In 2014, when The Mai-Kai rolled out the first major update of its classic menu of tropical drinks in decades, it also made the rare introduction of a new cocktail. The Tiki Swizzle also held the distinction of being the only drink on the menu to feature spiced rum.
Unfortunately, the Tiki Swizzle’s a run on the menu didn’t last long. It was removed during the next major menu update in May 2018, replaced by the iconic Suffering Bastard.
While four years may be a long run on a menu at a modern craft cocktail bar, it’s merely the blink of an eye at The Mai-Kai. Most of the drinks have been on the menu for decades, and a majority date back more than 60 years to the restaurant’s 1956 inception.
The Tiki Swizzle now joins a small group of “lost cocktails” that were removed from the menu over the years. While certainly not as iconic as the Demerara Float or Liquid Gold, it does have a back-story and history that connects it to the current Tiki revival.
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.
Of all The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drinks, one of the very best was never available to the general public. Rather, the Big Bamboo is believed to have been an exclusive treat for members of the Okole Maluna Society, whose challenge was to try every cocktail on the extensive menu.
Okole Maluna (translation: “Bottom’s Up,” a traditional Hawaiian toast) was a club The Mai-Kai operated in 1958-59 to promote its fledgling new bar, The Molokai, and at the same time gain customer loyalty and goodwill. Prospective club members received a special menu on which they charted their progress, and a membership card when they checked off every drink.
Loyalty clubs were common in Tiki bars of the mid-century, when competition was fierce. “Most places had five to seven high-end Tiki places in their downtowns,” tropical drink guru and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry told Tales of the Cocktail for a recent article. “So how do you keep people coming back to your place as opposed to all of the other places that are trying to compete with you? A loyalty program.”
Berry, who also owns and operates Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans, first revealed the story of the Okole Maluna Society in his excellent chapter on The Mai-Kai and original mixologist Mariano Licudine in his seminal 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, which was recently re-released as an enhanced 10th anniversary edition. “You were eligible to join after you’d ordered every one of the 48 drinks on the menu, whereupon you received a personalized bamboo cup filled with a Mariano original called the Big Bamboo – a ‘secret’ drink which he only made for Society members,” Berry wrote.
The Tales of the Cocktail article traces the history of loyalty clubs from the Okole Maluna Society up through popular present-day programs at Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, and elsewhere. “Anything that engages customers and make them feel more special and part of a club is a good thing,” Berry said. “That ‘Aloha spirit’ is very important. That’s what a loyalty program helps foster.”
But while The Mai-Kai is renowned for its outstanding hospitality and service, the Okole Maluna Society was shut down after only two years, most likely because it was too popular. Author Tim “Swanky” Glazner details the creation and quick demise of the club in his much-anticpated book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant (2016, Schiffer). In the chapter “Okole Maluna Society: A Drinking Competiton,” Glazner reveals the lengths to which customers would go to overindulge. Check out this blog post that includes exclusive photos from the book.
In a frenzy to become “president” of the society by being the first to finish the menu, some guests may have gone a little too far, Glazner wrote. One regular camped out at a nearby hotel, completing the task in just three nights. For his accomplishment, he had his portrait painted on black velvet by noted artist Eric Askew and hung as a centerpiece of a display of member mugs behind the Surfboard Bar.
In the interest of keeping interest in the club going, he agreed to keep his accomplishment secret so others could make a bid for the presidency. “I think we killed a few people,” manager Bob van Dorpe told Glazner. Though the society was a huge success for those two years in the restaurant’s infancy and helped boost the popularity of the cocktails, it was decided that perhaps it was not a good idea to encourage guests to consume them so quickly, Glazner wrote in the book.
Glazner’s account of the Okole Maluna Society contains one distinct difference than Berry’s, however. According to his sources, the name of the secret drink given to members upon completion of the regular menu was called the Okole Maluna. It’s unclear if this was a distinctly different drink than the Big Bamboo that Berry revealed in Sippin’ Safari, or perhaps just a different name for the same recipe. Photos and artwork (see below) show a stylized bamboo mug, and the only menus on which the cocktail was featured appear to be the special Okole Maluna Society cards created for The Molokai bar (see above).
One thing is clear, however, as Berry explains in his book: Big Bamboo is the predecessor to one of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, Mara-Amu. Containing most of the same ingredients, the Mara-Amu just a bit milder.
