Mai-Kai cocktail review: Mellow out with a Tahitian Coffee

Updated May 25, 2012
See below: Our Tahitian Coffee review | Ancestor recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Hot coffee cocktails provide the perfect ending to an exotic meal in one of The Mai-Kai’s many enchanting dining rooms. While they aren’t as highly rated as the drinks on the mild, medium and strong menus, these after-dinner grogs play an important role beyond their cool collectible mugs.

Tahitian Coffee is easy on the palate, not too strong or overwhelming. Your taste buds may thank you after the onslaught that most likely preceded it. If you’re craving a mellow finale or just need some caffeine for the road, this drink fits the bill nicely.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Cobra’s Kiss is an exotic taste explosion guaranteed to strike your fancy

Updated September 2015
See below: Our Cobra’s Kiss review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

A Cobra's Kiss is savored during The Hukilau in June 2010. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A Cobra's Kiss is savored during The Hukilau in June 2010. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Cobra’s Kiss is one of the most original and distinctive cocktails you’ll find anywhere. And like many of the best complex drinks at The Mai-Kai, it takes time to fully appreciate it. But if you truly savor rum and exotic flavors, you’ll eventually experience a revelation.

For The Atomic Grog, that revelation came during the 2010 Hukilau (see photo at right). It became the event’s drink du jour, a suddenly under-appreciated classic. If you hang out at The Mai-Kai and sample enough of the cocktails, you’ll have many similar experiences.

I’d hesitate to use the word unique since the Cobra’s Kiss is actually a knock-off of an early Don the Beachcomber drink, but this cocktail has a flavor profile that you’re not going to find very often. As he did with many of the classics, former Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine tweaked the Cobra’s Fang just enough to give it his own stamp at The Mai-Kai. In this case, it is arguably better than the original. It’s one of my favorites on the medium-strength section of the menu, along with the Shark Bite and Rum Julep. All are intensely flavorful and highly recommended.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: A near-perfect Zombie, the classic deadly cocktail

A mint-heavy Zombie at The Mai-Kai, April 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated Oct. 31, 2018
See below: Our Zombie review | Ancestor recipes
UPDATES: New secret mix | Tribute recipe 4.0
Related: Zombie Horde book | Zombie facts | Beachbum Berry symposium
Mai-Kai cocktail guide
More recipes: Altered State Zombie | Atomic Zombie | Guyanese Zombie
The Undead Gentleman | Frankie’s Tiki Room Zombie

Few realize that the Zombie – not the Mai Tai – is the drink that kicked off the tropical drink craze. Created in the 1930s by the Dr. Frankenstein of tropical mixology, Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), the Zombie remains his masterpiece.

Zombie

Beach’s mad scientist approach to combining multiple rums, juices, syrups and spices was groundbreaking and set a standard that remains an influential touchstone for today’s bartenders in both the Tiki and craft cocktail worlds. But if it weren’t for cocktail sleuth, historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, we might not have ever discovered that legacy.

Berry rescued the Zombie (and many other Tiki classics) from bad bartending and half-assed attempts to re-create the originals. But his first attempt at the Zombie in his seminal 1998 book, Grog Log, was not a whole lot better than the imitators. By 2002, however, he had begun to unearth some great Zombie recipes, three of which are published in his second recipe book, Intoxica. One of these, later dubbed the “mid-century version” and purported to be a Don the Beachcomber recipe published in 1950, is shown below.

But Berry was just scratching the surface of Zombie lore. His 2007 masterpiece, Sippin’ Safari, yielded the motherlode. An entire chapter, “A Zombie Jamoreee: The Curse of the Undead Drink,” provides the definitive research on the elusive cocktail. There’s more background on the 1950 Zombie, plus a much different 1956 version attributed to the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Waikiki.

Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011
Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011.

