said Van Oosting: “The Mai-Kai is the last grand-palace of Polynesian decor. There really isn’t anything still in existence quite like it.”
Allsmiller, the man tasked with bringing all that decor back to life, is literally taking his job home with him during the breaks when work had to stop in the bar and dining rooms and await permit approvals. He has been taking some of the old hanging lamps back to his workshop to restore and, in some cases, replace them. “Some of them are unsavable so I just recreate them,” he said in a social media post.
Photos from “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller’s Central Florida workshop show his work restoring some of The Mai-Kai’s lighting fixtures, some of which date back to the early days of the 65-year-old restaurant. If they’re too far gone, he simply recreates them.
The Oceanic Arts book includes correspondence from Jack Thornton in late 1959 inquiring about several light designs by Schmaltz and Van Oosting. According to the book, some of those custom hanging lamps are still there today. “We produced some and others they ended up making locally,” Van Oosting said.
When we visited on Oct. 29, Mattei showed off some of the lamps that Allsmiller has finished (see photo above). They ranged from an almost full replacement to a simple shoring up of some broken pieces. Only Allsmiller knows for sure which is which. The restoration is so accurate it will be impossible to tell if and where any work was done.
NEW: Check out The Atomic Grog’s annual calendar for all the major events across the world of Tiki culture. The Tiki Times also includes rum events, plus modernism, surf and rockabilly music, Disney and other happenings of interest to the Tiki community. It will be continually updated throughout the year, so check the link below for main calendar page frequently: UPDATES: FULL 2022 EVENTS CALENDAR
Although at times 2021 seemed like 2020 all over again, we made some great strides toward a return to normalcy amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Many live events returned, albeit in abbreviated or scaled-down formats. Regular virtual and online events continued, giving many a safe way to interact. The Tiki Times, The Atomic Grog’s ongoing event guide, documented many of these happenings over the past year. Check below for artwork and links to official sites, plus images and videos from social media. Stay safe and remember to follow all COVID guidance as we face further challenges in 2022. THE WEEK IN TIKI 2022: Latest upcoming live and virtual events Support Tiki bars:Visit their online stores, buy the latest merchandise Social media:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
If you’re in a cold climate, you can curl up in front of the fire with a warm and comforting mug of holiday cheer. If you’re fortunate enough (like us) to hail from closer to the Equator, there are plenty of cool and refreshing concoctions to scratch your tropical itch. Hell, why not enjoy all of the options no matter where you live?
As this season’s wildly popular pop-up bars – most notably Miracle and Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Santa – continue to prove, there’s no shortage of demand for creative and well-themed Christmas cocktails. Beyond the big dogs, there are also one-off themed overlays in bars across the globe that are also worth checking out.
We make no claim to the expertise of those fantastic folks in the trenches, but it’s always fun to experiment with holiday flavors like a spoiled kid in a toy store. Joining The Atomic Grog’s pantheon of winter cocktails are three new creations, including our first seasonal Zombie ….
This time of year is not all snowmen and mistletoe. There are some elements of the season that make us feel like the walking dead. What better way to deal with the holiday hubris than a nice, stiff Zombie …
CHRISTMAS CREEPER (By Hurricane Hayward, The Atomic Grog)
Pulse blend with 1 1/2 cups of crushed ice for 6-9 seconds. Pour into a Zombie glass, adding more ice to fill. Garnish with mint and swizzle stick.
This looks like a Zombie and tastes like a Zombie, but it’s also full of sweet and tart holiday cheer. The potent rums and lime-cranberry combo hit you hard, but the spice and anise notes creep up on you. As will the alcohol content, so consume with caution or risk becoming a holiday party story your relatives will retell with relish.
Ingredient, mixing tips
* The cranberry and pomegranate, combined with the fresh lime, provide an enveloping underlying tartness that serves as a great base for the bold rums, anise and unique punch of the kirsch. We recommend a high-quality (or homemade) grenadine and natural cranberry juice. We didn’t try this, but it might also be worth swapping the grenadine for a cranberry simple syrup.
* Brown sugar syrup is easy to make by heating 1 part dark brown sugar with 1 part water on the stove until it starts to boil, then cooling in the fridge. We also make our own ginger and cinnamon syrups, and there are quite a few recipes available online. But if you’re not adventurous, we also recommend the bottled options, from B.G. Reynolds and Real Syrups.
