Since its release last December, Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them has set a new standard for cocktail history books. Chock full of vintage photos and artwork, detailed research and stories, not to mention 77 recipes, the 317-page hardcover opus was recognized in July as Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at the annual Spirited Awards during Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
While critics raved, fans devoured the cocktails along with the stories, creating a unique drinking and reading experience. At Fort Lauderdale’s famous Mai-Kai, which is featured in the the book, general manager Kern Mattei was so impressed with the classic recipes he decided to feature some of them during a one-night-only event on Saturday, Sept. 20. See below:Virgin Island Kula recipe
From 6 to 8 p.m. in the restaurant’s Molokai bar, Mattei and his staff presented a flight of three cocktails straight from the pages of Potions of the Caribbean. It was the first time ever that these drinks were served in the nearly 58-year history of The Mai-Kai. And at just $12, it was a great bargain. The bar’s regular happy hour started at 5 and revelers stayed well past 8 as they enjoyed many of The Mai-Kai’s nearly 50 acclaimed tropical drinks. Tables were also filled with Pupu Platters and other small plates as a crowd of more than 50 filled the back section of the bar.
After coming precariously close to saying aloha and goodbye to The Hukilau, the long-running Tiki event she has organized since 2002, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White is sure glad things turned out differently. “For me, it was the best event in the history of The Hukilau,” she said of the five-day festival in June that not only marked the 13th annual gathering of vintage culture devotees from around the world, but also a new beginning.
Just months before she planned to close the books on The Hukilau for good, White was approached by two fans of the event who also happened to be experienced businessmen and event organizers who were eager to strike up a partnership. “I consider myself a very lucky person,” she said of the serendipity of the happenstance that led to The Hukilau not only surviving to see 2015, but becoming poised to thrive and reach new audiences across the country.
I sat down with Tiki Kiliki recently at The Mai-Kai, the beloved 57-year-old Polynesian restaurant that serves as the inspiration for the event, to get the lowdown on what she and her new partners, Richard Oneslager and Mike Zielinski, have in the works for The Hukilau and how their mutually beneficial partnership came about. But first, a look back at that memorable event in June that was expanded to five days in anticipation of a last hurrah. Instead, it turned into a celebration of what’s to come.
“This is going to sound really strange, but sort of like Disney, it was kind of like magic this year,” Tiki Kiliki told me. “You can’t really explain it, but everything just fell into place in a magical way. We talked about it afterwards. We don’t really know what the magic formula was, it just happened.”
The magic started on Wednesday, June 11, when what was formerly an informal night at The Mai-Kai became the Unofficial Official Pre-Party. South Florida roots/rockabilly band Slip and the Spinouts jammed in the sold-out Molokai bar while other attendees enjoyed many of the bar’s 47 classic Tiki cocktails and the restaurant’s extensive appetizer and dinner menu in the more sedate dining rooms. Logistical problems at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper forced the cancellation of Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid’s scheduled midnight swim show, but that just gave some attendees the opportunity to begin their room parties early. Disappointed guests were heartened by the fact that there was much more Marina to come.
Nobody can accuse the organizers of Tales of the Cocktail, arguably the world’s premiere festival for bartenders and spirits professionals, of being elitist snobs. The “official cocktail” of 12th annual festival, expected to attract more than 20,000 people to New Orleans this week, is not some highbrow cult classic or trendy new concoction. It’s the mighty yet maligned Hurricane.
Created in the French Quarter in the 1940s, this sweet and potent potation harkens back to other Tiki classics that devolved over the decades as they became a popular yet bastardized staple in bars around the world. But in 2014, as both the cocktail and Tiki revivals show no signs of slowing, why not celebrate both with a drink that screams Bourbon Street excess?
Tales of the Cocktail and New Orleans are the perfect venues for such a celebration. Spotlighting “what’s new and what’s next in bartending,” the festival proudly keeps its reverence for traditions intact, never overtly pandering to its sponsors and the spirits companies. It gives everyone from experienced professionals to fledgling bartenders to laymen a unique chance to mix and mingle with the biggest names and brightest minds in mixology for seminars, dinners, competitions, tasting rooms, and product launches.
