The Mai-Kai is world famous for its extensive menu of nearly 50 tropical drinks that date back a half-century or more. Everyone knows about the Barrel O’ Rum, Black Magic, and iconic Mystery Drink.
But lesser known are the dozen or so classics that for one reason or another disappeared from the menu over the past half century, destined to never be served again in the legendary Fort Lauderdale restaurant. Or so we thought. One notable drink, the Demerara Cocktail, made a welcome comeback during a special event in August 2012 organized by South Florida tikiphiles.
It has since made several more appearances at special events, leading a parade of other “lost cocktails” that have returned from the dead over the past four years. As of October 2016, we’ve had the pleasure of sampling nine cocktails from the original 1956-57 menu, plus three off-the-menu classics.
The Demerara Cocktail was likely removed in the late ’80s or early ’90s when the crucial Lemon Hart Demerara rum became scarce and was dropped from the bar’s inventory. Over the past decade, however, interest in vintage Tiki cocktails – and the flavorful Demerara rum from Guyana – has experienced a revival that continues to grow.
By mid-2012, The Mai-Kai had become the Mecca for Tiki cocktail enthusiasts, and Lemon Hart made a grand return to the cocktail menu (covered here in great detail). The next logical step was the resurrection of this forgotten gem.
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
Our expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.
Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were common during Tiki’s golden age. The ominous Shrunken Skull and its variations were among the most infamous. The idea was to conjure up a sense of danger lurking in your local tropical getaway. Classic Tiki bars offer the ultimate escape from the mundane day-to-day existence, and every island adventure needs a little bit of macabre yet kitschy risk-taking.
In this case, the danger lies in the strong rums that permeate this deadly concoction. The Shrunken Skull is one of only two current Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other also comes with an element of danger attached to its name: the Shark Bite.
The Shrunken Skull is also one of only a handful of Mai-Kai cocktails to come in its own custom mug, originally a vintage shrunken head design that can fetch more than $100 on the open market. It was replaced by a modern version that is not quite as rare but can still reach $50 or more for older versions.
The above links and info come courtesy of Ooga Mooga, the premiere website for Tiki mug collectors. This highly recommended resource lets users track their mug collection while showing it off to others. Loaded with photos of great vintage mugs, it’s worth checking out even if you don’t register as a collector.
The Shrunken Skull also often comes in an Abelam mug (average price: $30), which features a mask-like design of the Abelam people who live in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. A vintage Abelam mug is typically priced in the $100 range.
All of the above mugs have a handle, which is atypical of most Tiki mugs. It’s usually an indication that the mug does double-duty on the dessert menu as a vessel for hot coffee drinks. At The Mai-Kai, the current Abelam mug also can be enjoyed with an after-dinner classic, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog. The shrunken head mug is also used for the Tahitian Coffee.
I picked up both mugs in the gift shop, aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post. I’ll be monitoring their prices on Ooga Mooga like any good mug investor.
The 16 deadly drinks in the “strong” section are no doubt the stars of The Mai-Kai’s legendary cocktail menu. There’s a reason they comprise 13 of the Top 20 in our rankings. They’re by far the most inventive, mysterious and flavor-packed drinks on the menu.
Just be careful when imbibing. The Mai-Kai doesn’t use the word “strong” lightly. Most contain at least 3 ounces of rum, some the higher-proof variety. Among these, there are “strong” drinks and then there are “STRONG!” drinks. In the latter category, one of the first cocktails that comes to mind is the classic 151 Swizzle.
Like many Mai-Kai drinks, this deliciously dangerous concoction dates back to Tiki originator Don the Beachcomber and has been on the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s cocktail menu since its opening in 1956. It has become an iconic standard at the world’s top Tiki bars, such as the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles. At Hale Pele in Portland, The Mai-Kai gets a shout-out in the menu description, and the presentation is very familiar.
Martin Cate, one of the world’s top rum and Tiki cocktail authorities, considers the 151 Swizzle his favorite drink on The Mai-Kai’s menu. [See interview] “When it’s made perfectly, it’s a wonderful drink,” he said. “That to me is my mothership.” At his acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, he serves a souped up version called the 2070 Swizzle, which he calls “my giant killer.” [See recipe]
Revealed in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s groundbreaking 1998 cocktail guide, Grog Log, the original Don the Beachcomber recipe is no secret (see below). As cocktail sleuth Berry pointed out in the book, it was originally served in a metal cup with a flared top, “but good luck finding one.” The Mai-Kai, of course, follows tradition and has always served its 151 Swizzle in a frozen metal cup.
Finding the correct cup outside of the handful of bars mentioned above, however, has been extremely difficult. You could always find close approximations on eBay, but they fall short of the sleek, flared design of the original cup. Berry took matters into his own hands in May 2015, when he released a new line of Tiki barware via Cocktail Kingdom, including a Swizzle Cup. [See story]
Beyond the cup, The Mai-Kai’s version of the 151 Swizzle is unlike any other. Like many Mai-Kai drinks, it’s based on the Don the Beachcomber version but was given a unique twist by original owner Bob Thornton and mixologist Mariano Licudine, who learned his craft from Donn Beach. I’ve taken a stab at re-creating the same flavor profile and have posted an evolving “tribute recipe” below. Like Thornton, current owner Dave Levy (Bob’s stepson) likes to tinker with the recipe from time to time, especially when changes are made to the rums.
The recipe grew out of discussion on The Grogalizer, a site highly recommend if you’re a fan of classic Tiki cocktails. Developed by The Swank Pad’s Tim “Swanky” Glazner, The Grogalizer is a database of hundreds of recipes from all of Beachbum Berry’s books, plus a few select others. The site allows you to rate the drinks, see how other mixologists rank them and share comments on each.
Sign up (it’s easy) and keep track of your progress through all the great recipes in these books. It’s also an easy way to keep track of all the various bar ingredients you’ll need to re-create these classics, which include many in this guide. After compiling your online bar, you can figure out which drinks you can make with which ingredients as well as resources for buying hard-to-find stuff. In September 2016, Glazner released his long-awaited book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, an essential addition to any Mai-Kai fan’s collection.
It’s 1937. A budding Oakland, Calif., restaurateur named Victor Bergeron ventures south to Hollywood to see for himself what all the hoopla is about surrounding a small tropical-themed bar called Don the Beachcomber. According to legend, Bergeron was inspired to adopt the same Polynesian theme and shortly thereafter changed the name of his restaurant from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s.
The rest is history, and Trader Vic’s remains the standard-bearer for Polynesian restaurants worldwide with more than 25 locations. The Don the Beachcomber chain disappeared, save for a lone corporate restaurant/bar location at the Royal Kona Resort in Hawaii and a recently closed one-off franchise in Huntington Beach, Calif., that’s reportedly reopening soon in a new location. Neither, however, have much tangible connection to founder Donn Beach. He officially left the company when his ex-wife, Sunny Sund, took the helm during World War II.
Our nation’s soldiers always held a special place in the heart of Beach, a veteran of the Army Air Corps during WW II and recipient of both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. One of the drinks on Beach’s menu in 1937 was the Q.B. Cooler, named for the Quiet Birdmen, a drinking fraternity of aviators founded by seven World War I pilots in 1921. Donn changed his Q.B. Cooler recipe over the years, but as cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry revealed in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the original version tastes remarkably similar to what Trader Vic later introduced to the world as perhaps the most famous of all tropical drinks, the Mai Tai.
As Berry theorized in the book and later demonstrated during a symposium at the 2009 Hukilau at The Mai-Kai, it’s likely that Bergeron created the Mai Tai by copying the flavor profile of the Q.B. Cooler. What’s remarkable is that the Mai Tai contains quite different ingredients (orange curacao, sugar syrup, orgeat syrup). The two drinks have only rum and lime juice in common. But it’s undeniable that the tastes are incredibly similar.
Of course, Bergeron later claimed that he invented the Mai Tai in 1944 and eventually won a court battle that established him as the originator of the famous cocktail. Berry puts forward the theory that Bergeron most likely did invent the Mai Tai as we all know it, but he was inspired by the Q.B. Cooler and re-created it using almost entirely different ingredients. In honor of the battle to make the best Mai Tai, the Royal Kona holds on popular bartending competition every year dubbed the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival.