Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you’re ‘Passionate’ about tropical drinks, this one’s for you

The Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you're 'Passionate' about tropical drinks, this one's for you

Updated October 2019

See below: Our Piña Passion review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe NEW
Related: What says ‘Tiki’ better than a drink served in a pineapple?
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

One of the most iconic images of the tropical drink is a vessel made from a hollowed-out pineapple. This over-the-top cocktail experience has been perfected at The Mai-Kai with the classic Piña Passion.

The Mai-Kai's Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mai-Kai’s Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Piña Passion is served in a fresh pineapple that guests can take home. The one exception is during happy hour in The Molokai bar, when you’ll have to settle for having the drink in an old fashioned glass.

If you ever get a chance to take a peek into The Mai-Kai’s main service bar, tucked way behind the kitchen and hidden from guests, you’ll find cases of pineapples awaiting their fate. [See photo]

Drinks in pineapples were staples on tropical-themed cocktail menus across the country during Tiki’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. You can still find them at old-school establishments such as San Francisco’s Tonga Room (est. 1945) and Chicago’s temple of Witco, Hala Kahiki (est 1966). In the Hawaiian language, a pineapple is called “hala kahiki.”

A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)
A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

Even in the dark days of Tiki in the 1970s and ’80s, pineapple drinking vessels remained essential on cruise ships and resorts in exotic locales. They go hand-in-hand with the concept of a tropical paradise.

They’re not as easy to find at today’s smaller Tiki and craft cocktail bars, which tend to favor traditional glassware and ceramic mugs. But this is changing in a big way thanks to a new breed of craftsmen who are taking Tiki hospitality to a whole new level.

At Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, one of the most popular events presented by owner Martin Cate and his team is Domingo de Piña (Pineapple Sunday), which features a selection of cocktails served in pineapples. We recommend Cate’s book – Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016) – for more in-depth info and recipes for several tasty drinks served in pineapples.

There's nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)
There’s nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)

Italy’s Daniele Dalla Pola, who built upon the success of his Nu Lounge Bar to open Esotico Miami in August 2019, is also a big proponent of the spiky fruit. His new exotic bar and restaurant features both food and drink served in fresh pineapples. At The Hukilau 2017, he presented two Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classes called “Pineapple Paradise” with information and advanced techniques on using the hospitable fruit in tropical drinks.

Of course, the pineapple is iconic as the worldwide symbol of hospitality. It was so sought-after in colonial times that people would rent them for a day to use as a party decoration. Considered the world’s most exotic fruit, pineapples were brought back to Europe by Columbus and other explorers. George Washington praised the fruit in his diary, noting that among his favorite foods, “none pleases my tastes” like a pineapple.

Because of their scarcity and high price, pineapples were typically served only to prestigious guests, and even those who could not afford them picked up on the image to share the sentiment of a special welcome. Towns, inns and households began displaying images of the pineapple to convey a sense of welcoming. You can find pineapple images on historic buildings around the world.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Patriotism never tasted as good as the S.O.S.

The S.O.S. 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

Updated July 2018
See below: Our S.O.S. review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Most classic Mai-Kai cocktails can be traced back to tropical drink pioneer Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), and the S.O.S. is no exception. Most are easy to spot due to the similar names (Cobra’s Fang = Cobra’s Kiss, Pearl Diver = Deep-Sea Diver). But others are a little harder to trace.

Three Dots and a Dash
From a 1950s Don the Beachcomber menu.

The clue to the origins of S.O.S. is actually the garnish: the distinctive three speared cherries. In reviewing old Don the Beachcomber menus, it’s hard to miss the classic Three Dots and a Dash, a tribute to Americans fighting overseas. “Three dots and a dash” was Morse code for “victory” during World War II, when Donn Beach created the drink. Beach served in the Army Air Corps and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Thanks to tropical drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, we also have the recipe to compare. Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine, who knew Donn Beach’s recipes well from his days slinging drinks at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and Chicago, simply changed the name to S.O.S. and tweaked the complex recipe to make it a bit more user friendly.

The result is a highly recommended cocktail from the mild side of The Mai-Kai’s menu, full of nuances yet still not too overpowering. Be sure to pick up the expanded and updated 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, featuring many new and historic recipes, a new hardcover design with additional photos, plus forward and afterward that chronicle the years leading up to the Tiki revival plus the influence the book has had over the past decade.

July 2018 update: The S.O.S. 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 S.O.S. 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 explaining the importance of fresh Florida juices, Hayward demonstrated how to make the S.O.S. tribute recipe while the class received sample drinks. The juices and syrups, along with a simplified rum profile, give the S.O.S. an altogether different flavor than Three Dots and a Dash, the students learned. The juices take a more prominent role, and the S.O.S. is a great spotlight for the fresh Florida orange juice used in many Mai-Kai drinks.
See photos from the class: Facebook | Flickr

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Patriotism never tasted as good as the S.O.S.”