The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk about “Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon” during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled.
A big thanks to sponsor Lemon Hart & Son rum and brand ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis for all the assistance, including the photos below plus the promo materials featured at the event as well as a special Blackpool spiced rum package that was presented to a lucky charity raffle winner. The raffle raised $275 for the Humane Society of Broward County.
The event kicked off at 4 p.m. with an extra hour of happy hour that included our talk in The Molokai bar. There was a full house of close to 100 people on hand for the 30-minute presentation, plus two sample cocktails featuring Lemon Hart’s two traditional Demerara rums.
Lemon Hart 151 is a legendary Tiki cocktail ingredient and one of the world’s most distinctive rums. The Mai-Kai features it in seven of its most flavor-packed (and strong) cocktails, including the Jet Pilot and Zombie. Guests at the Jan. 19 event were treated to a mini version of the 151 Swizzle, a classic that showcases the rich and smoky overproof rum.
As a special treat, we also sampled the long-lost Demerara Float, perhaps the best of all the drinks from the 1956 menu that have been retired over the decades. It’s served only at special events, so it was a unique opportunity to try this Don the Beachcomber creation (originally known as the Demerara Dry Float) using Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum, aka Original 1804.
Attendees received my handy checklist documenting all The Mai-Kai cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86, with the strong warning that I don’t advise trying all 13 in one sitting. Or two. Or three. Take your time and savor them. RELATED: See all the cocktails featuring Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai
Here are some nuggets of info from the 30-minute talk:
Updated Feb. 8, 2018
The Hukilau gave its loyal fans a New Year’s treat by announcing an expanded lineup for the East Coast’s largest Tiki-themed event, giving its regular “villagers” early access and discounts on tickets. The general public can now join the party at the 17th annual mash-up of Polynesian Pop and cocktail culture.
Here are the highlights of the announcement, sent via email and posted on the official website. I also spoke directly with the event’s owner and co-organizer, Richard Oneslager, to get all the scoop on 2018. NEW: As of Feb. 8, this preview is now updated with the late January announcement.
Party like it’s 2009: Los Straitjackets (left) will headline The Hukilau for a second time, while The Intoxicators will make their 13th appearance at the Tiki party in Fort Lauderdale. (Photos from The Hukilau 2009)
PREVIEW: The Hukilau 2018 highlights
* MUSIC: More headlining bands. The 2018 event will include some of the world’s top surf and exotica bands, including Los Straitjackets, The Madeira, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Quintet and The Martian Denny Orchestra. Villagers will also be thrilled to see the return of The Intoxicators, who missed 2017 after 12 straight appearances. Other performers include The Exotics, Black Flamingos, Czarna Wolgastar, The Royal Pacifics, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, and The Hukilau’s one and only emcee during its previous 16 years, the ubiquitous King Kukulele. Look for more bands to be announced, along with special guest DJs. Bands will perform on all five days in various venues. [More details below]
* BARS: 12 Tiki pop-ups. Seven of last year’s 10 acclaimed bar teams are returning, joined by five new Tiki-themed pop-ups from around the world setting up shop all over Pier 66 at special events, tastings, and classes. Due to popular demand, a second afternoon pool party with complimentary cocktails has been added to the schedule. Back for more more rum and cocktails are bartenders from Dirty Dick (Paris), Flask & Cannon (Jacksonville), Hidden Harbor (Pittsburgh), Nu Lounge Bar (Italy), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), Pagan Idol (San Francisco), and S.O.S. Tiki Bar (Atlanta). Coming on board for 2018 are Death Or Glory (Delray Beach), Foundation Bar (Milwaukee), Frankie’s Tiki Room (Las Vegas), Tonga Hut (Los Angeles), and Trailer Happiness (London). [More details below]
Rum ambassador Ian Burrell presents a symposium at The Hukilau 2017 (Atomic Grog photo). He’ll be joined in 2018 by cocktail pioneer and influential musician/DJ Brother Cleve (Photo by Audrey Harrer).
* INDUSTRY VIPS: Cocktail influencer makes debut. Boston’s Brother Cleve will bring his vast knowledge of cocktails and music to The Hukilau for the first time. This prime mover of the craft cocktail scene in the 1990s and former member of the groundbreaking band Combustible Edison will present a symposium, make a special DJ appearance, and also have his own bar in the Tiki Tower Takeover event. In addition, rum ambassador Ian Burrell returns from London for a second straight year to host a symposium, two cocktail classes and a special rum tasting. [More details below]
* TIKI TOWER TAKEOVER: Signature cocktail party expands, returns for Round 4. Held on Thursday night in the hotel’s revolving Pier Top Lounge, the fourth edition of one of Tiki’s most exclusive events is likely to sell out just as fast as the previous three. Tickets are limited to passholders, so act now. The lineup will grow from four to five pop-ups (featuring six different bar teams), including returning participants Three Dots and a Dash and Daniele Dalla Pola of Nu Lounge Bar. Scotty Schuder of Dirty Dick also returns, teaming up with Pagan Idol for a special two-bar mash-up. The final two pop-ups will feature the craft cocktail stylings of Brother Cleve and the crew from the U.K.’s Trailer Happiness. [More details below]
* MERCHANDISE: Works of top Tiki artists on display. The official artists for The Hukilau 2018 are Joe Vitale and Donella Vitale, whose work can already been seen on the website and promo artwork. The couple is based in Orlando, where they both work for Disney in addition to being among the most recognizable artists of the Tiki revival. Fun fact: The Vitales are among a select few who have attended The Hukilau all 16 years, along with emcee King Kukulele and co-founder Tim “Swanky” Glazner. Villagers will get first shot at the event merchandise, including the 17th annual mug produced by Eekum Bookum. There will also be special items for some villagers, including a South Seas passholder pendant by Crazy Al Evans.
Bar teams from Pittsburgh’s Hidden Harbor (left) and Atlanta’s S.O.S. Tiki Bar will return for this year’s expanded Rum Island Pool Party at The Hukilau 2018. (Atomic Grog photos)
* ENHANCEMENTS: Feedback from villagers. The Hukilau listened to its attendees and will implement quite a few changes: Extended hours and a second pool party on Saturday (in addition to Friday) including live music, more bars and bands (see above), a “Villager’s Lounge” tent to “meet and hang with old friends and new,” a party featuring all exotica music, and more food trucks.
* MORE SPECIAL EVENTS: Symposiums, Medusirena Marina swimshows. Symposiums, craft workshops, Okole Maluna cocktail classes, hula lessons, plus more new additions were announced in late January. These include three swimshows featuring Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid in her home at the nearby Wreck Bar in the B Ocean Resort, plus symposiums on Disney’s Trader Sam’s Tiki bar concept and the heyday of Tiki on television. Craft workshops will feature a trio of noted Tiki artists, while cocktail classes will include bartenders and experts from across the country. UPDATE:The Hukilau 2018 symposiums to include Disney imagineer, Tiki on TV
After an exciting year that saw many new Tiki bars open across North America, lots more are in store for 2016. Preview what’s coming, plus get a quick New Year’s event guide. We have news on a new Kon-Tiki sailing the South Pacific, plus a traditional Hawaiian vessel traveling the globe. Quick sips include the Flor de Caña rum controversy, Santas hanging ten in Cocoa Beach, plus help for an ailing Laramie Dean. Regular features spotlight velvet painting master Edgar Leeteg; Tiki party band Ding Dong Devils; Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel; and the Cocktail Wonk website. The Rum of the Week, El Dorado 5, is featured in the Demerara Flip from The Atomic Grog.
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* Weekly features: Artist | Band/music | Bar | Website | Rum | Cocktail | Events
2016 will welcome new Tiki bars to Pittsburgh, Portland (Maine), Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle
It’s not a stretch to say that 2015 was a landmark year in the 21st century Tiki revival when you look at all the high-profile, authentically themed Tiki bars that opened in North America: Lost Lake in Chicago, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney World, The Golden Tiki in Las Vegas, and The Shameful Tiki Room in Toronto all burst onto the scene, along with several others that we’ll recap in our year-end special, The Year in Tiki.
The good news is this was not a freak occurrence. More great bars are on the way in 2016, according to recent news reports, and all appear to have the same commitment to quality drinks, traditional Tiki decor and theming. The craft food and cocktail community is embracing Tiki in a big way, with no let-up in sight. Here’s what we can look forward to next year:
Opening in Pittsburgh in January, Hidden Harbor will feature a 7-foot custom-made Tiki by Crazy Al Evans and authentic Tiki cocktails (including classics such as a flaming Scorpion Bowl) created by co-owner and cocktail director Adam Henry. “The space and concept will be a bit more contemporary than the typical Tiki bar, with an emphasis on original drinks,” Henry said via email. Henry and his partners own The Independent Brewing Company, which sits next to Hidden Harbor in the Squirrel Hill section of the city. The space is small (50 seats) but features a bar area and more intimate lounge, plus a chef-run kitchen serving small, tropical-themed plates.
* Follow Hidden Harbor: Instagram | Twitter | Facebook
* Press coverage: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Pittsburgh Magazine
Farther up the East Coast in Maine, where Tiki is rare, a new bar is set to open this winter. Rhum in downtown Portland “will be a refined take on Tiki with a distinctly Portland, Maine flavor,” restaurateur Jason Loring announced in a press release. “Elegant, modern translations of classic Tiki dishes will be bolstered with an impressive raw bar featuring local seafood.” The bar will also feature “contemporary counterparts, and a large format program for team tippling.” Translation: Get ready for more Scorpion bowls. Rhum will also feature skull-themed Tiki mugs handmade by local artists in a variety of shapes and sizes. Look for Rhum as early as mid- to late January.
* Press coverage from Maine Eater
On the West Coast, a new Tiki bar is in the works at a recently reopened classic establishment. Clifton’s (aka Clifton’s Cafeteria) in downtown Los Angeles, a landmark that originally opened in 1935, has been undergoing a massive $14 million refurbishment since its purchase by new owners in 2010. After being closed for four years, it officially reopened to much fanfare on Oct. 1. The immersive 47,000-square-foot, four-story space retains its original rustic charm, featuring modernized comfort food and updated decor that still pays homage to its roots as an oasis for the everyman. As part of the renovations, the original 1904 building facade was restored after the removal of an aluminum facade that was added in 1963. The revamped Clifton’s includes multiple dining and drinking establishments, some still in the works. A Polynesian-themed Tiki bar is being built on the fourth floor, to be named the Pacific Seas in honor of the original 1931 Clifton’s location. Legendary Tiki bar builder Bamboo Ben Bassham has confirmed that he will be working on the project beginning in January. “It will be heavily Pacific Seas influenced with a ton of Bahooka’s flotsam and jetsam,” Bassham said. “The floor plan is really fun!” Clifton’s Pacific Seas (1939-1960) was a grand, tropical-themed cafeteria with waterfalls, huts, and lots of tropical decor. Bassham’s reference is undoubtedly to Bahooka Ribs & Grog (1976-2013), another classic SoCal Tiki establishment that was known for its expansive nautical decor.
* See all the press coverage from LA Eater
The latest news from Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort includes the pending opening of Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, plus DVC and construction updates plus new resort merchandise. There’s also news on a possible Jungle Cruise restaurant coming to the Magic Kingdom, plus a preview of next month’s Miami Rum Festival. Weekly features spotlight artist N! Satterfield, Tikiman’s Polynesian Village Resort website, surf rockers The Intoxicators, and Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. The rum of the week, El Dorado 12, is featured in the El Dorado Mai Tai.
* Keep up with The Week in Tiki: Facebook page | RSS feed | See past weeks | Archive
* Weekly features: Artist | Website | Band/music | Tiki bar | Rum | Cocktail | Events
THIS WEEK’S HIGHLIGHTS (March 23-29, 2015)
Trader Sam’s soft opening imminent, new Polynesian Village merchandise
There’s lots of activity at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort this week as the soft opening of Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto approaches. On Monday, the long-awaited “Poly Tiki” appeared on top of the new fountain and rock formation in the Great Ceremonial House. And all week there have been sneak previews of both Trader Sam’s and the new Bora Bora Bungalows, both scheduled to officially open on Wednesday, April 1. Meanwhile, work continues frantically on the refurbished pool and patio outside the Great Ceremonial House.
