Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you’re ‘Passionate’ about tropical drinks, this one’s for you

The Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you're 'Passionate' about tropical drinks, this one's for you

Updated October 2019

See below: Our Piña Passion review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe NEW
Related: What says ‘Tiki’ better than a drink served in a pineapple?
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

One of the most iconic images of the tropical drink is a vessel made from a hollowed-out pineapple. This over-the-top cocktail experience has been perfected at The Mai-Kai with the classic Piña Passion.

The Mai-Kai's Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mai-Kai’s Piña Passion, served in The Molokai bar in June 2016 with a 60th anniversary swizzle stick. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Piña Passion is served in a fresh pineapple that guests can take home. The one exception is during happy hour in The Molokai bar, when you’ll have to settle for having the drink in an old fashioned glass.

If you ever get a chance to take a peek into The Mai-Kai’s main service bar, tucked way behind the kitchen and hidden from guests, you’ll find cases of pineapples awaiting their fate. [See photo]

Drinks in pineapples were staples on tropical-themed cocktail menus across the country during Tiki’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. You can still find them at old-school establishments such as San Francisco’s Tonga Room (est. 1945) and Chicago’s temple of Witco, Hala Kahiki (est 1966). In the Hawaiian language, a pineapple is called “hala kahiki.”

A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)
A postcard shows a server in the early years of The Molokai bar holding the welcoming Piña Passion. (MaiKaiHistory.com)

Even in the dark days of Tiki in the 1970s and ’80s, pineapple drinking vessels remained essential on cruise ships and resorts in exotic locales. They go hand-in-hand with the concept of a tropical paradise.

They’re not as easy to find at today’s smaller Tiki and craft cocktail bars, which tend to favor traditional glassware and ceramic mugs. But this is changing in a big way thanks to a new breed of craftsmen who are taking Tiki hospitality to a whole new level.

At Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, one of the most popular events presented by owner Martin Cate and his team is Domingo de Piña (Pineapple Sunday), which features a selection of cocktails served in pineapples. We recommend Cate’s book – Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016) – for more in-depth info and recipes for several tasty drinks served in pineapples.

There's nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)
There’s nothing more welcoming than a server in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai with a tray full of exotic cocktails, including a Piña Passion. (The Palm Beach Post / 2005 file photo)

Italy’s Daniele Dalla Pola, who built upon the success of his Nu Lounge Bar to open Esotico Miami in August 2019, is also a big proponent of the spiky fruit. His new exotic bar and restaurant features both food and drink served in fresh pineapples. At The Hukilau 2017, he presented two Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classes called “Pineapple Paradise” with information and advanced techniques on using the hospitable fruit in tropical drinks.

Of course, the pineapple is iconic as the worldwide symbol of hospitality. It was so sought-after in colonial times that people would rent them for a day to use as a party decoration. Considered the world’s most exotic fruit, pineapples were brought back to Europe by Columbus and other explorers. George Washington praised the fruit in his diary, noting that among his favorite foods, “none pleases my tastes” like a pineapple.

Because of their scarcity and high price, pineapples were typically served only to prestigious guests, and even those who could not afford them picked up on the image to share the sentiment of a special welcome. Towns, inns and households began displaying images of the pineapple to convey a sense of welcoming. You can find pineapple images on historic buildings around the world.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: If you’re ‘Passionate’ about tropical drinks, this one’s for you”

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.

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

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The story of the Floridita Daiquiri rivals any novel

Updated July 2014
See below: Our Floridita Daiquiri review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Related: Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Short-lived daiquiri disappared when Cuba fell
The Derby Daiquiri: The Mai-Kai’s ‘$100,000 drink’ | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Floridita Daiquiri, the legendary cocktail born in Cuba and reportedly consumed by author Ernest Hemmingway in prodigious numbers, is one of history’s most debated rum drinks. One thing not open for debate, however: The Mai-Kai’s version has become a classic in its own right after more than 50 years on the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s menu.