The pièce de résistance, however, is Berry’s discovery of a 1934 recipe for “Zombie Punch” in the notebook of 1930s Don the Beachcomber bartender Dick Santiago. The find was considered the Holy Grail of lost tropical drinks, but one frustrating puzzle remained to be solved: the cryptic ingredient listed as “Don’s Mix.” This combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup has now become a common ingredient, but the 2007 revelation was a landmark in the Tiki drink world. Berry and Cocktail Kingdom recently released a 10th anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari, which includes additional recipes, both old and unpublished, plus new ones from the Tiki revival.
* BeachbumBerry.com: More on Berry’s search for the original Zombie

In 2010, Beachbum Berry Remixed continued the tradition of digging deeper into the history of the drink that started it all. In addition to the discoveries in Intoxica and Sippin’ Safari, Berry presented several new recipes, including a simplified version of the complex creation. You can also find Berry’s Zombie recipes in his Total Tiki app for iPhone and iPad, a unique repository of nearly 250 exotic drink recipes from yesterday and today. If you desire a more tactile way to enjoy Berry’s handiwork, pick up a set (or a case) of his signature Zombie Glasses from Cocktail Kingdom, which include the original 1934 and 1950 recipes on the side along with distinctive artwork and packaging. They’re also available at the author’s New Orleans bar and restaurant, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, along with the Bum’s own twist on the vintage recipe.

A contemporary Zombie from "Beachbum Berry Remixed."
A contemporary Zombie from “Beachbum Berry Remixed.”

In addition to his acclaimed books, app and barware, Berry had a profound influence on today’s Tiki and cocktail scenes over the past decade or two by way of his entertaining and boozy symposiums around the world. His first-ever Zombie seminar took place at The Mai-Kai in April 2011 during the Miami Rum Fest. He resurrected that talk at The Hukilau in April 2012, again at The Mai-Kai, with a few additional surprises. [Full coverage]

Of course, The Mai-Kai’s Zombie is a descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s classics. There’s a reason it’s the top-rated cocktail in this guide, and the only one with a perfect rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps its the complex, undefinable flavors. Much like another early 20th-century classic, the Singapore Sling, the Zombie stands out as a true original with its intense flavors and high potency.

But unlike the gin-based Sling, which is a bit of a mish-mash of flavors, the Zombie is in perfect balance. The combination of spices are exotic and unique. The sweet juices and syrups are counteracted by intense anise and sour notes. And the coup de grâce is the combination of three rums in perfect harmony.

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Cocktails come of age at Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Previous coverage: A taste of paradise comes to Epcot Food and Wine Festival
Related: Artists shine amid copious crowds at Disney World’s birthday party

2011 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival: Through Nov. 13 at Disney World, Buena Vista, Fla. Access to the festival marketplace is free with theme park admission; food, seminars, and special events are priced individually. [Official site]

Review by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward

“Please overindulge!” This very succinct advice came from the artist and Tiki/cocktail enthusiast Shag when he signed an event poster for me at the 2010 Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale. Words to live by, to be sure, but not until this year’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival was I able to experience that mantra on such a grand and eclectic scale.

The new Hawaii booth. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The new Hawaii booth. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

For 16 years, the six-week festival has served up tastes from six continents at dozens of themed booths offering tapas-sized portions of delicious regional specialties paired with an impressive selection of wines and beers. Now, finally, cocktails have truly joined the party as the art of mixology gets its due respect. The result: An opportunity to eat and drink your way around the world with a Mai Tai and Singapore Sling to compliment an amazing array of foods.

So overindulge, we did, on the opening weekend of the 2011 festival. After attending the maddeningly crowded Walt Disney World 40th anniversary party on Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Magic Kingdom, my wife and I were looking forward to a leisurely food-and-drink adventure Sunday at Epcot. We were not disappointed. And in honor of Shag, whose commemorative merchandise I picked up the day before, we were on a mission to overindulge (albeit in small portions).

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Origins of the Malayan Mist no longer a mystery

Updated April 10, 2012
See below: Our Malayan Mist review | Ancestor recipe | Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Malayan Mist is sometimes lost amid the many selections on the vast menu of nearly 50 tropical drinks at Tiki’s crown jewel, The Mai-Kai. It may be one of the most notable, however, with origins that date back to the very beginnings of the modern Tiki bar.

1959 Mai-Kai menu
A 1959 Mai-Kai menu.

For a tropical drink that’s been around for at least 55 years, there is precious little information to be found about the mysterious Malayan Mist. Fittingly, it also features a unique sweet flavor profile that’s just as esoteric. Like many of The Mai-Kai’s drinks that have survived a half century of menu updates, the classic artwork remains unchanged (see 1959 menu at right).

That artwork helped us solve the mystery. More than half of the drinks at The Mai-Kai are retooled versions of classic Don the Beachcomber cocktails. Mixologist Mariano Licudine worked for Donn Beach in Los Angeles and Chicago before he was hired away by Mai-Kai owners Bob and Jack Thornton, brothers from Chicago who sought to create the ultimate Polynesian palace in what was then a desolate area west of Fort Lauderdale.

Along with Licudine, they snagged the restaurant’s top chef plus manager Robert Van Dorpe, who provided them with invaluable information. This included the sources for all the glassware and artwork to go with the secret ingredients to make those world famous cocktails. Click here for more on the story of the Don the Beachcomber connection to The Mai-Kai as unearthed by historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: No monkeying around, this is one fine Banana Daiquiri

See below: Our Banana Daiquiri review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Related: This daiquiri is the real deal, thank you berry much | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

I remember the anticipation vividly. It was mid-2010. My new copy of Beachbum Berry Remixed had just arrived via Amazon, and I tore open the package to find what secrets lurked on its pages. Sure, I had already devoured the Bum’s Grog Log (1998) and Intoxica! (2002), perfecting most of the 150 or so recipes within, but Remixed promised to be more than just a rehash of those classic Tiki tomes.

Beachbum Berry Remixed

It not only completely revised and updated those books, it promised 107 additional recipes, including “41 newly discovered, previously unpublished vintage Tiki drink recipes from the 1930s to 1960s.” To me, this meant only one thing: Another secret Mai-Kai recipe would likely be revealed. Every one of the four previous Jeff Berry titles – most notably 2007’s Sippin’ Safari – had unearthed recipes by The Mai-Kai’s master mixologist, Mariano Licudine.

First, I admired the gorgeous design. Hundreds of vintage color photos and artwork adorn the 248 pages. And the creative drink photos raise the art to a new level. It addition to the recipes, it also contains tons of history and stories, similar to Sippin’ Safari. Appendixes included new drinks by the Bum as well as new recipes from the Tiki revival.

Then, finally, I found it on Page 43 as an added bonus recipe to the Grog Log section on the daiquiri, which Berry calls “tiki’s template.” The Mai-Kai’s legendary … Banana Daiquiri? That’s it? I got myself all worked up over one of the most common tropical drinks ever created? Initially, I was let down. C’mon Jeff, I thought. You can do better than this. Where’s the elusive Jet Pilot or Mutiny?

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Legacy of this classic drink runs deep

Updated June 21, 2015
See below: Our Deep Sea Diver review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Deep Sea Diver, one of the oldest and most distinctive tropical drinks at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai, can be traced back to the 1930s and tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s original cocktail menu. It also features an unusual, rarely used ingredient that remains somewhat of a mystery more than 75 years later.

From a mid-century Don the Beachcomber menu
From a mid-century Don the Beachcomber menu.

Tiki drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s excellent 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, includes a recipe for the Peal Diver’s Punch that you’ll find below as well as an entire chapter on The Mai-Kai’s founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine (1907-1980). Licudine worked behind the bar at Don the Beachcomber restaurants from 1939 until 1956, when he was lured to Fort Lauderdale by The Mai-Kai’s fledgling owners, Jack and Bob Thornton.