* Kirschwasser, aka kirsch, is a colorless brandy that originated in Germany and is made from fermented cherries. It’s usually bottled at 80 to 90 proof and has a distinctive bitter cherry flavor that works well in a Zombie. It’s traditionally drunken neat as a digestif, but you can also find it in cocktails. It can also be used in festive holiday cakes, candies and the flaming cherries jubilee dessert. It’s relatively easy to find in liquor stores and worth seeking out for this distinctive cocktail. It works well with the rums and the traditional cocktail spices, absinthe and allspice. For the latter, we chose the subtle touch of a bitters (such as Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters) but a very small dash of pimento dram would work as well.
The 12th annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival may not have reached the epic proportions of past events, but it was a welcome return as we tiptoe into a post-pandemic world. Like an old friend who had only one day for a visit, the short-but-sweet tasting session on Nov. 14 brought the extended “rum family” back together in a safe space.
“Our decision to keep it simple paid off,” co-organizer Robert A. Burr said after the event. “We sold out with 500 tickets and the size of the crowd was very comfortable. It’s so satisfying to gather with our rum friends again.” Burr and wife Robin also welcomed back son Robert V. Burr to the rum fest. His move back to South Florida will enable him to once again be involved in the event, he told us during the festivities.
While socially distant interactions are still awkward, it was clear that both attendees and participating rum brands were very happy to be there. The elder Burr said many “expressed their heartfelt appreciation.”
Hosted for a second time at the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club, the event was not spread out over multiple days like years past. The Rum Renaissance Tasting Event featured no seminars or judging sessions, but the Burrs definitely didn’t skimp on the rums. There appeared to be even more tasting booths than there were in 2019.
The tasting session for the general public ran from 2 to 6 p.m., and we spent the better part of that time catching up with old friends and sampling many fine rums. We immediately knew we were in for a treat when we entered the first of two event halls to find an elaborate Rhum Barbancourt booth manned by master mixologist Tobin Ellis. The legendary rum from Haiti was making a rare appearance in Miami with Ellis, an influential bartender and consultant from Las Vegas who made a splash at the rum fest in its early days.
I had not seen Ellis since we faced off in 2011 at the third annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival’s Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai. He won that mixology contest, of course, and I remember him offering this newbie some great advice. It was fantastic to catch up with one of the bar and cocktail world’s most creative minds. It was also comforting to find out that he remains a very humble and down-to-earth guy.
Some other no-less-notable names were in the house, representing dozens of rum brands from around the world. With my time limited, I made an attempt to sample as many new and intriguing rums as possible. It was definitely tough to restrain myself from revisiting the many past favorites, including Diplomatico, Dos Maderas, El Dorado, Pusser’s, and others. Check out our past coverage for all of these, plus more.
Here are seven memories we walked away with from this year’s rum reunion in Coral Gables …
QUICK TAKES: 2021 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival highlights
BEST BOOTH: Rhum Barbancourt. The sophisticated kiosk from Haiti’s flagship brand had everything you’d want from a rum festival presenter: Classy and eye-catching displays plus a perfect photo-op spot, the full range of distinctive rums readily available for tasting, and a world-class mixologist shaking up fresh (and delicious) cocktails. It was almost unfair to the rest of the brands. Of course, we’re intimately familiar with the full Barbancourt range from its years as a sponsor of The Hukilau. And we’ve always kept our home bar stocked with the three 86-proof core products – the lightly aged Rhum Blanc, the 4-year-old “3 Stars,” and the 8-year-old Speciale Reserve “5 Stars” – along with the 70-proof Barbancourt Pango, one of the best flavored rums on the market. You’ll find several Barbancourt rums featured in our new Haitian Zombie recipe. But the brand’s crown jewel is the premium sipping rum, the 15-year-old Estate Reserve blend. Like the others, it’s distilled from sugar cane juice in the rhum agricole style and aged in French oak. We were reminded just how good this rum is after tasting the complex, nuanced and very refined sip. Rhum Barbancourt remains one of the most consistent (and reasonably priced) brands on the market.
BEST NEW RUM: Plantation Trinidad 2009. I almost skipped the booth from longtime festival participant Plantation – the popular rum brand from France’s Maison Ferrand. I own or have tasted most of the booth’s award-winning bottlings, which are sourced from islands across the world before a second aging and bottling in France. But I spotted a new one, and I’m glad I stopped to try it. Plantation Trinidad 2009 is a limited-edition blend that was aged for 11 years in ex-bourbon casks in Trinidad before aging for a year in oak barrels in France. Plantation has perfected this somewhat controversial production style, and it serves this release well. Clocking in a 103.6 proof, this is a dynamic yet delicate blend with light citrus and spice notes along with hints of gasoline (in a good way). The latter was something I don’t recall ever encountering in a modern Trinidadian rum (Angostura is now the island’s sole rum producer). It’s an intriguing release, one I definitely recommend. Just for the heck of it, I compared it head-to-head against a similar rum from the festival’s VIP Tasting Bar: the acclaimed Velier Caroni 15. This is a 15-year-old, 104-proof rum from the Caroni Distillery in Trinidad, which unfortunately closed in 2003 after a long history that included many years of supplying its rich, dark rums to the British Navy. This bottling from Italy’s Velier is outstanding, a rich and powerful rum with lots of dark fruit flavors and an oily, gasoline-like punch. One of my favorites from the tasting bar. The similarities in the two rums was clear, particularly the smoky petrol. To me, the Plantation Trinidad 2009 release comes off as a lighter, more approachable version of the Caroni 15. (Note: There’s also a 12-year-old Caroni from Velier that I have not tried.). The ABV is almost identical, and the same unique gasoline notes stand out. When Caroni closed, the majority of its remaining rum was acquired by Angostura, so it’s entirely possible some Caroni stock is used in this blend. All the Plantation website says is the rum “was chosen from the cellars of Trinidad Distillers” (which owns Angostura). There has been speculation that Angostura uses some of its Caroni stock in the “1787” expression, its top-of-the-line rum blend that’s aged for a minimum of 15 years but released at just 80 proof. It’s possible there’s also a tiny bit of Caroni in this new blend from Plantation as well.
After 18 months of tasting rum in the privacy of our home bars, it’s about time that South Florida offers a small gathering where enthusiasts can sample dozens of new and long-standing products. Luckily for us, the Miami Rum Festival makes its return this weekend for its first event since May 2019.
Billed as the 2021 “Rum Renaissance Tasting Event,” it’s limited to one four-hour general session on Sunday at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club, but that’s more than enough reason to celebrate the safe return of one of the rum world’s longest-running festivals.
Established in 2009, the Miami fest pre-dates the recent fascination among fans of craft spirits and the expansion of premium rum brands and events around the world. It presciently anticipated rum’s renaissance in the past decade and offered both enthusiasts and industry VIPs a high-quality gathering place every year, without fail.
The coronavirus pandemic put all that on hold in 2020, but founders Robert and Robin Burr are ready to welcome back their rum family for a scaled-down, one-day event that will continue to celebrate the ongoing renaissance. The general public is welcome from 2 to 6 p.m. Doors open for industry and trade at 12:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 14 – Miami Rum Renaissance Festival at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club, 1001 East Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables. Tickets $39 to $49 per person. Limited free parking. For safety reasons, attendance is limited. Tickets may sell out in advance, so be sure to get them now or by phone at 305-350-0764. PURCHASE TICKETS ONLINE
The festival includes unlimited small samples of more than 150 products from dozens of brands, from Antelope Island to Zacapa. Participants include such well-known labels as Cockspur (Barbados), El Dorado (Guyana), Plantation (Caribbean and elsewhere), Rhum Barbancourt (Haiti), Ron Diplomatico (Venezuela), Saint James (Martinique), and Tanduay (Philippines).
But you’ll also spot up-and-coming products from craft distillers including Copalli (Belize) and Prichard’s (Tennessee), along with many other small brands. It’s a chance to taste many new releases just coming to market, along with older expressions that are often hard to find.
Hundreds of connoisseurs, collectors, judges and rum lovers are expected to flock to the historic venue, which first hosted the event in 2019. They’ll have the rare chance to mingle with a room full of rum producers, master distillers, importers, distributors, retailers and other members of the spirits trade. All attendees also receive a free tasting glass.
“We’re excited that Miami Rum Fest is celebrating its 12th anniversary of bringing the world of rum to South Florida,” organizer Robert Burr said in an announcement on his longtime resource, Rob’s Rum Guide. “We’ve been visiting rum producers to gather an incredible collection of fine rums to sample for this grand tasting event. It’s an opportunity for rum enthusiasts to enjoy their favorites and discover some delightful new expressions, gain a greater appreciation and share the enthusiasm of these fine spirits with friends.”
