Following ‘magical’ 2014, Tiki Kiliki has big plans for The Hukilau in 2015 and beyond

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.

The Hukilau's Christie "Tiki Kiliki" White introduces her new partners, Richard Oneslager (left) and Mike Zielinski, during Saturday night's Main Event at The Mai-Kai.
The Hukilau’s Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White introduces her new partners, Richard Oneslager (left) and Mike Zielinski, during Saturday night’s Main Event at The Mai-Kai.

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.

The Hukilau 2014 was held June 11-15 at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort and The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.
See below: Gallery of 62 photos from The Atomic Grog. Click on bold links below for galleries by the official photographers at Go11 Media.
Related: The Hukilau offers a deep dive into the history of porthole cocktail lounges
The Hukilau 2015 will be held June 10-14. Get updates at TheHukilau.com and Facebook.

In the waning hours of The Hukilau on Sunday, artist Crazy Al Evans and author Jeff "Beachbum" Berry get one last chance to savor The Mai-Kai, its cocktails and its tropical garden.
In the waning hours of The Hukilau on Sunday, artist Crazy Al Evans and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry get one last chance to savor The Mai-Kai, its cocktails and its tropical garden.

“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.

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Returning to The Hukilau, Jeff Berry proves he’s never too busy to be a ‘Beachbum’

In an ironic twist of fate, the man who built a career on his image as a carefree bum is now one of the busiest people in the cocktail world. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who will be making appearances Thursday through Saturday at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale, is simultaneously promoting his sixth book, a new cocktail app, and an ingenious bar tool … all while planning the opening of his first bar this fall in New Orleans.

Beachbum Berry

See below: Potions of the Caribbean
Total Tiki app | Navy Grog Ice Cone Kit
Related: Navy Grog ice cone is revived by cocktail enthusiasts, handy gadget

Berry will also be a whirlwind of activity this week at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale, where he’ll be making his ninth appearance at the annual Polynesian Pop extravaganza. His symposiums on cocktails and culture are always the hottest ticket at the event, and this year’s presentation (“Tiki’s Dark Ages: From Fern Bars To Rebirth”) was sold out months in advance.

The Hukilau: Wednesday through Sunday, June 11-15, at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort and The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets and info at TheHukilau.com and Facebook.
* Atomic Grog preview | Full coverage

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Even landlubbers can appreciate a strong ration of Yeoman’s Grog

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Even landlubbers can appreciate a strong ration of Yeoman's Grog

Updated December 2020
See below: Our Yeoman’s Grog review | Ancestor recipe
Tribute recipe | Navy Grog from Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29
Related: Hamilton Navy Grog recipe (served at The Mai-Kai, February 2019)
Navy Grog ice cone: Lost art revived by cocktail enthusiasts
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

It goes without saying that The Atomic Grog is a big fan of any traditional “grog,” and the Yeoman’s Grog at The Mai-Kai is one of the best. But where exactly does the term “grog” come from? And what’s the story behind the Yeoman’s Grog?

Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon. (Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough - from Wikipedia)
Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon. (Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough – from Wikipedia)

In the British Navy, it became tradition in the mid-1600s to grant seamen a daily ration of rum, often replacing the traditional beer, wine, arrack and brandy. In 1731, an official Navy declaration was made granting a daily ration of wine or rum while on foreign stations. The Cocktail Wonk blog features several deep dives into the history of rum in the British Navy.

In 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon – nicknamed “Old Grog” because of the cloak made of grogram (a silk fabric) that he always wore – sought to cut down on rampant drunkenness. So he ordered what by then had become the official daily rum ration of an imperial half-pint (10 U.S. ounces) be diluted with four parts water.

Some years later, when it was believed that citrus fruit prevented scurvy, lime juice was added to the mix along with sugar to improve the flavor. The world’s first proper tropical drink was born, named the “Grog” after Old Grog himself. In the James Beard Award winning book Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016), Martin and Rebecca Cate pay tribute to a Grog from the 1700s with a recipe featuring 1/2 ounce lime juice, 1/2 ounce Demerara syrup, and 2 ounces of rum. Shake with cubed or cracked ice and strain into an ice-filled old-fashioned glass.
* More on Navy rum: When men were men, and sailors drank Daiquiris

From a classic Don the Beachcomber menu
From a classic Don the Beachcomber menu.

Roughly 200 years later, when tropical drinks were all the rage in the mid-century, so were “Grogs.” There was the Colonial Grog from Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber, Voodoo Grog from Don’s competitor Trader Vic, the Captain’s Grog from the Captain’s Inn (Long Beach, Calif.), and many versions of the Coffee Grog.

But the most famous was easily the Navy Grog, popularized by Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic), its name and flavor profile paying tribute to the original quaffed on the high seas. Beach is credited with serving it first, dedicating the drink “to the gallant men of the American Navy.” The influence and reach of this classic cannot be understated. Just ask Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the author and Tiki cocktail archaeologist who dug up most of the aforementioned recipes and published them in his six seminal books and app.

In the introduction to Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them (2014), the influential writer talks about the life-changing moment he had 30 years earlier, “sitting in a restaurant I couldn’t afford while sipping a drink I didn’t understand. The restaurant was Trader Vic’s, the drink a Navy Grog.” The self-described “Tiki nerd” became obsessed with finding out why he liked the drink so much and figuring out where it came from. The rest is Tiki revival history.

The Yeoman's Grog is a favorite of Tiki historian and author Sven Kirsten, seen here sharing a toast with Hurricane Hayward on New Year's Eve 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)
The Yeoman’s Grog is a favorite of Tiki historian and author Sven Kirsten, seen here sharing a toast with Hurricane Hayward on New Year’s Eve 2016 in The Mai-Kai’s Molokai lounge. (Atomic Grog photo)

But Berry was just one of many famous (and infamous) figures who were smitten with the Navy Grog. It was believed to be one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite drinks (even though ‘Ol Blue Eyes preferred Bourbon). President Richard Nixon was a fan, sneaking away from the White House to quaff a few after hours at Trader Vic’s in the Capitol Hilton. Not coincidentally, Nixon was a Navy lieutenant who served in the South Pacific. In 2003, record producer Phil Spector enjoyed several Navy Grogs at the Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s the night he murdered actress Lana Clarkson. Court testimony by a Vic’s bartender included reference to the drink’s robust 3 ounces of rum.

Don the Beachcomber’s version also features 3 ounces of rum, and both employ grapefruit and lime juices. The only major difference is the sweetener: Donn Beach preferred his signature honey mix, while Trader Vic used an allspice syrup. Trader Vic’s restaurants use a proprietary “Navy Grog Concentrate,” but Berry has revealed (and taste tests confirm) that this is indeed just a fancy syrup.

Which of the two classics is best depends on who you ask. They’re roughly equal in our estimation. So we checked The Grogalizer, the Tiki home-bartending site that features ratings of some 500 cocktail recipes from Berry and Cate, plus more. With 81 votes, Don the Beachcomber’s version rates 8.2 (out of 10), while Trader Vic’s version scores 7.5 on 22 votes.

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