The Hukilau was held June 6-9, 2013, at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel (aka the Yankee Clipper) and The Mai-Kai restaurant. See below:Gallery of 40 photos
More than 800 devotees of Polynesian Pop culture and classic mid-century style assembled for the 12th annual gathering of the tribe known as The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale. Despite inclement weather that forced some venue and schedule changes, the colorfully-clad attendees didn’t seem to mind, flocking to a wide assortment of events showcasing eclectic music, rum-filled cocktails, expert speakers and lots more.
Below are the highlights of The Atomic Grog’s whirlwind weekend, which began early in the week with organizational efforts and didn’t end until Sunday’s post-event party at The Mai-Kai. I missed one band and a couple symposiums, but I tried to hit all the major happenings and photographed the revelry for posterity (see photos below). For extensive photo coverage, click on the Go11Media link below the gallery.
The following is highly subjective but should give a fair snapshot of the wide array of festivities, along with a few tasty cocktail recipes. I apologize to any bands and participants I may have neglected to mention, but all did a great job. It was tough narrowing this list down to 10. In roughly chronological order …
Most fans of the spectacular tropical drinks at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale are content with the current 47 cocktails, a majority of them classic concoctions that have withstood the test of time for 60 years. But The Atomic Grog can’t get enough of The Mai-Kai, so like to crank up our flux capacitor and go back in time to dig up a few “lost cocktails” that disappeared from the menu over the years.
When the Demerara Cocktail came out of retirement in August 2012, it gave us the inspiration to dig deeper into the history and explore some of the other long-gone drinks. Here’s the cool part: They’re not really long gone. The old recipes are still kept in owner Dave Levy’s office, safely under lock and key. Levy is the stepson of founder Bob Thornton, and keeper of most of the remaining cocktail secrets.
So after the return of the Demerara Cocktail, the next logical step was to revisit its sister drink, the Demerara Float. It took more than six months, but our wish was granted unexpectedly in early in 2013, when the photo above popped up on the Facebook news feed of The Hukilau organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White. It looked like a Shark Bite with its Appleton rum floater. But this was no Shark Bite. The rum was noticeably darker. Could it be?
The mysterious Zula #1 is easily one of the most curious (and deliciously distinctive) cocktails on The Mai-Kai’s 56-year-old tropical drink menu. And, as usual, it has a fascinating back-story.
The cocktail’s flavors are just as exotic as its origins, which both took us years to figure out. The pineapple-forward taste is unlike any other you’ll find at The Mai-Kai.
But there’s another secret about Zula #1 that not many guests may be aware of: It shares its name (and flavor profile) with a secret off-menu sister drink, the smaller and sweeter Zula #2. But it wasn’t always that mysterious.
Long-stemmed glassware was extremely popular in the 1950s. You’ll find a dozen cocktails on early menus using the elegant coupe glass, which faded from use at The Mai-Kai but made a big comeback at craft cocktail bars in the early 21st century.
By 1979, when the menu had been arranged in its now-familiar “mild,” “medium” and “strong” groupings, the names had changed slightly to Zula #1 (strong) and Zula #2 (mild), but the coupe glass endured. It’s now served in a short rocks glass similar to the Shark Bite, Oh So Deadly and Mai-Kai Special.
We’ve seen menus from the ’80s that still feature Zula #2. But by the 1990s it was gone, never to be seen on a menu again. What many didn’t realize as the years went by, however, is that you could still order the milder Zula. By the time I started bellying up to the bar in the 2000s, it was a distant memory. I only discovered it while researching the history of Zula #1 for this cocktail guide.
I give credit to Tiki Central friends for helping track down the drink’s origins. As we know now, a majority of the vintage cocktails served at the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace (32 at last count) can be traced back to drinks created by tropical drink godfather Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber).
However, nothing in Beach’s vast repertoire seemed to resemble the Zula. But there it was in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari (2007), right under our nose: Penang Afrididi. Don’t ask us how the names relate, but the flavor profile is indeed remarkably similar. The clincher: There are two versions of both cocktails, known as Penang Afrididi #1 and Penang Afrididi #2.
Oh So Deadly is a deceptive name since the cocktail is actually from the mild section of The Mai-Kai’s extensive menu. It packs intense flavors, however, ranking it among the best of the mild drinks.
Until recently, we were convinced that cinnamon was a featured ingredient. When this guide was launched in 2011, Oh So Deadly was among 10 cocktails that we thought contained cinnamon syrup, a key secret weapon of Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber. Many of The Mai-Kai’s best drinks are direct descendants of Beachcomber classics from the 1930s through 1950s, when original mixologist Mariano Licudine tended bar at Don the Beachcomber restaurants in Hollywood, Calif., and Chicago. In this case, Oh So Deadly can be traced back to Never Say Die.
In 2012, we posted our take on Oh So Deadly featuring cinnamon and considered this among our better tributes. However, in June 2015 we learned that cinnamon syrup is not featured in any of the current cocktails. Manager Kern Mattei and owner Dave Levy assured me that it’s not used anywhere on the menu, though the cinnamon sticks used for garnish in several of the drinks can give you that illusion. This caused a minor stir on Tiki Central, where Mai-Kai cocktail fans debated the revelation.
The distinctive juices, rums and syrups used at The Mai-Kai have always given the cocktails a unique flavor that’s nearly impossible to duplicate. The phantom cinnamon flavor in drinks such as Oh So Deadly just reinforces that fact. The juices come fresh-squeezed from South Florida groves, the rums include bold Jamaican and Demerara brands, and the syrups are house-made following mysterious recipes that only Levy knows.
More recently, the recipe was tweaked to add falernum, which gives it an added boost of flavor. This Caribbean syrup features many exotic flavors, including almond, ginger, cloves, and lime. It’s featured in multiple drinks on the menu, including Cobra’s Kiss, Mai-Kai Swizzle and S.O.S. Oh So Deadly contains a healthy dose of falernum, making it perhaps the best showcase of all.
What also sets it apart from many of the other mild drinks is the inclusion of two of The Mai-Kai’s most distinctive rums (Demerara and dark Jamaican). The mild cocktails typically contain light and gold rums that don’t impart as much flavor. Oh So Deadly is an exception to that rule.
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 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.