Cocktail review: What makes the Mai-Kai Special?

See below: Our Mai-Kai Special review | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

In cocktail bars these days, every effort is made to let the customer know what their drink contains. And this is a good thing. Especially when we’re guaranteed “hand-crafted cocktails made with fresh squeezed fruit,” as we just discovered on the menu for the new Longboards restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach. Longboards goes even further, spelling out every ingredient (and their exact measurements). See the menu here. Now, we suspect that part of the reason for this is to give the inexperienced bartenders easy-to-find directions on how to make the cocktails. But no matter. As long as it raises the bar for quality tropical drinks, we’re all for it.

Vintage Mai-Kai ad

The Mai-Kai, on the other hand, is a throwback. Not a throwback to the dark days of cocktails when ham-fisted bartenders used artificial ingredients to create abominations that gave tropical drinks a black eye. But a throwback to the golden age of Tiki, when cocktail pioneers such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic created complex, iconic drinks that were so over-the-top delicious that the recipes became closely guarded secrets. They’re made behind closed doors, in back bars away from public view. And even the bartenders preparing the drinks aren’t completely aware of every ingredient. Proprietary mixes and syrups with cryptic names and numbers are common.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Mara-Amu is a second generation classic

Updated September 2016
See below: Our Mara-Amu review | Official recipe
Related: The Big Bamboo features big flavors, unique history | Mai-Kai cocktail guide
‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai

The Mara-Amu is one of the most popular of the 47 tropical drinks on The Mai-Kai’s vast menu, due in part to the fact that it’s the only one that comes in a Tiki mug you can take home after quaffing your cocktail (others require a special trip to the gift shop). The mugs have remained generally the same over the decades, but occasionally you’ll discover a different glaze or an entirely different design (see bottom photo).

Artist Will Anders spruces up the Mara-Amu Tiki in The Mai-Kai's outdoor gardens. (Photo by Tiki Kiliki, September 2015)
Artist Will Anders spruces up the Mara-Amu Tiki in The Mai-Kai’s outdoor gardens. (Photo by Tiki Kiliki, September 2015)

Since they’re given away with the drink, Mara-Amu mugs aren’t especially rare or hard to find. Check the Ooga-Mooga mug collectors site for recent prices and lots of photos. The mug is iconic, however, and inspired a Tiki that now stands in a prominent spot in The Mai-Kai’s famous outdoor gardens.

The Mara-Amu Tiki is unique, created by South Florida artist Will Anders when he was toying with the idea of making Tikis from foam. The idea was they could withstand the elements better than wood, and be easy for people to install in their outdoor pools and Tiki bars. They ended up being more difficult and costly to carve (and also susceptible to lots of superficial damage inflicted by unrespectful guests), so the idea never took off.

One of Anders’ claims to fame is his role in restoring the smaller Tikis in The Mai-Kai’s gardens. He was given access to molds created by late owner Bob Thornton from the original wooden Tikis, and over the years has re-created many of them in concrete. As you meander through the lush tropical paths in the gardens, much of what you see are re-creations by Anders. He also carved a giant new wooden Tiki, dubbed King Kai, that stands near the Mara-Amu in the gardens. See the full story and photos of the creation and installation of this 10-foot icon in May 2016.

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The Derby Daiquiri: The Mai-Kai’s ‘$100,000 drink’

Updated July 2014
See below: Our Derby Daiquiri review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Related: The story of the Floridita Daiquiri rivals any novel
Mai-Kai cocktail guide | More on the Derby Daiquiri from The Swank Pad

A vintage photo of the Derby Daiquiri in its custom glass honoring the Florida Derby
A vintage photo of the Derby Daiquiri in its custom glass honoring the Florida Derby.

The Mai-Kai rolls out the ‘goodwill wagon’

When you think of the Mint Julep, you immediately think of the Kentucky Derby. In 1959, when the organizers of the $100,000 Florida Derby sought a similar drink to promote their race, they turned to The Mai-Kai.

The Derby Daiquiri, created by mixologist Mariano Licudine, became the race’s official drink. The Florida Derby, which began in 1952, is still run today every spring with a purse now set at $1 million. Winners usually go on to compete in the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby Daiquiri immediately gave the race and The Mai-Kai a huge publicity boost. It also won first prize in a Rums of Puerto Rico cocktail competition and was featured as Esquire magazine’s drink of the month.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Barrel O’ Rum is the Rodney Dangerfield of tropical drinks

The Atomic Grog joins The Trader Brandon Transmissions

DECEMBER 2021 UPDATE: The Barrel Before Christmas tribute recipe

OCTOBER 2021 UPDATE: Rum Barrel recipe on Spike’s Breezeway

The Barrel O’ Rum and our new tribute recipe were featured on Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour. Check out the YouTube video below and follow Spike on Instagram and Facebook.

APRIL 2021 UPDATE: Deconstructing Kohala Bay

Hurricane Hayward joined the Austin Rum Society online to reveal several new rum blends that hope to duplicate The Mai-Kai’s late, great dark Jamaican mixing rum. In the video below, we also enjoyed a Rum Barrel featuring the new recipe and discussed the history of The Mai-Kai …

APRIL 2020 UPDATE: Building a better Barrel

The new tribute recipe was revealed on The Trader Brandon Transmissions on Instagram …

The Atomic Grog's tribute to The Mai-Kai's Barrel O' Rum, as seen on The Trader Brandon Transmissions

The Atomic Grog joins The Trader Brandon Transmissions

Check out our Tiki Tuesday chat with Brandon Kleyla on his Instagram page or view the video below.
* Go to TraderBrandon.com and browse all his cool merch

Watch Hurricane Hayward make the updated Barrel O’ Rum …

FULL UPDATE COMING SOON!

PREVIOUS UPDATES …

Updated March 1, 2015
See below: Our Barrel O’ Rum review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Related: Master Mixologist Rum Barrel Challenge | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Barrel O' Rum
Barrel O’ Rum (The Mai-Kai photo)

Don The Beachcomber had the Zombie. Trader Vic had the Mai Tai. While Fort Lauderdale’s iconic Mai-Kai has many cocktails worthy of classic status, it’s the mighty Barrel O’ Rum that has become the 55-year-old landmark’s signature drink, and possibly the most underrated tropical drink in history.

Sure, it’s hugely popular. Just wind your way through The Molokai bar during any busy happy hour and you’ll see more Barrels than BP lost in the Gulf. Among the general public and popular media, the Barrel O’ Rum and The Mai-Kai are synonymous.

But among the the cocktail intelligentsia, the Barrel just doesn’t quite measure up. What gives? Come on guys, this is an incredible drink. A deceptively deadly celebration of rum and citrus that manages to be both simple and complex. This is a work of art courtesy of The Mai-Kai’s inimitable mixologist, Mariano Licudine, who took an often muddled concept and perfected it for the thirsty, rum-swilling masses during Tiki’s heyday. A half century later, it’s a timeless classic, often copied, never duplicated.

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‘Rum Rat Pack’ starts a revolution at Hukilau 2011

See below: Rumposium photo gallery
Related: The Hukilau crowns a Rum Barrel Master Mixologist
2011 Hukilau photos and video: Facebook | Flickr | Go11Media

February 2013 update: How big a punch can Tiki Month take?

‘Rumposium’ kicks off Tiki event’s Mia-Kai bash

Tropical drink revivalist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his “Rum Rat Pack” – four of the world’s most noted authorities on the cane spirit – banded together on stage at the legendary Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale during the afternoon of Saturday, June 12, to celebrate Tiki’s favorite elixir.

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry leaves no doubt about what this event is all about.
Jeff "Beachbum" Berry leaves no doubt about what this event is all about.

More than two hours and a thousand or so cocktails later, the 200 Tikiphiles attending this 10th anniversary Hukilau exclusive event were swept up in a movement not seen in these parts of the tropics since Fidel’s rise to power in another rum-soaked nation just to the south. But in the friendly environs of The Mai-Kai, which actually pre-dates Castro’s revolt by several years, the revolutionaries were armed only with good spirits. Lots of good spirits.

Before the symposium even started, several samples of high-end rums awaited us as we were seated in the Polynesian palace’s main dining room. Beachbum Berry wasted no time in introducing us to some of the fine rums on display this afternoon: Chairman’s Reserve from St. Lucia; Rhum Clement VSOP and La Favorite Rhum Agricole, both from Martinique; Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum from Guyana; and Dos Maderas (a blend of aged rums from Barbados and Guyana).

Of course, more than 50 cocktails from The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drink menu were also available, and many in the audience wasted no time in beginning the evening’s imbibing early (The Atomic Grog included). I opted for one of the restaurant’s signature drinks, the Derby Daiquiri, a refreshing frozen lime-orange concoction created by the late, great master mixologist Mariano Licudine. Mariano’s son, Ron, was in attendance for the festivities and was happy to entertain us cocktail geeks with stories from his youth when his dad ruled the tropical drink world.

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We be Jammin: Rum Renaissance Zombie fest at The Mai-Kai

Zombie Jamboree

Related links
* See our photos from the event | Our event preview | More on Rum Renaissance
* Our recipe (with photos) for the Atomic Zombie Cocktail

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry teaches a graduate course on the Zombie
Jeff "Beachbum" Berry teaches a graduate course on the Zombie.

There was enough revelry and hard-core mixology on display this past Monday to wake the long-dead Tiki spirits at the legendary Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.

The occasion was a collision course of Tiki culture and rum appreciation known as the Zombie Jamboree, the kickoff party for the seven-day Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.

The evening consisted of three components. First, Tiki drink expert and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s seminar on the history of the Zombie cocktail, then the best contemporary mixologists competing in the “Zombie Jam,” followed by The Mai-Kai’s show and dinner.

When I first heard about this event, I had to pinch myself. Had I died and gone to Tiki heaven? My favorite Mai-Kai drink was being celebrated with a seminar by my mixology guru and a contest that was just beckoning for me to enter. So enter I did.

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