Mai-Kai cocktail review: Double your pleasure with the exotic and delicious Zula #1 (and #2)

Updated November 2016
See below: Our Zula reviews | Ancestor recipe | UPDATE: Tribute recipes
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The mysterious Zula #1 is easily one of the most curious (and deliciously distinctive) cocktails on The Mai-Kai’s 56-year-old tropical drink menu. And, as usual, it has a fascinating back-story.

Zula No. 1 (left) and Zula No. 2, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Zula No. 1 (left) and Zula No. 2, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The cocktail’s flavors are just as exotic as its origins, which both took us years to figure out. The pineapple-forward taste is unlike any other you’ll find at The Mai-Kai.

But there’s another secret about Zula #1 that not many guests may be aware of: It shares its name (and flavor profile) with a secret off-menu sister drink, the smaller and sweeter Zula #2. But it wasn’t always that mysterious.

If you look back at older menus, you’ll find both drinks. On The Mai-Kai’s original 1956-57 cocktail menu, there’s “Zula No. 1” in a tall glass and “Zula No. 2” in a stemmed coupe similar to other lost classics such as Liquid Gold.

Long-stemmed glassware was extremely popular in the 1950s. You’ll find a dozen cocktails on early menus using the elegant coupe glass, which faded from use at The Mai-Kai but made a big comeback at craft cocktail bars in the early 21st century.

The Mai-Kai's original cocktail menu, circa 1957.
The Mai-Kai’s original cocktail menu, circa 1957.

By 1979, when the menu had been arranged in its now-familiar “mild,” “medium” and “strong” groupings, the names had changed slightly to Zula #1 (strong) and Zula #2 (mild), but the coupe glass endured. It’s now served in a short rocks glass similar to the Shark Bite, Oh So Deadly and Mai-Kai Special.

We’ve seen menus from the ’80s that still feature Zula #2. But by the 1990s it was gone, never to be seen on a menu again. What many didn’t realize as the years went by, however, is that you could still order the milder Zula. By the time I started bellying up to the bar in the 2000s, it was a distant memory. I only discovered it while researching the history of Zula #1 for this cocktail guide.

Is this the source of the name
Is this the source of the name “Zula”? While doing research for Hulaween 2016, we discovered a vintage Betty Boop clip from 1937 called "Zula Hula." Click above to watch.

I give credit to Tiki Central friends for helping track down the drink’s origins. As we know now, a majority of the vintage cocktails served at the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace (32 at last count) can be traced back to drinks created by tropical drink godfather Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber).

Most are relatively easy to figure out. Some (Rum Julep, 151 Swizzle) have the exact same name, while others are obvious tweaks (Cobra’s Fang to Cobra’s Kiss, Don’s Pearl to Hidden Pearl).

However, nothing in Beach’s vast repertoire seemed to resemble the Zula. But there it was in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari (2007), right under our nose: Penang Afrididi. Don’t ask us how the names relate, but the flavor profile is indeed remarkably similar. The clincher: There are two versions of both cocktails, known as Penang Afrididi #1 and Penang Afrididi #2.

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