In the entertainment and hospitality industry, your biggest fans can also be your toughest critics. So when the new owner of South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai sat down with more than 100 Tiki enthusiasts during The Hukilau on June 11 for an open discussion of his plans to renovate the 65-year-old landmark, their reaction was crucial.
Judging by the many rousing ovations throughout the 50-minute presentation, veteran real estate developer and historic preservationist Bill Fuller passed the test with flying colors. The only murmurs of dissent came when the organizer of The Hukilau, Richard Oneslager, jokingly asked if it was true Fuller planned to replace the restaurant’s signature Chinese ovens with microwaves, and if The Molokai bar was being re-themed to Miami Vice.
Looming thunderstorms put a kibosh on the multimedia presentation planned for the open-air beachside gathering at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach. But Fuller’s words were more than enough to win over the crowd who came from around the world to the 19th Tiki weekender that traditionally culminates with a climactic evening at The Mai-Kai.
Fuller elaborated on those plans during his talk at The Hukilau, divulging some new details. He was joined by two members of The Mai-Kai family, Kulani Thornton Gelardi and Kern Mattei, who also revealed some interesting new projects in the works.
After a spirited intro by event emcee King Kululele, Oneslager sat down with Fuller and led a question-and-answer session under the large thatched hut between the pool and beach at the quaint boutique hotel. The burning questions on everyone’s mind, Oneslager said to Fuller, were: “What’s going to stay? What’s going to change? And are you going to screw things up?”
Fuller said he was “lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to join forces with the family” in September 2021. The reason The Mai-Kai is being preserved is mainly due to the will of the Thornton family, he said. Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, inherited the ownership mantle from her late husband, Robert Thornton, in 1989.
The 85-year-old family matriarch will continue to choreograph and produce the restaurant’s authentic Polynesian show, which she joined as a dancer from Tahiti in the early 1960s. “She has her own nuances, which is what makes special experiences like this tick,” Fuller said. “You can’t just replicate it, you need to have that body of knowledge, that creativity and heritage. That’s what’s so rich within the walls of The Mai-Kai.”
The first question for Fuller from the audience echoed a common refrain on social media: Exactly when can we expect to be back within those walls?
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 …
The Atomic Grog presents new class and symposium at The Hukilau 2019
Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog took guests on an virtual journey to the Caribbean to learn about the key rums and styles that have dominated The Mai-Kai’s acclaimed cocktails for more than 60 years. He was joined by rum expert Stephen Remsberg for an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at the Pier Sixty-Six hotel, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai. See the event preview
JANUARY 2019: Exploring Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai
Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon
The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. Click here to check out our full event recap, including photos and highlights of our Demerara rum discussion.
Most of the information below is from 2019 and before. Read our historical coverage and check out the news above. Stay tuned for full update, coming soon.
THE RUMS OF THE MAI-KAI
For more than 60 years, The Mai-Kai has carried on the tradition of Tiki forefather Don the Beachcomber by serving some of the world’s most acclaimed tropical drinks. The secret recipes created by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach) in the 1930s and ’40s became the basis for many of the exotic cocktails on the menu when Bob and Jack Thornton opened their Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale in 1956.
By their very nature, Tiki bars are known for their rums and cocktails highlighting cane spirits. But The Mai-Kai takes it to the extreme. The 48 drinks on Licudine’s original menu called for 43 different brands of rum, reports author and Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in The Mai-Kai chapter of Sippin’ Safari, the seminal 2007 book on Tiki’s unheralded bartenders that was recently expanded and enhanced for a 10th anniversary edition.
“Shortly after opening, The Mai-Kai became the largest independent user of rum in the U.S., pouring more than 2,000 cases of Puerto Rican rum in 1958 alone,” Berry wrote in Sippin’ Safari. Some 60 years later, lighter bodied rums from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands still make up a large chunk of the total volume of rum poured in The Mai-Kai’s secluded back bars. They play a key role in the many popular drinks on the tourist-friendly mild section of the menu.
