Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle

Updated November 2021
See below: Our 151 Swizzle review | Ancestor recipe
Tribute recipes UPDATED
Postscript: The 151 Swizzle tribute on social media NEW
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide | All 100+ Mai-Kai cocktail recipes
Demerara rum: The Mai-Kai’s secret weapon
Rums of Guyana star in classic cocktails

NEW: The Atomic Grog on Tiki Trail Live

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, Hurricane Hayward was the special mixology guest on Tiki Trail Live on Zoom, mixing up the new tribute to The Mai-Kai’s 151 Swizzle.
* Click here to jump to the recipe below
Tiki Trail Live: Get more show details on Instagram and Facebook
* Buy the 151 Swizzle Cup from Cocktail Kingdom

**************************

The 16 deadly drinks in the “strong” section are no doubt the stars of The Mai-Kai’s legendary cocktail menu. There’s a reason they comprise 13 of the Top 20 in our rankings. They’re by far the most inventive, mysterious and flavor-packed drinks on the menu.

The only thing more dangerous than a 151 Swizzle: Two 151 Swizzles
The only thing more dangerous than a 151 Swizzle: Two 151 Swizzles. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Just be careful when imbibing. The Mai-Kai doesn’t use the word “strong” lightly. Some contain 3 ounces of rum (or more), others a healthy dose of overproof. Among these, there are “strong” drinks and then there are “STRONG!” drinks. In the latter category, one of the first cocktails that comes to mind is the classic 151 Swizzle.

Like many Mai-Kai drinks, this deliciously dangerous concoction dates back to Tiki originator Donn Beach (better known as Don the Beachcomber) and has been on the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s cocktail menu since its opening in 1956. It has become an iconic standard at some of the world’s top Tiki bars, from the 60-year-old Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles to the 5-year-old False Idol in San Diego. At Hale Pele in Portland, The Mai-Kai gets a shout-out in the menu description, and the presentation is very familiar. It’s likely they’re using a variation of one of our seven tribute recipes below.

Martin Cate, one of the world’s top rum and Tiki cocktail authorities, considers the 151 Swizzle his favorite drink on The Mai-Kai’s menu. [See interview] “When it’s made perfectly, it’s a wonderful drink,” he said. “That to me is my mothership.” At his acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, he serves a souped up version called the 2070 Swizzle, which he calls “my giant killer.” [See recipe]

The Swizzle Cup is part of the Tiki barware collection produced by Cocktail Kingdom in association with Beachbum Berry
The Swizzle Cup is part of the Tiki barware collection produced by Cocktail Kingdom in association with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. (Cocktail Kingdom photo)

Revealed in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s groundbreaking 1998 cocktail guide, Grog Log, the original Don the Beachcomber recipe is fairly simple (see below). As the cocktail sleuth pointed out in the book, it was originally served in a metal cup with a flared top, “but good luck finding one.” The Mai-Kai, of course, follows tradition and has always served its 151 Swizzle in a chilled metal cup.

Finding the correct cup outside of the handful of bars mentioned above, however, has traditionally been difficult. You could typically find a Mint Julep cup or other close approximation on eBay, but they fall short of the sleek, flared design of the original. Berry took matters into his own hands in May 2015, when he released a new line of Tiki barware via Cocktail Kingdom, including a Swizzle Cup. [See story]

When metal cups are in short supply, this is how you're likely to be served the 151 Swizzle at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)
When metal cups are in short supply, this is how you’re likely to be served the 151 Swizzle at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)

Beyond the cup, The Mai-Kai’s version of the 151 Swizzle is unlike any other. Like many Mai-Kai drinks, it’s based on the Don the Beachcomber version but was given a unique twist by original owner Bob Thornton and mixologist Mariano Licudine, who learned his craft from Donn Beach. We’ve taken a stab at re-creating the same flavor profile and have posted an ever-evolving list of “tribute recipes” below. Like Thornton, his stepson Dave Levy also tinkered with the recipe from time to time when he was in charge over the past 30 years, especially when changes were made to the rums.

The recipe grew out of discussion on The Grogalizer, a site highly recommend if you’re a fan of classic Tiki cocktails. Developed by The Swank Pad’s Tim “Swanky” Glazner, The Grogalizer is a database of hundreds of recipes from all of Beachbum Berry’s books, plus a few select others. The site allows you to rate the drinks, see how other mixologists rank them and share comments on each.

Sign up (it’s easy) and keep track of your progress through all the great recipes in these books. It’s also a seamless way to keep track of all the various bar ingredients you’ll need to re-create these classics, which include many in this guide. After compiling your online bar, you can figure out which drinks you can make with which ingredients, as well as resources for buying hard-to-find stuff. In September 2016, Glazner released his long-awaited book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, an essential addition to any Mai-Kai fan’s collection.

Metal cups for the 151 Swizzle, along with other frozen glassware, are kept in a special freezer in The Mai-Kai's kitchen service bar
Metal cups for the 151 Swizzle, along with other frozen glassware, are kept in a special freezer in The Mai-Kai’s kitchen service bar. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2011)

The evolution of the tribute recipe has gone through several stages, as you’ll see below. The first big breakthrough came in March 2012, when I discovered Kohala Bay, a rare dark Jamaican rum that was a key ingredient in many of The Mai-Kai’s strong cocktails. In addition, a search of eBay yielded a set of metal cups that were similar to the real deal. With the cup and rum in my arsenal, I were able to come up a much more accurate tribute recipe.

But just when I thought I had it down pat, The Mai-Kai dropped a bombshell in late April 2012 with the reintroduction of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, which had been absent from its bars for some 15 years. This only made a great drink even better and returned it to its vintage recipe. This resulted in tribute recipes No. 2 and No. 3. The fourth variation of the recipe, created in early 2015 when Lemon Hart was replaced by Hamilton 151 rum from Guyana, is more complex and full of outstanding flavors.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The mystery of the Gardenia Lei

Updated June 30, 2014
See below: Our Gardenia Lei review | Ancestor recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Though it’s officially listed on The Mai-Kai’s legendary cocktail menu as an after-dinner drink, the Gardenia Lei is well worth checking out at any time, especially if you’re a fan of classic Tiki drinks.

Ice shells are prepared and waiting in The Mai-Kai's back bar. (photo by Go11Events.com, June 2010)
Ice shells are prepared and waiting in The Mai-Kai's back bar. (Photo by Go11Events.com, June 2010)

It’s also a great showcase for the lost art of the ice shell. Our tribute to the Special Reserve Daiquiri, another drink that uses this same technique, includes instructions on how to make one. We saw how they were stored in the back bar’s freezer during our special tour in November 2011.

The Gardenia Lei is a vintage cocktail that has been on the menu since the opening of The Mai-Kai in 1956, with its roots going even farther back to Don the Beachcomber’s Mystery Gardenia. As we’ve pointed out in many other reviews, a majority of The Mai-Kai’s cocktails have their origins in the 1930s and 1940s when Donn Beach invented the tropical drink as we know it today.
Related: The Mai-Kai’s tropical drink family tree

Many original Don the Beachcomber recipes have been unearthed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and published in his many highly recommended books. Berry’s dogged research resulted in a greater understanding of the art of tropical mixology and helped spur the Tiki cocktail revival that shows no signs of abating.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The mystery of the Gardenia Lei”

Don’t suffer from Tiki envy: Get your Hukilau collectibles now

Related: Full Hukilau 2011 coverage from The Atomic Grog
Official sites: TheHukilau.com | Facebook | Flickr | Go11Media

Tiki For 2

The 10th anniversary of The Hukilau, the annual gathering of Tikiphiles from around the globe that happens every June in Fort Lauderdale, is still fresh in our memory. But if we need a reminder, we just look to our mug and glassware collection, where Hukilau collectibles are a essential.

If you didn’t get a chance to hit the merchandise booth in June, or if you were unlucky enough to miss The Hukilau entirely, it’s not too late to pick up a wide assortment of goodies from the official Hukilau online store:

Tiki For 2, the commemorative mug set sculpted by Kevin Kidney and produced by Munktiki. These 4-ounce mugs (photo at right) feature the familiar “Huki” design by Kevin, similar to the full-size 2009 mug. One features a brown exterior glaze with green interior glaze, while the other features a vanilla exterior glaze with a orange sherbet interior glaze.

Continue reading “Don’t suffer from Tiki envy: Get your Hukilau collectibles now”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Cocktail review: What makes the Mai-Kai Special?”

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.

Continue reading “The Derby Daiquiri: The Mai-Kai’s ‘$100,000 drink’”

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

The Atomic Grog joins The Trader Brandon Transmissions

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.

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

The Hukilau crowns a Rum Barrel Master Mixologist

See below: Our Master Mixologist photo gallery | See all the drink recipes
Audio slideshow flashback: Contest was a Barrel of fun
Related: ‘Rum Rat Pack’ starts a revolution at Hukilau 2011 | Full Hukilau coverage

Bartending contest highlight of Tiki event’s kickoff party

On Thursday night, June 9, The Hukilau kicked off with a bang as five tropical drink mixologists created their own take on the classic Rum Barrel, squaring off live on stage at the Bahia Cabana Beach Resort.

The winning cocktail, Joe Desmond's Moon Barrel
The winning cocktail, Joe Desmond's Moon Barrel. (Photo by Wayne Curtis)

Using predetermined sponsor rums and mixers, plus other ingredients of their choice, they each had seven minutes to make one fully-garnished drink plus samples for the judges. Hosted by author and tropical drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the contest was a combination of cocktail seminar and Tiki party, with colorful drinks made in rapid-fire precision by the contestants and passed around the judging table.

Judging the contest were some of the top rum authorities in the world: UK Rumfest organizer Ian Burrell, San Francisco bar owner Martin Cate, journalist and author Wayne Curtis and New Orleans rum historian Stephen Remsberg. The Rum Barrel Challenge judges (aka the Rum Rat Pack) will also be participating in Beachbum Berry’s “Rumposium” special event on Saturday, June 11, at The Mai-Kai.
* Check out Wayne’s review of the Rum Barrel Challenge

The Master Mixologist Rum Barrel Challenge was sponsored by Montanya Rum and Fee Brothers, and both products were incorporated into all the drinks. Judges rated each drink on its originality, creativity, adherence to the theme, use of the required ingredients, taste (including balance and use of rums), and presentation.

Continue reading “The Hukilau crowns a Rum Barrel Master Mixologist”

Wake the dead, it’s time for the Atomic Zombie Cocktail

Atomic Zombie Cocktail

* See our full report (with photos) on the Zombie Jamboree

As the only “amateur mixologist” at the first-ever “Zombie Jamboree” at The Mai-Kai, the kickoff of the annual spirits extravaganza known as Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, I had to come up with something special. After all, The Mai-Kai is my home turf and the Zombie is one of my favorite all-time drinks. The Mai-Kai’s version, with lineage traced back to the original Don The Beachcomber classic, is my favorite drink at the legendary Polynesian palace.

So what I came up with is a riff on the classic with contemporary stylings. It has that great classic Zombie flavor profile but with a few special twists. I hope you dig it.

Continue reading “Wake the dead, it’s time for the Atomic Zombie Cocktail”