Ernest Hemingway at El Florida with bartender Constantino Ribalaigua.
Ernest Hemingway at El Florida with bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert.

Stories about La Floridita Daiquiri, as it was known at Havana’s El Florida bar (later known as El Floridita), are varied and many. One thing’s for certain: It was created by legendary mixologist Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, who spent nearly 50 years at the bar until his death in 1952. He started as a bartender and later owned the place. According to our favorite bum, cocktail historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Vert was known as “El Rey de los Coteleros” (“The Cocktail King”) and reportedly squeezed 80 million limes and poured 10 million daiquiris in his lifetime.
* Rum Connection: Watch bartender Alejandro Bolivar make a daiquiri at El Floridita

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The story of the Floridita Daiquiri rivals any novel”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: A one-of-a-kind (Chocolate) Snowflake

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

In the mood for an after-dinner drink that’s very non-traditional, or simply an alternative to straight-up ice cream? Look no further than The Mai-Kai’s Chocolate Snowflake.

It’s one of the classic Polynesian restaurant’s two ice cream drinks (along with the vanilla-flavored Mai-Kai Blizzard) on an otherwise classic cocktail menu. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is something akin to a T.G.I. Friday’s milkshake with a little rum added.

The Snowflake contains the same high-quality rums and liquors as any other cocktail, and also perhaps a house-made ice cream as well. To make our tribute recipe below, you’ll need your own ice-cream maker. But the ability to make these two great after-dinner treats alone justifies the purchase of such an appliance.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: A one-of-a-kind (Chocolate) Snowflake”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Updated September 2020
See below: Our Jet Pilot review | Ancestor recipes
Tribute recipes | Social media tributes
Related: The Atomic Grog makes a Jet Pilot on The Tiki Trail Live
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Test Pilot

Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot was one of the most copied drinks during the mid-century heyday of Polynesian cocktails. It morphed into the Ace Pilot, Space Pilot and Astronaut, among others. At The Mai-Kai, it became the Jet Pilot.

As discussed in the review of the vintage S.O.S. (Don the Beachcomber’s Three Dots and a Dash), Donn Beach was a decorated World War II veteran and always had a deep connection to the armed forces. In his honor, a B-26 Marauder was painted with a replica of the Don the Beachcomber driftwood sign on its nose. The plane and crew flew many successful missions in the Pacific.

The Test Pilot is also an interesting study in how Donn Beach constantly tweaked his drinks. A Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s or ’40s could be vastly different than one with the same name in the 1950s or ’60s.

The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be the strongest of the strong
The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be The Mai-Kai’s strongest of the strong. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Included below is a Test Pilot recipe unearthed by cocktail sleuth and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry from the 1940s. It’s one of the most popular in the Tiki revival, and it features many of the same ingredients as The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. We’ve also listed a later recipe from a book by Donn Beach’s widow, Phoebe. It’s slightly different but also very strong and has a similar flavor profile. Other popular old-school versions include the Jet Pilot served at Steve Crane’s The Luau chain in the 1950s (revealed by Beachbum Berry in Sippin’ Safari in 2007) and the Space Pilot, still served today at the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles (est. 1961).

In Minimalist Tiki by Cocktail Wonk blogger Matt Pietrek, a 2020 Spirited Award nominee for Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book, the Test Pilot and Jet Pilot are both listed among the “Classic 30” cocktails from the first golden era of tropical mixology.

Like Tiki Ti owner Ray Buhen, The Mai-Kai’s original mixologist, Mariano Licudine, worked for Donn Beach in the early days. In 1956, he was lured from the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago to design The Mai-Kai’s original tropical drink menu. So it’s likely he had a vast knowledge of multiple versions of the Test Pilot when he created arguably one of the best, The Mai-Kai’s high-octane Jet Pilot.

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

The official menu description
Jet Pilot
JET PILOT
Fast and courageous, a vigorous blend of heavy bodied rums and zesty juices.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)
Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Dark and powerful rums, spicy and bitter notes with a hint of exotic sweetness.