Beyond all the booths hosted by visiting rum brands, another highlight of the event is the VIP Tasting Bar, a selection of rare, collectable, and limited-edition rums from the Burrs’ own private stash. There’s an extra fee to sample these hard-to-find and expensive rums, but proceeds benefits a local non-profit organization. If you’ve seen the Burrs’ home collection in their Rum Wreck Dive Bar, you’ll know they have a wide assortment of spirits to choose from.
The venue is a charming historic building that dates back to 1935. With wood flooring and rustic touches, it’s unlike most modern event spaces. The surrounding downtown Coral Gables district features a half-dozen hotels within a short distance of the festival. There are also many restaurants, bars and entertainment venues in the area for mingling after the event.
2019 PHOTOS AND RECAP: Smaller Miami Rum Festival offers quality, not quantity
Downsized to a smaller but classier venue after six years at massive convention centers, the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival fit into its new environment like a classic cocktail in vintage glassware. Instead of an over-the-top Tiki drink, guests were treated to a rum Old Fashioned. But the end result was ultimately just as satisfying.
While “less is more” could be a cliché, it seems to work fine in the context of a rum-tasting festival. After all, how many rum samples can you really drink in one or two days? As long as the exhibitors and brands provide top-notch products, including a nice mix of new and classic offerings, attendees should find the festival fulfilling. This was certainly the case at Rum Renaissance Festival, circa 2019. 2019 event preview:Miami Rum Renaissance Festival returns to its roots after 10 years
The Burrs held their first rum-tasting event in 2008 at the historic Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. The return to the Miami suburb in 2019 brought the festival full-circle after a decade in large event spaces across South Florida.
The Coral Gables Woman’s Club may seem like an unlikely site for a rum fest, but it worked out nicely. The crowds taxed the air-conditioning system in the 100-year-old building during the peak afternoon hours and sweltering heat of mid-May, but that’s an issue that can easily be rectified. The charm of the building, which was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1990, outweighs its faults.
As for the event itself, our afternoon visit was marked by a deep dive into an array of spirits, a reunion with old friends and a general feel of an easy-going industry gathering. Sadly, it was our last time seeing the beloved Plantation Rum ambassador, Rocky Yeh, who passed away Dec. 1, 2019, at age 42. He left a huge mark on the industry during his short but vibrant life and will always be remembered.
While it’s technically not a rum, I was thrilled to pick up a bottle of Kronan Swedish Punsch. I had seen mentions of this classic rum liqueur in cocktail books for years, and it was great to finally have one in my arsenal. Another flavored rum product, Rum Java, wowed us with its distinctive flavors. Distilled from Florida sugarcane, it was the best of several coffee rums we sampled – definitely one of the top trends of the festival.
Lemon Hart & Sons made a rare festival appearance, touting its new Blackpool Spiced Rum and the long-awaited U.S. market return of Lemon Hart 1804, the classic Demerara rum from Guyana. Ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis also mixed up some of the tastiest cocktails of the day.
Until cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed the mystery behind Don the Beachcomber’s classic Zombie cocktail, the true recipe lay buried for more than 70 years. Berry’s discovery and publication of his findings in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari (2007) spurred a revival and greater appreciation of the deadly drink that continues to this day.
Simultaneously and coincidentally, the world of cinema also went zombie crazy, ushering in a renaissance of the modern horror archetype. Of the 30 films on a recently published list of “The best zombie movies of all time,” half were released in the 21st century.
With the precision of a pathologist, Berry dissected and definitively revealed the template that the bootlegger turned Tiki cocktail pioneer used to create what was arguably the most popular drink of the post-Prohibition era. The original 1934 recipe is a groundbreaking masterpiece, combining multiple rums and spices with sweet and sour juices and syrups, bitters, and even a touch of anise. Stay tuned for the upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film (The Donn of Tiki) for the full story of his life and times.
But what inspired the name of the cocktail? We can only assume it was White Zombie, released just a year or two before the drink and considered to be the first zombie film. Starring monster movie legend Béla Lugosi, it’s a far cry from today’s gore fests featuring flesh-eating corpses. The movie is actually fairly faithful to the true folklore, spinning the tale of a Haitian voodoo priest who drugs his victims and turns them into zombie slaves.
In the ensuring years, that origin story has been widely ignored by pop culture. The movie genre traces its modern roots to director George Romero and his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Nearly every movie or TV series since has loosely followed Romero’s template of reanimated corpses mindlessly running amok for no apparent reason, with political and social statements thrown in for good measure.
