When the organizers of The Hukilau, the largest annual gathering of Tiki enthusiasts on the East Coast, asked attendees to come up with a signature cocktail for one of their new rum sponsors, the response was instantaneous and ambitious.
The Hukilau: June 6-9, 2013, at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, Best Western Oceanside, and The Mai-Kai restaurant. Latest updates at TheHukilau.com and Facebook.
Nearly a dozen mixologists answered the call and submitted their entries last month featuring Deadhead Rum, a new craft spirit from Mexico that comes in in a distinctive shrunken head. As one of the lucky judges, I had the pleasure of sampling some creative and tasty cocktails. Even more impressive were the photos. Today’s wave of Tiki home bartenders obviously takes their craft seriously.
The initial field was narrowed to three, and the finalists were provided care packages by Deadhead (see photo at right) so they could fine-tune their final entries. This gold rum, aged at least six years in sherry casks, features both molasses and sugarcane juice from Mexico’s agricultural regions. It’s great as both a sipping rum and a mixer, with a flavor profile that includes cloves, anise and caramel. It’s available in more than a dozen states, including California, but not yet in Florida.
Every February, Tiki cocktail bloggers gather for Tiki Month at The Pegu Blog to share cocktail recipes, tips, tricks and musings about the state of tropical mixology. Why February? It has something to do with an escape from Mother Nature’s frigid wrath, but I don’t really grasp that concept having been marooned in Fort Liquordale for more years than I can remember.
Not a bad place to be marooned, however, especially when The Hukilau rolls into town every year. There’s also a little restaurant called The Mai-Kai. Both serve as a beacon, summoning the greatest minds in the Tiki world to an annual bacchanalia of rum and revelry.
The single event that perhaps reached the pinnacle of rum and revelry was the appearance of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s “Rum Rat Pack” at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau in June 2011, which brings us back to Tiki Month. This year’s blog contributions have been entertaining and informative, covering such esoteric topics as homemade ginger syrup, garnishes made from ground coconut and orange peel, and more drink recipes than you can shake a shaker at. There was also something about geeks who re-create recipes they’ve never actually tasted, if you can imagine that.
Lost in all these intricate tropical concoctions is a common conundrum: How do you handle a thirsty mob who can’t wait for you to carefully fillet an orange or toast coconut? The Rum Rat Pack’s Rumposium demonstrated how to solve that problem with style and flair. In one fell swoop, they whipped up a Tiki punch for 200, featuring 240 ounces of six different rums, a jaw-dropping bowl filled with 630 ounces of deliciousness.
All of this flesh-eating hoopla has done little, however, to popularize a much less trendy and much more misunderstood Zombie: The infamous tropical drink that rose to infamy in the 1930s and was for decades perhaps the world’s most well-known cocktail. True to its name, the classic drink was shrouded in mystery, later becoming one of the most butchered recipes in cocktail history.
But several people and places have kept this powerful rum concoction alive and kicking, and to them we raise a hearty Zombie glass in tribute this Halloween:
Most fans of the spectacular tropical drinks at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale are content with the current 47 cocktails, a majority of them classic concoctions that have withstood the test of time for 60 years. But The Atomic Grog can’t get enough of The Mai-Kai, so like to crank up our flux capacitor and go back in time to dig up a few “lost cocktails” that disappeared from the menu over the years.
When the Demerara Cocktail came out of retirement in August 2012, it gave us the inspiration to dig deeper into the history and explore some of the other long-gone drinks. Here’s the cool part: They’re not really long gone. The old recipes are still kept in owner Dave Levy’s office, safely under lock and key. Levy is the stepson of founder Bob Thornton, and keeper of most of the remaining cocktail secrets.
So after the return of the Demerara Cocktail, the next logical step was to revisit its sister drink, the Demerara Float. It took more than six months, but our wish was granted unexpectedly in early in 2013, when the photo above popped up on the Facebook news feed of The Hukilau organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White. It looked like a Shark Bite with its Appleton rum floater. But this was no Shark Bite. The rum was noticeably darker. Could it be?
Got those sweltering August blues yet? Even if you don’t, you’ll want to get in the Tiki spirit this month within the cool, dark confines of The Mai-Kai’s Molokai bar with a couple of special events.
The two parties – set for Sunday, Aug. 12, and Saturday, Aug. 18 – promise to serve up two radically different experiences in the legendary Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s vintage shipwreck-themed lounge.
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.
The Mai-Kai’s Molokai bar was jumping on Saturday night, June 9, as an eclectic mix of cocktailians, Tiki enthusiasts, retro hipsters, and surf music fans gathered for The Atomic Grog’s first Mai-Kai Mixer.
Doors opened at 4:30 for Saturday’s early happy hour, and dozens of Mai-Kai faithful queued up early for exclusive flights of the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace’s legendary cocktails. DJ Mike “Jetsetter” Jones got the festivities in high gear with his wide-ranging playlist of retro party music, and up-and-coming surf band Skinny Jimmy & The Stingrays nearly blew the doors off the place. The party went full-throttle until the midnight hour.
The rum cocktail flights sold out quickly as more than 30 signed up to taste sample versions of three vintage drinks featuring Lemon Hart Demerara rum. Several hundred filtered through the bar throughout the evening for happy hour – which ran until 7 p.m. – and two high-octane sets from Deerfield Beach’s Skinny Jimmy & The Stingrays.
This is the 51st weekly review in our yearlong series exploring the cocktails at the iconic Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, and it marks the completion of all the drinks on the current menu. Next week, we conclude our odyssey with a historic drink that’s no longer on the menu.
One of the great rituals at The Mai-Kai is ordering the Kona Coffee Grog, a potent after-dinner drink that’s served tableside with a flamboyant pouring of flaming 151 rum. The traditional preparation and presentation of this classic has been passed down to generations of servers, and it remains one of the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian restaurant’s signature experiences.
The Kona Coffee Grog is just as much a throwback to the early days of Tiki as the Zombie or Mai Tai. And the fact that it’s still served in the exact same style only enhances the authenticity. Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, served many hot drinks in the early days of tropical mixology. There was Hot Buttered Rum, Hot Tiger’s Milk, and Don the Beachcomber’s Coffee Grog. The Kona Coffee Grog was likely a variation of the latter.
Join The Atomic Grog on Saturday, June 9, for a special party featuring exclusive flights of Mai-Kai cocktails, live surf music, and a DJ spinning retro tunes all night long. The event runs from 6 to 11 p.m. in The Molokai bar.
This first “Atomic Grog Mai-Kai Mixer” will mark the completion of 52 weeks of cocktail reviews, covering the entire menu of renowned tropical drinks at the legendary Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale. The flights, featuring three sample versions of these classic cocktails, will spotlight the recently reintroduced Lemon Hart Demerara rum. Click here for the full story.
But that’s not all. There’s a full evening of entertainment on tap. The party gets into high gear after happy hour with DJ Mike “Jetsetter” Jones and two sets of live surf music from South Florida’s Skinny Jimmy & The Stingrays. If you caught this authentic instrumental surf band opening recently for Dick Dale in West Palm Beach and Miami, you’ll know you’re in for a treat. And the Jetsetter will mix things up with his eclectic blend of surf, lounge, exotica, reggae, ska, classic punk and more.
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.