By all accounts, both cocktails were original recipes by Licudine, The Mai-Kai’s “Houdini of the liquids” who created the drink menu when the restaurant opened in 1956. Most of the others were Licudine’s take on classics by tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber, for whom he worked during the prior decades in both Los Angeles and Chicago. Many of these drinks and recipes remain exactly as he left them when he retired in 1979. Licudine passed away in 1980.
So assuming you’ve done your duty and sampled all the other drinks on the menu, you’re now an approved member of the Okole Maluna Society and eligible to enjoy this lost classic.
July 2018 update: The Big Bamboo was one of the last of The Mai-Kai’s “lost cocktails” to come out of retirement when it appeared during a special event at The Hukilau in June. Participants in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai,” were given the exclusive privilege of ordering the drink during the Sunday finale in The Molokai bar.
(Atomic Grog photos, June 10, 2018) Students from The Atomic Grog class not only received the exclusive Big Bamboo, which was being served to the public for the first time since the late 1950s. They earned their own Okole Maluna Society card and a free tour of the restaurant’s historic art and architecture from author Swanky himself (pictured with Hurricane Hayward in The Molokai bar). You can pick up a signed copy of his book in The Mai-Kai Trading Post’s new online store.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Flavor profile: Gold and dark rums, passion fruit with bitter and sour nuances.
Review: Very well balanced, sweet and full of big flavors similar to Don the Beachcomber’s 1950 Zombie.
Ancestry: Big Bamboo was believed to be a special Mai-Kai cocktail available only to members of the Okole Maluna Society after they had ordered every other drink on the menu. It evolved into the milder Mara-Amu, which remains a favorite on the menu and features its own distinctive mug.
Bilge: There’s little information about the special mugs that were used for the Big Bamboo. Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner provided the photo at right that shows the case where it’s believed they were kept. Aside from the photo and artwork above, we’ve been unable to find a trace. It joins the long list of sought-after Mai-Kai collectibles. If you find one, please let us know.
Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice * 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice * 1/2 ounce grapefruit juice * 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup * 1/2 ounce dark Jamaican rum * 1 ounce gold Cuban rum (or sub Virgin Islands rum) * 2 dashes Angostura bitters * 4 ounces (1/2 cup) crushed ice
Put everything in a blender or spindle mixer and blend at high speed for exactly 5 seconds. Pour into a bamboo mug or tall glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.
From the personal notebook of Mariano Licudine, circa 1960.
We like to make a larger version by just doubling the proportions. For a slightly modified version, check out Chemistry of the Cocktail.
Notes and tips for home mixologists
* As usual, fresh juices are essential. I prefer all-natural white grapefruit juice with no sugar added. When white grapefruit is out of season, The Mai-Kai uses red or pink grapefruit, but always fresh squeezed from nearby Florida groves. The Mai-Kai has always used distinctive Florida citrus, which gives its cocktails a rich and fresh flavor. It’s sourced locally and 100 percent non-pasteurized. The lime juice is a unique blend, with Key lime juice dominating the sour and tart flavor. I recommend a specific blend if you want to duplicate The Mai-Kai flavor. * Tiki Central: Click here for a full guide to the juices used at The Mai-Kai
* Inspired by the artwork included in Sippin’ Safari and shown above, we included a garnish of fresh mint, which adds a great additional element with the smell arousing the senses and enhancing the drink. One other tip: Gently slap the mint against your hand to release its aromatics before inserting into the glass. The Mai-Kai also used mint when the drink made a rare appearance at The Hukilau 2018 (see photos above).
About those rums …
In September 2016, we were honored to be asked by author Tim “Swanky” Glazner to help celebrate the release of his book Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by making cocktails for his special guests during a party at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. The Sept. 16-17 festivities also included a walking tour and special on-stage presentation by Glazner at the restaurant, plus the return of two lost cocktails (Hanalei Bay and Dr. Fong) that had not been served in decades.
As it turns out, the key to the outstanding flavors in Big Bamboo are the specific rums called for in the original recipe. Unfortunately, neither is currently available. A quality dark Jamaican rum with a bit of funkiness makes this cocktail really shine. Appleton, which is featured in many of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, sponsored the September event and contributed several bottles for the party. While not as bold and funky as some other options, both the Signature and Reserve blends are s full of flavor and complexity, a fine choice for this cocktail. Appleton was recently pressed into service due to the unavailability of Kohala Bay, the direct descendant of the Dagger brand that was likely featured in the original. Click here for the story of Kohala Bay and Dagger, plus many suggested substitutions.
Cuban rum is even harder to find, at least for now. Formerly contraband in the United States thanks to the longtime embargo, it’s now trickling into the states after travel was recently opened up and rum was allowed to pass through customs in small amounts. In the years prior to Fidel Castro’s rule, this superb rum was featured at The Mai-Kai. Check out this photo of historic Cuban rum from the 1950s that still lines the upper shelves of The Mai-Kai’s back bar, spotted during a 2011 bar tour. If you can track down a bottle of Havana Club or another Cuban brand, by all means use it. My supply of Añejo Años (see photo above) is dwindling, but more recently I secured a bottle of Añejo Especial, another outstanding gold rum from Havana Club. For the party, I sought something that replicated those same flavors. There are many gold rums made in the Spanish style similar to Cuban, but the one that made sense in terms of both cost and taste was Ron Barcelo Añejo from the Dominican Republic. Among the many other choices are Virgin Islands rums such as Cruzan Estate Dark, Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña, plus Puerto Rico’s Bacardi Añejo, Bacardi 8, and Barrilito 3 Star. If you have any questions about the quality or taste of rums, a great resource is Robert Burr’s Rum Guide, which includes tasting notes and information on hundreds of fine rums from around the world. Burr also founded and produces the annual Rum Renaissance Festival.
When compared head-to-head, a Big Bamboo containing Kohala Bay and Havana Club is head and shoulders above any other options. While there are many other rum choices, it’s obvious that The Mai-Kai’s “Houdini of the liquids,” Mariano Licudine, knew best when he created this classic.
SPECIAL EVENT: The Rums of The Mai-Kai 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 Pier Sixty-Six hotel on June 8, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai Grand Finale on June 9. See the event preview | Full recap coming soon! Get detailed reports and photos on Tiki Central Coming soon: Exclusive news on a new replacement for Kohala Bay rum at The Mai-Kai, plus more! * See exclusive info and photos on Tiki Central
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.
There are many great cocktail debates, most notably the Martini (gin or vodka?) and Old Fashioned (rye or bourbon?). At The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, it’s the Mutiny vs. the Black Magic in an epic battle between two classic rum-and-coffee cocktails.
The only way to truly compare these titans until recently was to sit down at the legendary Molokai bar and taste them side-by-side. This can be a daunting task since they’re both very strong and very large cocktails, not that we haven’t tried many times.
But thanks to our research, you can give it a whirl in your home bar with the tribute recipes posted below and on the Black Magic review. These aren’t simple drinks, but we’re sure you’ll find the results well worth the effort.
I pitch my tent solidly in the Mutiny camp. It’s always been decidedly higher in my Mai-Kai cocktail ratings (currently sitting at No. 10) and has an incredible complexity that keeps drawing me back. The Black Magic isn’t far behind at No. 14.
So where did these distinctive cocktails come from, and why are they so similar? The Black Magic came first, reportedly created before The Mai-Kai’s opening by mixologist Mariano Licudine, who was then working for Don the Beachcomber. It appeared on the original 1956 Mai-Kai menu and was joined some 15 years later by the Mutiny.
According to legend, the Mutiny was conceived on one of the many Mai-Kai staff fishing trips at which the participants always brought an ample supply of two cocktails: the Black Magic and Barrel O’ Rum. According to the story, there was a rebellion against those two drinks always being featured. To quell an impending mutiny, an idea was hatched to somehow combine them into one monster drink, and the Mutiny was born.
It’s unclear if they were actually mixed together that day on the boat. More likely, Licudine put his talents to work later to create an amalgamation of two of the most popular drinks on the menu. This would not be out of line for the owners to request. The cocktails already share many of the same ingredients, so it took just a few tweaks to yield some amazing results.
The Mutiny has been cited as a favorite of the late Mai-Kai co-owner Bob Thornton, so perhaps he was the driving force behind the drink’s creation. Over the years, it’s been mentioned as favorite by a who’s who of Tiki revival VIPs, including bar owners and authors Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Martin Cate, plus Tiki Oasis co-founder Otto von Stroheim.
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.
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.
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.
The official menu description JET PILOT Fast and courageous, a vigorous blend of heavy bodied rums and zesty juices.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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