Sippin’ Safari remains my favorite of the Bum’s books and perhaps the most influential in fostering appreciation of both the roots of tropical mixology and the history of The Mai-Kai. It details how Licudine took the Don the Beachcomber classics he had been making for years in Chicago and adapted them to The Mai-Kai’s new menu. With the help of Bob Thornton, Licudine tweaked the secret recipes, often elevating them to even greater heights.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Special Planters Punch is tropical drink history in a glass

Updated November 2021
See below: Our Special Planters Punch review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: This Planters lacks the punch of it’s special cousin | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The prototype of the Planter’s Punch dates back 200 years and could be considered the template for every tropical drink that followed. The Mai-Kai’s strong Special Planters Punch is an overlooked classic on a cocktail menu full of classics. Just don’t confuse it with the medium-strength (and much less flavorful) Planters Punch.

Beachbum Berry Remixed

In his 2010 book, Remixed, Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry theorized that Donn Beach discovered the Planter’s on one of his rum-running trips to Jamaica during Prohibition. Click on the article at right for Berry’s excellent research on how the Planter’s Punch influenced nearly every 20th century Tiki drink, from the Q.B. Cooler to the Zombie.

Of course, Donn Beach went on to open the world’s first Tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, in 1934 in Los Angeles. He had five versions of the Planter’s Punch on his 1930s bar menu, Berry writes in Remixed. Of those, Don’s Own Planter’s (see recipe below), is most likely the version that inspired The Mai-Kai’s Special Planters Punch. If you’ve been following these reviews, you’ll know that The Mai-Kai’s original mixologist Mariano Licudine was privy to Donn Beach’s recipes during his 16 years working at Don the Beachcomber restaurants in L.A. and Chicago.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: A Blizzard of decadence

Updated March 15, 2016
See below: Our Mai-Kai Blizzard review | Tribute recipe
Related: Chocolate Snowflake | Martinique Milk Punch | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Cuisinart ice cream maker
Cuisinart ice cream maker

Ice cream drinks are often overlooked, especially at The Mai-Kai, where classic concoctions such as the Barrel O’ Rum, Jet Pilot and Zombie are the star attractions. Even on the small after-dinner section of the cocktail menu, the coffee drinks typically get more attention.

But in the right circumstances, particularly if you’re a fan of soft-serve, there are several adult ice cream cocktails on the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian restaurant’s menu worth sampling after a delicious meal. For cocoa-lovers, there’s the Chocolate Snowflake. For those who prefer vanilla, there’s the Mai-Kai Blizzard.

We’ve taken a stab at re-creating the Blizzard in our home bar, but this one requires much different equipment. We put our new ice-cream maker (see photo above) to good use and made a classic vanilla that worked perfect in its soft form, right out of the machine.

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Find out what makes the Shark Bite so Jawesome

Updated August 2020
See below: Our Shark Bite review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
* Shark Bite featuring The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend

We continue our journey through dangerous waters with another of The Mai-Kai’s signature drinks, the Shark Bite.

Hurricane Hayward enjoys a Shark Bite in The Molokai bar in September 2016 during a book-release party for Tim "Swanky" Glazner's "Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant." (Atomic Grog photo)
Hurricane Hayward enjoys a Shark Bite in The Molokai bar in September 2016 during a book-release party for Tim “Swanky” Glazner’s “Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.” (Atomic Grog photo)

Considering that this is the heart of the summer vacation season and we’re still digesting Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” this is an appropriate choice. Actually, the Shark Bite’s potency is a bit overstated. It’s our favorite drink from the “medium” section of the menu.

Like the much stronger Shrunken Skull, the Shark Bite has an ominous name and also a shot of flavorful rum added as it’s served. It’s also one of many of the legendary Fort Lauderdale Polynesian restaurant’s drinks that date back to the early days of Tiki, when Donn Beach (aka Donn the Beachcomber) laid out the template for tropical drinks that is still followed to this day.

The Shark Bite is an almost spot-on copy of the Shark’s Tooth, a drink featured on Don the Beachcomber menus as well as other bars and restaurants during the mid-century golden age of Tiki. You’ll find a Shark’s Tooth recipe below that was unearthed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for his seminal 1998 book, Grog Log, and later republished in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010). Also below is a slight variation that we’re calling a tribute to the Shark Bite.

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