UPDATE: Rums of The Mai-Kai include potent, funky flavors from Guyana and Jamaica

Vintage Lemon Hart bottles in the back service bar at The Mai-Kai, along with the latest version of the venerable 151 Demerara rum (right). (Atomic Grog photo, February 2018)

Updated Sept. 9, 2019

UPDATE: What we learned at Appleton master blender Joy Spence’s rum tasting at The Mai-Kai Appleton master blender Joy Spence hosts rare rum tasting at The Mai-Kai
What could possibly be better than an Appleton Estate rum tasting at The Mai-Kai? How about the first-ever such event at the historic Polynesian palace hosted by Joy Spence, the longtime master blender for the venerable Jamaican brand synonymous with pure premium rum. Check out our full recpap and photos, including 5 things you might not know about Joy Spence, 12 things we learned about how Appleton rum is made, and how she wants you to experience Appleton Estate rums.
Recipe: Joy Spence’s favorite rum cocktail

Hear The Rums of The Mai-Kai symposium on the Inside the Desert Oasis Room podcast
The Rums of The Mai-Kai, presented by The Atomic Grog at The Hukilau 2019
Mahalo to Adrian Eustaquio and Inside the Desert Oasis Room for documenting the June 9 presentation featuring Hurricane Hayward and Matt Pietrek of Cocktail Wonk live on stage at The Mai-Kai during the closing festivities of The Hukilau 2019.
Click here to listen now or subscribe on iTunes and other podcast platforms

SPECIAL EVENT: The Rums of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau 2019
The Rums of The Mai-Kai, presented by The Atomic Grog 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 Pier Sixty-Six hotel on June 8, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai Grand Finale on June 9.
See the event preview | Full recap coming soon!
Get detailed reports and photos on Tiki Central
The Atomic Grog presents new class and symposium at The Hukilau
Coming soon: Exclusive news on a new replacement for Kohala Bay rum at The Mai-Kai, plus more!
* See exclusive info and photos on Tiki Central

PAST EVENTS: ‘Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon’ Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai's Secret Weapon on Jan. 19, 2019, at The Mai-Kai The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, 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.
The Hukilau 2018: How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai cocktail class recap, photos

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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.

More on The Mai-Kai’s rums below
* Rums from Guyana star in classic cocktails
* The legacy of Jamaica’s dark rums
* Rating the Kohala Bay replacements
* Appleton rums: Jamaica’s gold standard
* Full list of sipping rums
Related: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide, reviews and ratings
* The Mai-Kai updates bar menu, adds ‘lost’ cocktail

From Sippin' Safari: This vintage photo shows Mariano Licudine displaying his rum collection in 1962.
From Sippin’ Safari: This vintage photo shows Mariano Licudine displaying his rum collection in 1962.

To run the bar program, the Thorntons tapped one of Beach’s top mixologists, Mariano Licudine, who spent 16 years honing his craft at Don the Beachcomber in their native Chicago. Licudine brought more than skills, secret recipes and a penchant for creating his own distinctive cocktails. He brought a great appreciation for rum. That legacy continues today in the drinks that carry on the tradition of Beach, the Thornton brothers and Licudine.
Menu: Vintage Don the Beachcomber rum list from 1941

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.

The back of an Okole Maluna Society membership card, circa late 1950s.
The back of an Okole Maluna Society membership card, circa late 1950s.

A membership card for the Okole Maluna Society, the short-lived rewards program that challenged guests to sample every cocktail on the menu, touted 52 different rums, “light and dark … obscure and renowned … robust and delicate.” The society has its own chapter in historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner‘s 2016 book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.

“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.

A 1941 rum menu from Don the Beachcomber in Chicago, where mixologist Mariano Licudine worked for 16 years before starting The Mai-Kai's bar program with owners Bob and Jack Thornton in 1956.
A 1941 rum menu from Don the Beachcomber in Chicago, where mixologist Mariano Licudine worked for 16 years before starting The Mai-Kai’s bar program with owners Bob and Jack Thornton in 1956.

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.

Thanks to Berry and his research, The Atomic Grog has been able to document in the Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide the direct connection between The Mai-Kai’s cocktails and those Donn Beach classics.

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.

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DEMERARA RUMS: Lemon Hart, Hamilton shine in strong, flavorful cocktails

Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
The newest release of the iconic Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum.

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.

Cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai. (Atomic Grog photo, April 2018)
Cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai. (Atomic Grog photo, April 2018)

151 Swizzle (151 proof)
Bora Bora (86 proof)
Jet Pilot (151 proof)
K.O. Cooler (151 and 86 proof)
Martinique Milk Punch (86 proof)
Oh So Deadly (86 proof)
Shrunken Skull (151 proof) UPDATED
Sidewinder’s Fang (86 proof)
S.O.S. (86 proof)
Special Planters Punch (151 proof)
Suffering Bastard (151 proof)
Yeoman’s Grog (86 proof)
Zombie (151 proof)

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

An ad for the new Lemon Hart 151 rum, which is returning to its traditional yellow label after several years off the market in the United States.
An ad for the new Lemon Hart 151 rum, which returned to its traditional yellow label after several years off the market in the United States.

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.

Continue reading “UPDATE: Rums of The Mai-Kai include potent, funky flavors from Guyana and Jamaica”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans

The Mutiny is now served in a heavier but still voluminous mug, which made its debut in April 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated August 2018
See below: Our Mutiny review | Tribute recipes UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
The Black Magic emerges from the shadows as a true classic
Texas Tiki Podcast: Hurricane Hayward talks about Mai-Kai cocktails NEW

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 Mutiny is now served in a heavier but still voluminous mug, which made its debut in April 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mutiny is now served in a heavier but still voluminous mug, which made its debut in April 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The only way to truly compare these titans until recently was to sit down at the 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.

Mutiny stands above the Black Magic and The Hukilau in the Atomic Grog ratings
The Mutiny stands above the Black Magic and The Hukilau in the Atomic Grog ratings. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2010)

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.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic

Updated June 2020
See below: Our Black Magic review | Tribute recipes UPDATED
Postscript: The Black Magic picked up by bloggers and bartenders, goes viral on social media UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans

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.

Courtesy of TheSwankPad.org
From a 1963 Mai-Kai calendar. (Courtesy of TheSwankPad.org)

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.

During a back-bar tour in November 2011, Manager Kern Mattei revealed the secret of how that flavor is preserved: An obscure dark rum called Kohala Bay that was produced by Wray & Nephew, the same company that previously made Dagger.

Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum
Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum was a key ingredient in many Mai-Kai cocktails. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2012)

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 and check out this Tiki Central thread for the full story of my search.

UPDATE: 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 Black Magic is served in The Molokai bar in October 2016. It's not really raining. That's The Mai-Kai's special windows that simulate a calming tropical downpour. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Black Magic is served in The Molokai bar in October 2016. It’s not really raining. That’s The Mai-Kai’s special windows that simulate a calming tropical downpour. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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 nigh 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.

************************** Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle

Updated May 2019
See below: Our 151 Swizzle review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipes
Related: Lemon Hart 151 returns | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

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.

The only thing more dangerous than a 151 Swizzle: Two 151 Swizzles
The only thing more dangerous than a 151 Swizzle: Two 151 Swizzles. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Just be careful when imbibing. The Mai-Kai doesn’t use the word “strong” lightly. Most contain at least 3 ounces of rum, some the higher-proof variety. 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 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 the world’s top Tiki bars, such as the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles. At Hale Pele in Portland, The Mai-Kai gets a shout-out in the menu description, and the presentation is very familiar.

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]

The Swizzle Cup is the centerpiece of a new line of Tiki barware produced by Cocktail Kingdom in association with Jeff "Beachbum" Berry
The Swizzle Cup is the centerpiece of a new line of Tiki barware produced by Cocktail Kingdom in association with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. (Cocktail Kingdom photo)

Revealed in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s groundbreaking 1998 cocktail guide, Grog Log, the original Don the Beachcomber recipe is no secret (see below). As cocktail sleuth Berry 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 frozen metal cup.

Finding the correct cup outside of the handful of bars mentioned above, however, has been extremely difficult. You could always find close approximations on eBay, but they fall short of the sleek, flared design of the original cup. 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]

With metal cups are in short supply, this is how you're likely to be served the 151 Swizzle.  (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)
With metal cups are in short supply, this is how you’re likely to be served the 151 Swizzle. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)

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. I’ve taken a stab at re-creating the same flavor profile and have posted an evolving “tribute recipe” below. Like Thornton, current owner Dave Levy (Bob’s stepson) likes to tinker with the recipe from time to time, especially when changes are 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 an easy 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.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle”