The Miami Rum Renaissance Festival celebrated its fifth birthday last month, drawing thousands of industry reps and enthusiasts to a weeklong celebration of one of the world’s most popular spirits.
The April 15-21 event marked the occasion with an impressive new venue, some informative and entertaining expert speakers and, of course, hundreds of product samples available at the weekend Grand Tasting events.
The tastings were the big draw, attracting large crowds to the Miami Airport Convention Center (MACC) for every rum under the sun, from Abuelo (Panama) to Zaya (Trinidad & Tobago). It’s this great diversity that has always made rum special, as devotees well know. Unfortunately, a dark cloud threatens to mar rum’s renaissance, but we’ll save that buzzkill for later. First, a few highlights of The Atomic Grog’s experiences during the fest.
The first five days featured the VIP parties and product judging that draw the bulk of the rum industry movers and shakers to South Florida. I caught some of Tuesday’s party at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale and rubbed elbows with a few notables from the Tiki world. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it down to Miami Beach for one of the Broken Shaker’s daily happy hours. This highly acclaimed bar in the Freehand Miami hostel is on my short list of South Florida cocktail hotspots I need to explore in depth.
SPECIAL EVENT: The Rums of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau 2019 Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog took guests on an virtual journey to the Caribbean to learn about the key rums and styles that have dominated The Mai-Kai’s acclaimed cocktails for more than 60 years. He was joined by rum expert Stephen Remsberg for an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at Pier Sixty-Six hotel on June 8, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai Grand Finale on June 9. See the event preview | Full recap coming soon! Get detailed reports and photos on Tiki Central Coming soon: Exclusive news on a new replacement for Kohala Bay rum at The Mai-Kai, plus more! * See exclusive info and photos on Tiki Central
For more than 60 years, The Mai-Kai has carried on the tradition of Tiki forefather Don the Beachcomber by serving some of the world’s most acclaimed tropical drinks. The secret recipes created by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach) in the 1930s and ’40s became the basis for many of the exotic cocktails on the menu when Bob and Jack Thornton opened their Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale in 1956.
By their very nature, Tiki bars are known for their rums and cocktails highlighting cane spirits. But The Mai-Kai takes it to the extreme. The 48 drinks on Licudine’s original menu called for 43 different brands of rum, reports author and Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in The Mai-Kai chapter of Sippin’ Safari, the seminal 2007 book on Tiki’s unheralded bartenders that was recently expanded and enhanced for a 10th anniversary edition.
“Shortly after opening, The Mai-Kai became the largest independent user of rum in the U.S., pouring more than 2,000 cases of Puerto Rican rum in 1958 alone,” Berry wrote in Sippin’ Safari. Some 60 years later, lighter bodied rums from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands still make up a large chunk of the total volume of rum poured in The Mai-Kai’s secluded back bars. They play a key role in the many popular drinks on the tourist-friendly mild section of the menu.
But Beach’s true genius, as carried on by his brethren at The Mai-Kai, was the ability to blend rums of different body and character and create an entirely new and bold flavor profile. Many of The Mai-Kai’s most robust cocktails feature three and four different rums, such as the Zombie and Jet Pilot.
The rums that define The Mai-Kai style are straight out of Donn’s playbook. As a counterpoint to the Spanish-style column-stilled rums, Beach often added two English-style pot-stilled rums: The dark and funky rums from Jamaica, and the rich and smoky Demerara rums from Guyana. These have always been the distinctive flavors that define many of The Mai-Kai’s best cocktails, particularly those on the strong section of the menu.
Following is a deep dive into these two rum styles as they’re served at The Mai-Kai today and through history, including discussion and reviews of the current brands and cocktails.
DEMERARA RUMS: Lemon Hart, Hamilton shine in strong, flavorful cocktails
The Mai-Kai began using the latest reboot of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, the iconic mixing rum from Guyana, in September 2016. This black blended overproof rum, which disappeared from the U.S. market in mid-2014, was reintroduced in the summer of 2016 and continues to regain distribution across the country. Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum (known as Original 1804) is making slower progress, and The Mai-Kai continues to use Hamilton 86 as its standard black blended Demerara rum as of mid-2018. * Tiki Central: Latest updates on Lemon Hart’s return
It was during the two-year absence of Lemon Hart that Hamilton 151 and 86, also from Guyana, stepped up to fill the void. The Hamilton rums were embraced not only at The Mai-Kai, but at Tiki and craft cocktail bars across the country. While some bars have chosen to stick with Hamilton across the board, The Mai-Kai is splitting the difference with Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86.
Following is a list of the drinks at The Mai-Kai using Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums. The links will connect you with reviews and recipes.
Retired cocktails featuring Demerara rum: In addition to the current drinks listed above, you can also sample a few recipes for drinks that are no longer featured on The Mai-Kai menu. Both of these have made comebacks at special events, so you never know when they will return for an encore. Demerara Cocktail | Demerara Float
HISTORY: The saga of Demerara rums at The Mai-Kai
What exactly is Demerara rum and why is it so important to Tiki cocktails? According to Berry, aged Demerara rums “are the rich, aromatic, smoky ‘secret weapon’ in most truly memorable tropical drinks.” They hail from the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana, hence the name. The last remaining distillery in Guyana is Demerara Distillers, which produces its own extensive suite of rums under the El Dorado brand. It also supplies all of the world’s Demerara rum, including those bottled by Lemon Hart and Hamilton.
The historic distillery, aka Diamond Distillery, was established in 1670. The rums are made using molasses from local Demerara sugar, which along with the distillery’s special strain of cultured yeast, historic stills and Guyana’s tropical climate, provide a unique combination that yields some of the world’s richest rums. Diamond employs some of the oldest and unique stills the world, including the last wooden pot stills, which can be traced back to the 1730s.
There are more than 20 different styles of rum produced at the distillery, we learned in a 2014 seminar at the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami. Master distiller Shaun Caleb offered a fascinating look at the inner workings of Diamond Distillery and the excellent El Dorado rums.