Inside the massive lobby, which recently completed an extensive refurbishment (see our previous coverage), the resort’s signature logo Tiki made his appearance in the early a.m. hours Monday. It’s the last stage of the new rock waterfall centerpiece, as pictured in concept artwork released in the early stages of the project (see above). Though Polynesian Resort purists have bemoaned the loss of the original plantscape and water fall, which dominated the entire lobby, many are calling the new design much more friendly and inviting. In fact, the final touch will be the addition of leis draped across the Poly Tiki’s arms, welcoming visitors to his refurbished domain.
It’s a rum enthusiast’s dream: Seven days of nothing but tasting hundreds of rums and cocktails in sunny Miami, learning about the colorful history and culture that envelop every aspect of the industry.
But the sixth annual Miami Rum Festival also revealed a key component of rum’s burgeoning success: It’s rare for an industry to simultaneously embrace both tradition and innovation, giving upstarts equal footing with the industry’s revered giants. In the world of rum, this is possible, and it was on full display in late April.
The vibe and weather were perfect as attendees soaked up both the atmosphere and complimentary cocktails with equal gusto. Rum fest organizers Robert A. Burr and Robin Burr, along with son Robert V. Burr, chilled out and entertained guests as if they were hosting an informal backyard party at their home. At the time, I thought the Burrs were enjoying the calm before the storm, but a storm never arrived. The weather was perfect all week (clear and sunny days, mild nights), and the festival seemed to run without a hitch.
Fueled by the first Miami Cocktail Week, mixologists upped their game at the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in April, presenting new and classic drinks with a modern flair. From the full week of events hosted by area bars, to the three-day Grand Tasting exhibits attended by more than 10,000 enthusiasts, there were plenty of opportunities to sample some of the best rum drinks being created today.
It’s fitting that the first event of the week was held at Miami Beach’s The Broken Shaker, one of the most acclaimed cocktail bars in South Florida. But this was not just an ordinary evening at the funky indoor/outdoor bar, which would have been just fine. I did manage to squeeze in one of the establishment’s carefully hand-crafted rum cocktails before I left, but the main attraction of the evening was the pop-up bar sponsored by Plantation Rum and featuring mixologists from Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles. [See the flyer]
There were four complimentary drinks [see menu] expertly mixed by Daniele Crouch and Matt Robold, aka Rumdood. This was no easy task considering the temporary bar set up on the patio, not far from the pingpong table and quite a distance from any traditional bar fixtures and plumbing. But the drinks were spot-on, made to order and consummately garnished. This pair deserves an award for most impeccably produced drinks under strenuous circumstances. I noticed Rumdood sweating in the Miami heat, but he and Daniele never lost their cool. My only complaint would be that they ran out of their homemade peach cordial before I could try the Gypsy Cab cocktail, which got high marks from the folks I talked to.
Make no mistake: The Miami Rum Renaissance Festival is the perfect place for newbies to get their feet wet and sample a wide array of styles, learning the basics about an incredibly versatile spirit that’s equally at home in cocktails and sipped neat.
But the real treasure of the sixth annual event – which kicks off Monday with a test run of Miami Rum Festival Cocktail Week and culminates with three days of “grand tastings” attended by up to 15,000 – is the wealth of opportunities to meet and learn from the world’s foremost rum experts. For enthusiasts, it’s a unique opportunity to vastly broaden one’s knowledge of cane spirits and the rum lifestyle.
Those same newbies may scoff at the notion of a “lifestyle” based on booze. But ignoring the clichéd images of pillaging pirates, the burgeoning rum world offers a surprising sophistication and myriad ways to enjoy the spirit on many levels. At Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, the Grand Tasting booths on the convention center floor are the main draw, but you’re missing out if you don’t check out some of the events during the week, plus the many educational seminars held during the Grand Tastings. Here’s a rundown:
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.