Back in the 1930s, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach) simply borrowed the name and made no attempt at connecting it to its island of origin. But what if we go back to the roots of the true zombie legend and use it as inspiration for not one, but two new Zombie cocktails?
BACKGROUND: Haitian zombie folklore rooted in slavery, French colonialism
The true story behind zombie folklore is scarier and more tragic than a movie.
Like its sister islands, what is now Haiti was invaded and colonized by a European power. France established Saint-Domingue in 1664, growing it into the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean on the backs of African slaves.
The brutal practice came to a violent end in 1791, when slaves staged a mass revolt and rose up against their oppressors. By 1794, the French government abolished slavery throughout its empire, more than 70 years before the 13th Amendment ended the practice in the United States.
The revolt sparked the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804 with the island’s independence and heroic ex-slave Toussaint Louverture installed as Haiti’s first governor general. It was a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World, distinctive as the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state that was both free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former captives.
The legend of the zombie, or “zonbi” as it was known in Haitian Creole culture, could be considered a metaphor for the horrors of slavery.
The word itself and the concept of zombie-like creatures can be traced back to African origins. Some research has also found a connection to the island’s indigenous Taíno people, known for their shamanist practices. The African slaves brought with them traditions and from their homeland, including the “Vodou” religion.
Haitian Vodou developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, merging traditional religions of west and central Africa with Roman Catholicism. In Haitian culture, a zonbi is a dead body brought back to life by a Vodou sorcerer known as a “bokor.” According to legend, the zonbi is under the total control of the bokor as a personal slave and lacks any will of its own. It’s part of a complex, spiritual belief (“soul dualism”) that a person has two or more kinds of souls.
One soul (“body soul”) is associated with body functions while the other (“free soul” or “wandering soul”) can leave the body. In the belief system of the enslaved Africans brought to Haiti, the afterlife included a return to their homeland, where both souls were reunited. However, if they had offended their voodoo deity, they would remain a zonbi and be a slave for eternity.
The fear of “zombification” was used by slave drivers to discourage slaves from committing suicide. These men who directed the daily work were often slaves themselves and sometimes also practicing voodoo priests, according to scholars. After the revolution, the zonbi became part of Haitian folklore, a stirring reminder of the past in the hope that it never happens again.
The earliest references to zombies in the United States, cited throughout the 1800s, were also closely associated with slavery and connected to African traditions. But the phenomenon went mainstream during the United States’ military occupation of Haiti (1915–1934).
Travel writer William Seabrook’s book, The Magic Island (1929), revealed “voodoo cults” in Haiti and likely inspired the 1932 film White Zombie. Though it takes place in Haiti, the film twists the legend to appeal to its American audience. I Walked With A Zombie, a 1943 horror movie set in a fictional Caribbean island, further strays from the original legend. By 1968 and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the horror film was cloaked in social commentary and civil rights, leaving Haiti’s zonbi myth to the history books.
The Haitian zombie made a brief comeback in 1985, when anthropologist Wade Davis published his controversial findings in the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which recounted his experiences investigating Vodou cults in Haiti. It was criticized for scientific inaccuracies in regards to its theories about psychoactive drugs, but it was a commercial success and inspired the 1988 horror film of the same name (starring Bill Pullman).
But just when you thought the legend was dead and buried, a more socially aware mindset has sparked new interest.
The Halloween season is usually a special time at The Mai-Kai. The 62-year-old Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale has seen its fair share of wild and crazy parties over the years, but not many can come close to the annual Hulaween bash.
Following flooding and roof damage right before Hulaween 2020, last year’s party moved to the parking lot for the first Hulaween Drive-In Movie. The historic Tiki temple remains closed for renovations, and there will sadly be now Hulaween in 2021 after 12 straight years of hijinks.
Despite this apparent doom and gloom, spirits are high among the staff and longtime fans of the family-run operation after last month’s announcement of a new partnership that will not only pave the way for the reopening, but also pump money and energy into making The Mai-Kai better than ever.
Another parking lot party is just not in the cards this year, but we eagerly await the day in 2022 when those doors will swing open and we’ll be back in The Molokai bar for happy hour, followed by dinner and the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
It won’t be long after that before we’re ready for the lucky 13th Hulaween, featuring crazy costumes, live music, and those delicious Mai-Kai cocktails. In the meantime, here’s a look back at the past 12 years of Hulaween madness in The Molokai. Click on the links for full coverage and photos.