The Mai-Kai’s Molokai bar was filled with costume-clad revelers on Friday, Oct. 25, for the historic Polynesian restaurant’s frighteningly festive Halloween bash known as Hulaween. South Florida surf band Skinny Jimmy & the Stingrays performed three sets of retro classics and choice originals, there were many creative entries in the costume contest, and a good time was had by all at the fifth annual event. See below:Browse 20 photos from the event
The bar opened at 5 p.m. for happy hour and exotic Halloween tunes programmed by The Atomic Grog. The band hit the stage after 7, cranking up the energy as Skinny Jimmy channeled Satan himself. The rest of the band took on the personas of famous Halloween characters as they ripped through instrumental surf hits from the past 50 years, including such appropriate songs Moonlight Surf, Dark Eyes, Jack the Ripper, Ghost Riders, and the Munsters TV show theme.
A Mexican wrestler and a pirate, better known as Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei and marketing director Pia Dahlquist, once again hosted the costume contest and awarded the grand prize to a creative couple who came to the party as a pair of Tikis. Runners-up included several artistic Day of the Dead couples, the scary Sleestak and a confused Rastafarian Scotsman.
The band kept the party rockin’ until midnight as attendees enjoyed The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drinks in the nautical-themed lounge. Sponsor Captain Morgan also presented rum and cocktail samples featuring its tasty Captain Morgan Black.
The first “Atomic Grog Mai-Kai Mixer” on June 9 served up not only a rousing party featuring a cool retro DJ and live vintage surf music, but also an inside look at some of the 55-year-old Polynesian landmark’s acclaimed tropical drinks.
Surf band Skinny Jimmy & The Stingrays and DJ Mike “Jetsetter” Jones rocked the house all night long as partygoers enjoyed the festive vibe in the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s elaborately themed Molokai bar. Click here for a full recap of the entertainment, plus photos. But for some, the event’s highlight came during happy hour.
Early arrivals were promised “blind tastings” of three vintage cocktails presented by Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei. There were 32 flights served in the packed bar, with at least 44 tasters participating. Prizes were awarded to those who correctly guessed which exotic drink they were tasting. Priced at just $15 for three 8-ounce drinks, it was a bargain for the lucky participants. In addition, everyone enjoyed the regular early Saturday happy hour featuring half-priced drinks and appetizers from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
A common misconception about tropical drinks is the notion that they’re “girly.” While they do tend to be sweet and flamboyant, many of the best Tiki cocktails – especially those at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale – are powerfully potent and worthy of any serious drinker, male or female, wahine or kane.
One possible exception is the Wahine Delight, an after-dinner drink most likely aimed at the fairer sex. It’s actually not too cloyingly sweet, a well-balanced and distinctive frozen daiquiri that goes light on the alcohol. Men may even appreciate it, especially as a follow-up to one of the restaurant’s spicy entrees or flaming deserts.
But it’s definitely designed as a lighter alternative to the Zombie and the Jet Pilot and the many other more masculine drinks on the menu.
This is not surprising when you consider the cocktail’s ancestry. The Wahine Delight was originally called the Missionary’s Doom and appeared on the opening day menu in 1956-57. It’s Mariano Licudine’s version of a Don the Beachcomber classic aimed at the fairer sex, the sweet and minty Missionary’s Downfall.
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 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 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.
This is the second in The Atomic Grog’s series of short interviews with noted personalities involved in events, music, art, cocktails and Tiki/retro culture.
Kern Mattei was destined to be general manager of The Mai-Kai. His father, Kern Sr., held the same position at the legendary Polynesian palace from 1964 to 1991. His mother was a Mai-Kai dancer, and he literally grew up in the restaurant. He was born in 1966, 10 years after it opened, and now works in the same office that his father did.
He worked a variety of jobs at The Mai-Kai while in school, then began as a manager in 1993 after earning a bachelor’s degree in hospitality from Florida International University. Kern lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Elke, and two children: Cheyne and Nicholas. I conducted this interview with the always dapper Kern on July 30.
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.
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