What a difference and new rum and secret syrup can make. Relegated to the bottom end of our ratings and nearly forgotten, The Mai-Kai’s Bora Bora made a comeback in 2012 thanks to the return of the rich and flavorful Demerara rum to The Mai-Kai, which gives this cocktail a much-needed boost.
The little-known Bora Bora has always been a potent concoction. I used to recommended it to folks who like a strong Mai Tai (classic, Trader Vic style) due to its intense combination of sour juices and Martinique rum. But with the smoky and tasty Demerara rum from Guyana replacing the earthy and sometimes harsh agricole rum, this drink took on a whole new life.
It immediately jumped up five spots in our ratings (rising from 2 1/2 to 3 stars) and inspired the first two tribute recipes below. After further study, we moved it up another five spots to the top of the 3-star rankings. Click here for more on the return of Demerara rum to The Mai-Kai.
Then, in the late summer of 2016, it was among a handful of drinks to get a boost from the return of a mysterious secret ingredient that dates back to the early days of The Mai-Kai. Now featuring Mariano’s Mix #7, Bora Bora takes on a whole new life with a bold yet sweet and approachable anise flavor vying for your attention. As a result, we boosted our rating from 3 to 3 1/2 stars, moving it into the Top 25. [See the rankings] Check out the third version of the tribute recipe below.
July 2018 update: The Bora Bora was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai.” In the sold-out event, students learned tips and techniques for turning their home bars into a Tiki cocktail paradise by exploring the key elements of Mai-Kai cocktails.
(Atomic Grog photos from The Hukilau’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina on June 8, 2018)
After discussing the syrups, Hayward revealed documents that show how The Mai-Kai faithfully follows Don the Beachcomber’s early secret recipes, including one that features both Mariano’s Mix #7 and the even more obscure “#4”. The class then received sample drinks featuring the Bora Bora tribute recipe, batched by Hayward with expert assistance from Lucky Munro, proprietor of Lucky’s Cane & Grog in Pittsburgh. See photos from the class:Facebook | Flickr
It’s 1937. A budding Oakland, Calif., restaurateur named Victor Bergeron ventures south to Hollywood to see for himself what all the hoopla is about surrounding a small tropical-themed bar called Don the Beachcomber. According to legend, Bergeron was inspired to adopt the same Polynesian theme and shortly thereafter changed the name of his restaurant from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s.
The rest is history, and Trader Vic’s remains the standard-bearer for Polynesian restaurants worldwide with more than 25 locations. The Don the Beachcomber chain disappeared, save for a lone corporate restaurant/bar location at the Royal Kona Resort in Hawaii and a recently closed one-off franchise in Huntington Beach, Calif., that’s reportedly reopening soon in a new location. Neither, however, have much tangible connection to founder Donn Beach. He officially left the company when his ex-wife, Sunny Sund, took the helm during World War II.
Our nation’s soldiers always held a special place in the heart of Beach, a veteran of the Army Air Corps during WW II and recipient of both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. One of the drinks on Beach’s menu in 1937 was the Q.B. Cooler, named for the Quiet Birdmen, a drinking fraternity of aviators founded by seven World War I pilots in 1921. Donn changed his Q.B. Cooler recipe over the years, but as cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry revealed in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the original version tastes remarkably similar to what Trader Vic later introduced to the world as perhaps the most famous of all tropical drinks, the Mai Tai.
As Berry theorized in the book and later demonstrated during a symposium at the 2009 Hukilau at The Mai-Kai, it’s likely that Bergeron created the Mai Tai by copying the flavor profile of the Q.B. Cooler. What’s remarkable is that the Mai Tai contains quite different ingredients (orange curacao, sugar syrup, orgeat syrup). The two drinks have only rum and lime juice in common. But it’s undeniable that the tastes are incredibly similar.
Of course, Bergeron later claimed that he invented the Mai Tai in 1944 and eventually won a court battle that established him as the originator of the famous cocktail. Berry puts forward the theory that Bergeron most likely did invent the Mai Tai as we all know it, but he was inspired by the Q.B. Cooler and re-created it using almost entirely different ingredients. In honor of the battle to make the best Mai Tai, the Royal Kona holds on popular bartending competition every year dubbed the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival.