Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trading Martinique for Guyana, milk punch gets a boost from new rum

Updated March 15, 2016
See below: Our Martinique Milk Punch review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Rums of The Mai-Kai: Hamilton rums from Guyana fill the Lemon Hart gap
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Don’t let the name “Martinique Milk Punch” fool you. This traditional rum drink, a popular classic during the winter holidays, recently received an upgrade at The Mai-Kai.

Like several other vintage recipes, most notably the Bora Bora and S.O.S., recent updates have replaced the long-established Martinique rum with the sweeter and smokier Demerara-style rum from Guyana.

Hamilton 86

The improvement is dramatic. The Martinique Milk Punch benefits from the replacement of the earthy and pungent agricole rum and the recent addition of the 86-proof Hamilton rum from Guyana. As a result, the cocktail vaults up an unprecedented eight spots in The Atomic Grog’s rankings, from No. 41 to No. 33. Bora Bora made a similar leap, moving up 10 positions and also increasing from 2 1/2 stars to 3 stars.

Since its return in April 2012, Demerara rum has become a key flavor in many of The Mai-Kai’s traditional Tiki cocktails (see full story). We had not revisited the often-ignored Martinique Milk Punch since we posted this original review in December 2011, so it’s possible that Demerara rum was incorporated into the recipe any time since mid-2012.

With winter cocktails on our mind, we ordered a Martinique Milk Punch in late 2015 and immediately noted the difference. The distinctive Demerara rum flavor shines through with just the right amount of sweetness and a dusting of nutmeg, making for a much more balanced drink. The Martinique rum that The Mai-Kai previously used tended to dominate the other ingredients, its grassy taste a little too aggressive for this mild dessert-style drink.

The Martinique Milk Punch is served in the same glass as two popular ice-cream drinks, the Chocolate Snowflake and Mai-Kai Blizzard. While it’s not on the after-dinner menu, it could easily fill that role.

Saveur magazine recipe

A traditional milk punch dates back to colonial times. Ben Franklin had his own recipe, which you can check out here. It became fashionable in 18th century England after it was introduced by merchants and often featured whiskey or brandy instead of rum.

It’s unclear if the version using rum from Martinique is indigenous to that island or was created elsewhere. We do know that it was featured on early Don the Beachcomber menus, and this is likely the genesis of the version that was originally served at The Mai-Kai.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Demerara rum, secret mix revive classic Bora Bora

The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai's founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated July 2018
See below: Our Bora Bora review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe 3.0
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai's founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956.  (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai’s founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.
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
(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

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trade in Vic's Mai Tai for this classic

Updated August 2020
See below: Our Mai Tai review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: The off-menu Suffering Bastard was just a Mai Tai with a kick
What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson? | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

More than 75 years after its invention, the Mai Tai is widely hailed as the definitive tropical drink. You’ll get some arguments from Zombie fans like myself, but there’s no denying that the Mai Tai is one of the world’s most popular and distinctive cocktails, period.

The Mai Tai (front) is one of The Mai-Kai's signature drinks. (Photo by by Go11Events.com, courtesy of The Mai-Kai; waitress: Maima)
The Mai Tai (front) is one of The Mai-Kai’s signature drinks. (Photo by Go11Events.com, courtesy of The Mai-Kai; waitress: Maima)

Much has been written about how to make an “authentic” Mai Tai, as created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, circa 1944. Tiki cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has a very concise history lesson and recipe posted here. As the Bum points out, the argument over who really invented the drink persists to this day.

We subscribe to Berry’s theory that Trader Vic created the Mai Tai after tasting a Don the Beachcomber drink with a similar flavor profile called the Q.B. Cooler. Donn Beach, who created the Tiki bar concept in 1934 in Los Angeles, also had a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle, but it was gone from the menu by 1937. It’s widely accepted that Vic frequented Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood before opening his first Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Could he have lifted the name from one drink and the flavor profile from another in creating his Mai Tai?

It’s entirely possible, but that has nothing to do with The Mai-Kai, or its version of the Mai Tai. The Mai-Kai already serves a descendant of the Q.B. Cooler called the K.O. Cooler (See our previous review). If you’re looking for the taste of a proto Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, try the K.O. Cooler.

The Mai Tai served at The Mai-Kai is one of many variations created in the wake of the success of the original drink. You’ll find some good examples from vintage Tiki restaurants in Beachbum Berry’s cocktail books and app, including the Bali Hai Mai Tai, Damon’s Mai Tai, Kon-Tiki Mai Tai and Surf Room Mai Tai. Until recently, many bars offered an inferior or bastardized copy. But the Tiki and craft cocktail movements have resulted in a much more creative atmosphere, especially where the Mai Tai is concerned. Check out the links below for examples:
* Florida bartender wins Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Challenge at The Mai-Kai
* More Mai Tai recipes on The Atomic Grog

A Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai in April 2013
A Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai in April 2013. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

In the mid-century, however, The Mai-Kai was not quick to jump on the Mai Tai bandwagon. The cocktail has not been spotted on a menu before 1970 (see image). It’s missing from all previous menus in our collection, including this one from 1966.

At first, it was likely an off-menu drink made upon request, like the Scorpion and Suffering Bastard, two other Trader Vic’s classics popular with many guests. The latter finally made it to The Mai-Kai’s menu during the last major update in 2018.

Rather than copying Vic’s recipe, Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine put his own spin on the Mai Tai (and Suffering Bastard), owing to his roots as one of Don the Beachcomber’s early Filipino barmen. He worked behind one of Donn Beach’s original Hollywood bars in 1939 before becoming assistant bar manager at the Chicago location during his years there (1940-1955). He joined The Mai-Kai as bar manager in 1956, crafting its opening day menu with owners Bob and Jack Thornton.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson?

K.O. Cooler, October 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated July 2018
See below: Our K.O. Cooler review | Ancestor recipes | Tribute recipe
Related: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber's Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)
Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)

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.

Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)
Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

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.

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