But Beach’s true genius, as carried on by his brethren at The Mai-Kai, was the ability to blend rums of different body and character and create an entirely new and bold flavor profile. Many of The Mai-Kai’s most robust cocktails feature three and four different rums, such as the Zombie and Jet Pilot.
The rums that define The Mai-Kai style are straight out of Donn’s playbook. 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.
Following is a deep dive into these two rum styles as they’re served at The Mai-Kai today and through history, including discussion and reviews of the current brands and cocktails.
DEMERARA RUMS: Lemon Hart, Hamilton shine in strong, flavorful cocktails
The Mai-Kai began using the latest reboot of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, the iconic mixing rum from Guyana, in September 2016. This black blended overproof rum, which disappeared from the U.S. market in mid-2014, was reintroduced in the summer of 2016 and continues to regain distribution across the country. Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum (known as Original 1804) is making slower progress, and The Mai-Kai continues to use Hamilton 86 as its standard black blended Demerara rum as of mid-2018.
* Tiki Central: Latest updates on Lemon Hart’s return
It was during the two-year absence of Lemon Hart that Hamilton 151 and 86, also from Guyana, stepped up to fill the void. The Hamilton rums were embraced not only at The Mai-Kai, but at Tiki and craft cocktail bars across the country. While some bars have chosen to stick with Hamilton across the board, The Mai-Kai is splitting the difference with Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86.
Following is a list of the drinks at The Mai-Kai using Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums. The links will connect you with reviews and recipes.
Retired cocktails featuring Demerara rum: In addition to the current drinks listed above, you can also sample a few recipes for drinks that are no longer featured on The Mai-Kai menu. Both of these have made comebacks at special events, so you never know when they will return for an encore. Demerara Cocktail | Demerara Float
HISTORY: The saga of Demerara rums at The Mai-Kai
What exactly is Demerara rum and why is it so important to Tiki cocktails? According to Berry, aged Demerara rums “are the rich, aromatic, smoky ‘secret weapon’ in most truly memorable tropical drinks.” They hail from the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana, hence the name. The last remaining distillery in Guyana is Demerara Distillers, which produces its own extensive suite of rums under the El Dorado brand. It also supplies all of the world’s Demerara rum, including those bottled by Lemon Hart and Hamilton.
The historic distillery, aka Diamond Distillery, was established in 1670. The rums are made using molasses from local Demerara sugar, which along with the distillery’s special strain of cultured yeast, historic stills and Guyana’s tropical climate, provide a unique combination that yields some of the world’s richest rums. Diamond employs some of the oldest and unique stills the world, including the last wooden pot stills, which can be traced back to the 1730s.
There are more than 20 different styles of rum produced at the distillery, we learned in a 2014 seminar at the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami. Master distiller Shaun Caleb offered a fascinating look at the inner workings of Diamond Distillery and the excellent El Dorado rums.
There are many great cocktail debates, most notably the Martini (gin or vodka?) and Old Fashioned (rye or bourbon?). At The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, it’s the Mutiny vs. the Black Magic in an epic battle between two classic rum-and-coffee cocktails.
The only way to truly compare these titans until recently was to sit down at the restaurant’s legendary Molokai bar and taste them side-by-side. This can be a daunting task since they’re both very strong and very large cocktails, not that we haven’t tried many times.
But thanks to our research, you can give it a whirl in your home bar with the tribute recipes posted below and on the Black Magic review. These aren’t simple drinks, but we’re sure you’ll find the results well worth the effort.
I pitch my tent solidly in the Mutiny camp. It’s always been decidedly higher in my Mai-Kai cocktail ratings (currently sitting at No. 10) and has an incredible complexity that keeps drawing me back. The Black Magic isn’t far behind at No. 14.
So where did these distinctive cocktails come from, and why are they so similar? The Black Magic came first, reportedly created before The Mai-Kai’s opening by mixologist Mariano Licudine, who was then working for Don the Beachcomber. It appeared on the original 1956 Mai-Kai menu and was joined some 15 years later by the Mutiny.
According to legend, the Mutiny was conceived on one of the many Mai-Kai staff fishing trips at which the participants always brought an ample supply of two cocktails: the Black Magic and Barrel O’ Rum. According to the story, there was a rebellion against those two drinks always being featured. To quell an impending mutiny, an idea was hatched to somehow combine them into one monster drink, and the Mutiny was born.
It’s unclear if they were actually mixed together that day on the boat. More likely, Licudine put his talents to work later to create an amalgamation of two of the most popular drinks on the menu. This would not be out of line for the owners to request. The cocktails already share many of the same ingredients, so it took just a few tweaks to yield some amazing results.
The Mutiny has been cited as a favorite of the late Mai-Kai co-owner Bob Thornton, so perhaps he was the driving force behind the drink’s creation. Over the years, it’s been mentioned as favorite by a who’s who of Tiki revival VIPs, including bar owners and authors Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Martin Cate, plus Tiki Oasis co-founder Otto von Stroheim.
Prior to the opening of The Mai-Kai in 1956, there were perhaps other icy cocktails that employed dark rum and coffee as key ingredients. But none perfected it quite like the Black Magic.
The drink that has spawned dozens of imitators – and even two similar concoctions at The Mai-Kai – has taken on legendary status in the Tiki cocktail community. The Black Magic is the oldest of what some call the “Holy Trinity” of large snifter drinks at The Mai-Kai: The Black Magic, Mutiny and The Hukilau.
One of the keys to this drink is a distinctive dark rum favored by original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine: Dagger was a dark Jamaican brand that stopped production some time ago. It became somewhat of a holy grail of Tiki mixologists looking to duplicate the key flavor in many Mai-Kai cocktails, especially the Black Magic.
Needless to say, we immediately went on an intensive search, but short of taking a trip to Jamaica it was nearly impossible to locate. We were told it was being imported only to Florida, and The Mai-Kai was one of only two bars to serve it. After some digging, however, we miraculously found a rare retail outlet that carried Kohala Bay and immediately stocked up. Our discovery of Kohala Bay sparked many other tribute recipes that you’ll find in this guide, and also spurred many other home mixologists to seek out the rum. Click here for more on the history of Kohala Bay at The Mai-Kai.
But all good things must come to an end. Kohala Bay was taken off the market in April 2016 and has not returned. While still seeking out an appropriate dark and funky run to fill the bill, The Mai-Kai switched to one of the Appleton Estate rums as its dark Jamaican mixer. Then, suddenly, a new rum appeared in April 2019. It’s a secret in-house multi-rum blend, similar to one of those we had been touting here on the blog. Click here for an in-depth guide along with all the suggested Kohala Bay substitutes.
The name Black Magic comes from the combination of dark rums and coffee, which sets this drink apart from most others from its era. It was reportedly created by Licudine while he was still working for Donn Beach as the No. 2 bartender at the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago. But even Beach’s top men were not given the opportunity to contribute their own creations to his legendary drink menu.
Lured to Fort Lauderdale to run The Mai-Kai’s bar and create what would decades later become an iconic menu in its own right, Licudine borrowed heavily from Beach’s classics but also added his own flair (Mara-Amu, Derby Daiquiri, etc.). The Black Magic may be his crowning achievement, and it was his first creation to appear on a Mai-Kai menu.
While it’s not nearly as complex, an early Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s called the Jamoca could possibly have influenced Licudine, since he worked at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles at the tail end of that decade. As revealed by Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the Jamoca contains 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice, 1/2 ounce coffee syrup, 1 ounce chilled coffee, 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum, 1 ounce gold Jamaican rum, and 4 ounces of crushed ice. Blended at high speed for 5 seconds and poured into a specialty glass, it’s a coffee-heavy drink that hits few of the high notes later achieved by Licudine with the Black Magic. Berry theorized that it may have been an early Donn Beach experiment inspired by turn-of-the-century soda fountain fare. It’s historically worth noting, but probably not a true ancestor of the Black Magic. We consider this classic to be a true Mariano Licudine original.
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.