Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you’re ‘Passionate’ about tropical drinks, this one’s for you

The Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you're 'Passionate' about tropical drinks, this one's for you

Updated October 2019

See below: Our Piña Passion review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe NEW
Related: What says ‘Tiki’ better than a drink served in a pineapple?
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

One of the most iconic images of the tropical drink is a vessel made from a hollowed-out pineapple. This over-the-top cocktail experience has been perfected at The Mai-Kai with the classic Piña Passion.

The Mai-Kai's Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mai-Kai’s Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Piña Passion is served in a fresh pineapple that guests can take home. The one exception is during happy hour in The Molokai bar, when you’ll have to settle for having the drink in an old fashioned glass.

If you ever get a chance to take a peek into The Mai-Kai’s main service bar, tucked way behind the kitchen and hidden from guests, you’ll find cases of pineapples awaiting their fate. [See photo]

Drinks in pineapples were staples on tropical-themed cocktail menus across the country during Tiki’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. You can still find them at old-school establishments such as San Francisco’s Tonga Room (est. 1945) and Chicago’s temple of Witco, Hala Kahiki (est 1966). In the Hawaiian language, a pineapple is called “hala kahiki.”

A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)
A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

Even in the dark days of Tiki in the 1970s and ’80s, pineapple drinking vessels remained essential on cruise ships and resorts in exotic locales. They go hand-in-hand with the concept of a tropical paradise.

They’re not as easy to find at today’s smaller Tiki and craft cocktail bars, which tend to favor traditional glassware and ceramic mugs. But this is changing in a big way thanks to a new breed of craftsmen who are taking Tiki hospitality to a whole new level.

At Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, one of the most popular events presented by owner Martin Cate and his team is Domingo de Piña (Pineapple Sunday), which features a selection of cocktails served in pineapples. We recommend Cate’s book – Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016) – for more in-depth info and recipes for several tasty drinks served in pineapples.

There's nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)
There’s nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)

Italy’s Daniele Dalla Pola, who built upon the success of his Nu Lounge Bar to open Esotico Miami in August 2019, is also a big proponent of the spiky fruit. His new exotic bar and restaurant features both food and drink served in fresh pineapples. At The Hukilau 2017, he presented two Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classes called “Pineapple Paradise” with information and advanced techniques on using the hospitable fruit in tropical drinks.

Of course, the pineapple is iconic as the worldwide symbol of hospitality. It was so sought-after in colonial times that people would rent them for a day to use as a party decoration. Considered the world’s most exotic fruit, pineapples were brought back to Europe by Columbus and other explorers. George Washington praised the fruit in his diary, noting that among his favorite foods, “none pleases my tastes” like a pineapple.

Because of their scarcity and high price, pineapples were typically served only to prestigious guests, and even those who could not afford them picked up on the image to share the sentiment of a special welcome. Towns, inns and households began displaying images of the pineapple to convey a sense of welcoming. You can find pineapple images on historic buildings around the world.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Hot Buttered Rum is a heart-warming winter classic

Updated Feb. 24, 2020
See below: Our Hot Buttered Rum review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

What could be more comforting on a chilly winter night than some warm rum and spices with a big dollop of butter? The holiday season would not be complete without a traditional Hot Buttered Rum.

From The Mai-Kai's 1956-57 menu
From The Mai-Kai’s 1956-57 menu.

Like the milk punch, Hot Buttered Rum is a seasonal classic that dates back to colonial times. According to the American Heritage Cookbook, the drink even “found its way into domestic politics.” Candidates would ply their constituents with it to influence their vote. If only today’s politicians would try this method instead of the usual dirty politics.

Drinks using the key ingredients – rum, butter and hot water – were documented during the early days of mixology in cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas’ mid-19th century bar guides as Hot Rum and Hot Spiced Rum. The Mai-Kai’s version is not very different than the traditional Hot Buttered Rum and was no doubt influenced by Don the Beachcomber’s early Tiki classic.

Hot Buttered Rum and the lesser known Hot Rum Grog were staples on Donn Beach’s early menus. A menu from the 1940s includes this description of the Hot Buttered Rum: “Rums from the islands of Jamaican and Barbados. Mulled with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, sweet butter and hot water. This will rekindle the fires in your heart.”

The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari
The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari.

By the 1950s, Donn’s copycats were experimenting with the traditional recipe, adding creme de cacao (Pub and Prow Hot Buttered Rum), along with maraschino liqueur and black tea (Volcano House Hot Buttered Rum). We can thank tropical cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for these, which he published in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010) and the Total Tiki app.

Mahalo to the Bum and his 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari in 2017, we have perhaps the most reverent Hot Buttered Rum recipe to Donn’s original (rum, honey butter mix, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon). Berry gleaned it from a 1969 issue of the Stardust Hotel’s in-house magazine, but those who follow Tiki history will know that the Aku-Aku restaurant, which operated from 1960 to 1980 in the iconic Las Vegas landmark, has a direct connection to Don the Beachcomber. Beach consulted on its creation and undoubtedly contributed his recipes to the cocktail menu. Sippin’ Safari is a must-read for many great stories about Donn and the Aku-Aku.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: This Planters lacks the punch of it’s special cousin

Updated April 23, 2014
See below: Our Planters Punch review | Ancestor recipe
Related: Special Planters Punch is tropical drink history in a glass | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

There are two Planters Punches on the classic cocktail menu of The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, but one is a lot more special than the other.

The Special Planters Punch is highly recommended. It received 4 1/2 out of 5 stars, putting it near the top of the ratings.

The Planters Punch on the medium menu, however, comes up short. It’s near the bottom of the ratings due to its lack of punch, oddly enough. It’s one of the very few cocktails from the acclaimed bar that aren’t recommended, unless perhaps you’re new to tropical cocktails or just looking for something light but substantial. Unfortunately, it can’t compete with its tasty cousin.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: A near-perfect Zombie, the classic deadly cocktail

A mint-heavy Zombie at The Mai-Kai, April 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated Oct. 31, 2018
See below: Our Zombie review | Ancestor recipes
UPDATES: New secret mix | Tribute recipe 4.0
Related: Zombie Horde book | Zombie facts | Beachbum Berry symposium
Mai-Kai cocktail guide
More recipes: Altered State Zombie | Atomic Zombie | Guyanese Zombie
The Undead Gentleman | Frankie’s Tiki Room Zombie

Few realize that the Zombie – not the Mai Tai – is the drink that kicked off the tropical drink craze. Created in the 1930s by the Dr. Frankenstein of tropical mixology, Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), the Zombie remains his masterpiece.

Zombie

Beach’s mad scientist approach to combining multiple rums, juices, syrups and spices was groundbreaking and set a standard that remains an influential touchstone for today’s bartenders in both the Tiki and craft cocktail worlds. But if it weren’t for cocktail sleuth, historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, we might not have ever discovered that legacy.

Berry rescued the Zombie (and many other Tiki classics) from bad bartending and half-assed attempts to re-create the originals. But his first attempt at the Zombie in his seminal 1998 book, Grog Log, was not a whole lot better than the imitators. By 2002, however, he had begun to unearth some great Zombie recipes, three of which are published in his second recipe book, Intoxica. One of these, later dubbed the “mid-century version” and purported to be a Don the Beachcomber recipe published in 1950, is shown below.

But Berry was just scratching the surface of Zombie lore. His 2007 masterpiece, Sippin’ Safari, yielded the motherlode. An entire chapter, “A Zombie Jamoreee: The Curse of the Undead Drink,” provides the definitive research on the elusive cocktail. There’s more background on the 1950 Zombie, plus a much different 1956 version attributed to the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Waikiki.

Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011
Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011.

The pièce de résistance, however, is Berry’s discovery of a 1934 recipe for “Zombie Punch” in the notebook of 1930s Don the Beachcomber bartender Dick Santiago. The find was considered the Holy Grail of lost tropical drinks, but one frustrating puzzle remained to be solved: the cryptic ingredient listed as “Don’s Mix.” This combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup has now become a common ingredient, but the 2007 revelation was a landmark in the Tiki drink world. Berry and Cocktail Kingdom recently released a 10th anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari, which includes additional recipes, both old and unpublished, plus new ones from the Tiki revival.
* BeachbumBerry.com: More on Berry’s search for the original Zombie

In 2010, Beachbum Berry Remixed continued the tradition of digging deeper into the history of the drink that started it all. In addition to the discoveries in Intoxica and Sippin’ Safari, Berry presented several new recipes, including a simplified version of the complex creation. You can also find Berry’s Zombie recipes in his Total Tiki app for iPhone and iPad, a unique repository of nearly 250 exotic drink recipes from yesterday and today. If you desire a more tactile way to enjoy Berry’s handiwork, pick up a set (or a case) of his signature Zombie Glasses from Cocktail Kingdom, which include the original 1934 and 1950 recipes on the side along with distinctive artwork and packaging. They’re also available at the author’s New Orleans bar and restaurant, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, along with the Bum’s own twist on the vintage recipe.

A contemporary Zombie from "Beachbum Berry Remixed."
A contemporary Zombie from “Beachbum Berry Remixed.”

In addition to his acclaimed books, app and barware, Berry had a profound influence on today’s Tiki and cocktail scenes over the past decade or two by way of his entertaining and boozy symposiums around the world. His first-ever Zombie seminar took place at The Mai-Kai in April 2011 during the Miami Rum Fest. He resurrected that talk at The Hukilau in April 2012, again at The Mai-Kai, with a few additional surprises. [Full coverage]

Of course, The Mai-Kai’s Zombie is a descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s classics. There’s a reason it’s the top-rated cocktail in this guide, and the only one with a perfect rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps its the complex, undefinable flavors. Much like another early 20th-century classic, the Singapore Sling, the Zombie stands out as a true original with its intense flavors and high potency.

But unlike the gin-based Sling, which is a bit of a mish-mash of flavors, the Zombie is in perfect balance. The combination of spices are exotic and unique. The sweet juices and syrups are counteracted by intense anise and sour notes. And the coup de grâce is the combination of three rums in perfect harmony.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Find out what makes the Shark Bite so Jawesome

The Shark Bite is always served with a "side of danger" (in this case, a shot of aged Appleton rum). (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2017)

Updated August 2018
See below: Our Shark Bite review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

We continue our journey through dangerous waters this week with another of The Mai-Kai’s signature drinks, the Shark Bite.

Hurricane Hayward enjoys a Shark Bite in The Molokai bar in September 2016 during a book-release party for Tim "Swanky" Glazner's "Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant." (Atomic Grog photo)
Hurricane Hayward enjoys a Shark Bite in The Molokai bar in September 2016 during a book-release party for Tim “Swanky” Glazner’s “Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.” (Atomic Grog photo)

Considering that this is the heart of the summer vacation season and we’re still digesting Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” this is an appropriate choice. Actually, the Shark Bite’s potency is a bit overstated. It’s our favorite drink from the “medium” section of the menu.

Like the much stronger Shrunken Skull, the Shark Bite has an ominous name and also a shot of flavorful rum added as it’s served. It’s also one of many of the legendary Fort Lauderdale Polynesian restaurant’s drinks that date back to the early days of Tiki, when Donn Beach (aka Donn the Beachcomber) laid out the template for tropical drinks that is still followed to this day.

The Shark Bite is an almost spot-on copy of the Shark’s Tooth, a drink featured on Don the Beachcomber menus as well as other bars and restaurants during the mid-century golden age of Tiki. You’ll find a Shark’s Tooth recipe below that was unearthed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for his seminal 1998 book, Grog Log, and later republished in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010). Also below is a slight variation that we’re calling a tribute to the Shark Bite.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson?

K.O. Cooler, October 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated July 2018
See below: Our K.O. Cooler review | Ancestor recipes | Tribute recipe
Related: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber's Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)
Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)

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.

Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)
Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

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.

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