Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Updated September 2020
See below: Our Jet Pilot review | Ancestor recipes
Tribute recipes | Social media tributes
Related: The Atomic Grog makes a Jet Pilot on The Tiki Trail Live
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Test Pilot

Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot was one of the most copied drinks during the mid-century heyday of Polynesian cocktails. It morphed into the Ace Pilot, Space Pilot and Astronaut, among others. At The Mai-Kai, it became the Jet Pilot.

As discussed in the review of the vintage S.O.S. (Don the Beachcomber’s Three Dots and a Dash), Donn Beach was a decorated World War II veteran and always had a deep connection to the armed forces. In his honor, a B-26 Marauder was painted with a replica of the Don the Beachcomber driftwood sign on its nose. The plane and crew flew many successful missions in the Pacific.

The Test Pilot is also an interesting study in how Donn Beach constantly tweaked his drinks. A Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s or ’40s could be vastly different than one with the same name in the 1950s or ’60s.

The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be the strongest of the strong
The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be The Mai-Kai’s strongest of the strong. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Included below is a Test Pilot recipe unearthed by cocktail sleuth and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry from the 1940s. It’s one of the most popular in the Tiki revival, and it features many of the same ingredients as The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. We’ve also listed a later recipe from a book by Donn Beach’s widow, Phoebe. It’s slightly different but also very strong and has a similar flavor profile. Other popular old-school versions include the Jet Pilot served at Steve Crane’s The Luau chain in the 1950s (revealed by Beachbum Berry in Sippin’ Safari in 2007) and the Space Pilot, still served today at the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles (est. 1961).

In Minimalist Tiki by Cocktail Wonk blogger Matt Pietrek, a 2020 Spirited Award nominee for Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book, the Test Pilot and Jet Pilot are both listed among the “Classic 30” cocktails from the first golden era of tropical mixology.

Like Tiki Ti owner Ray Buhen, The Mai-Kai’s original mixologist, Mariano Licudine, worked for Donn Beach in the early days. In 1956, he was lured from the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago to design The Mai-Kai’s original tropical drink menu. So it’s likely he had a vast knowledge of multiple versions of the Test Pilot when he created arguably one of the best, The Mai-Kai’s high-octane Jet Pilot.

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The official menu description
Jet Pilot
JET PILOT
Fast and courageous, a vigorous blend of heavy bodied rums and zesty juices.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)
Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Dark and powerful rums, spicy and bitter notes with a hint of exotic sweetness.

Review: Very complex and intense. Not for the timid. Sweet, spicy and strong all at the same time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)

Ancestry: The Jet Pilot dates back to The Mai-Kai’s original 1956 menu and is based on Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot.

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Take 5: Mai-Kai General Manager Kern Mattei

Related: A backstage tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen
Mai-Kai cocktail guide | All Mai-Kai posts | Take 5 interviews

Kern Mattei in his office at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Susan Hayward)
Kern Mattei in his office at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

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.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: A delicious and Oh So Deadly treat

Updated November 2016
See below: Our Oh So Deadly review | Ancestor recipe | UPDATE: Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

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.

Oh So Deadly pairs perfectly with some of the new small plates on The Mai-Kai's appetizer menu in The Molokai bar. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2016)
Oh So Deadly pairs perfectly with some of the new small plates on The Mai-Kai’s appetizer menu in The Molokai bar. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2016)

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.

Never Say Die

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.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Demerara rum, secret mix revive classic Bora Bora

The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai's founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated July 2018
See below: Our Bora Bora review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe 3.0
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai's founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956.  (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai’s founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.
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
(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

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Mara-Amu is a second generation classic

Updated September 2016
See below: Our Mara-Amu review | Official recipe
Related: The Big Bamboo features big flavors, unique history | Mai-Kai cocktail guide
‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai

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).

Artist Will Anders spruces up the Mara-Amu Tiki in The Mai-Kai's outdoor gardens. (Photo by Tiki Kiliki, September 2015)
Artist Will Anders spruces up the Mara-Amu Tiki in The Mai-Kai’s outdoor gardens. (Photo by Tiki Kiliki, September 2015)

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.

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