Review: Very complex and intense. Not for the timid. Sweet, spicy and strong all at the same time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)

Ancestry: The Jet Pilot dates back to The Mai-Kai’s original 1956 menu and is based on Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Patriotism never tasted as good as the S.O.S.

The S.O.S. was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward's Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai

Updated July 2018
See below: Our S.O.S. review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Most classic Mai-Kai cocktails can be traced back to tropical drink pioneer Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), and the S.O.S. is no exception. Most are easy to spot due to the similar names (Cobra’s Fang = Cobra’s Kiss, Pearl Diver = Deep-Sea Diver). But others are a little harder to trace.

Three Dots and a Dash
From a 1950s Don the Beachcomber menu.

The clue to the origins of S.O.S. is actually the garnish: the distinctive three speared cherries. In reviewing old Don the Beachcomber menus, it’s hard to miss the classic Three Dots and a Dash, a tribute to Americans fighting overseas. “Three dots and a dash” was Morse code for “victory” during World War II, when Donn Beach created the drink. Beach served in the Army Air Corps and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Thanks to tropical drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, we also have the recipe to compare. Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine, who knew Donn Beach’s recipes well from his days slinging drinks at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and Chicago, simply changed the name to S.O.S. and tweaked the complex recipe to make it a bit more user friendly.

The result is a highly recommended cocktail from the mild side of The Mai-Kai’s menu, full of nuances yet still not too overpowering. Be sure to pick up the expanded and updated 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, featuring many new and historic recipes, a new hardcover design with additional photos, plus forward and afterward that chronicle the years leading up to the Tiki revival plus the influence the book has had over the past decade.

July 2018 update: The S.O.S. was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai.” In the sold-out event, students learned tips and techniques for turning their home bars into a Tiki cocktail paradise by exploring the key elements of Mai-Kai cocktails.
The S.O.S. was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward's Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai
(Atomic Grog photos from The Hukilau’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina on June 8, 2018)
After explaining the importance of fresh Florida juices, Hayward demonstrated how to make the S.O.S. tribute recipe while the class received sample drinks. The juices and syrups, along with a simplified rum profile, give the S.O.S. an altogether different flavor than Three Dots and a Dash, the students learned. The juices take a more prominent role, and the S.O.S. is a great spotlight for the fresh Florida orange juice used in many Mai-Kai drinks.
See photos from the class: Facebook | Flickr

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Patriotism never tasted as good as the S.O.S.”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Tradition, quality give the Piña Colada a much-needed dose of respect

Updated September 2015
See below: Our Piña Colada review | Ancestor/tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

For better or worse (typically worse), the Piña Colada has been ubiquitous on tropical drink menus for more than half a century. Not surprisingly, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale – a haven for finely crafted Tiki cocktails – is one of the rare places that does it right.

Waiters at the kitchen service bar garnish and prepare to serve Rum Barrels, Mai Tais and other cocktails while a bartender finishes up a long line of Piña Coladas in The Mai-Kai's kitchen service bar.
Waiters at the kitchen service bar garnish and prepare to serve Rum Barrels, Mai Tais and other cocktails while a bartender finishes up a long line of Piña Coladas in The Mai-Kai's kitchen service bar. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2011)

I was skeptical at first. With some 50 classics to choose from on The Mai-Kai’s amazing menu, why order this butt of jokes normally associated with cruise ships and 1970s fern bars? Four words: Fresh ingredients, quality rum. And it doesn’t hurt that the drinks are crafted to high standards in The Mai-Kai’s service bars (see photo at right). The other key: Order it on the rocks, not blended.

Thankfully, this maligned drink is being rediscovered and reinvented by craft cocktail mixologists. In 2011, the Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans featured a Piña Colada competition challenging the world’s top bartenders to come up with their own take. The fact that the contest was held at one of the world’s premiere cocktail events, and was sponsored by Bacardi and the United States Bartenders’ Guild, proves that the Piña Colada is making a strong comeback in the credibility category.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Tradition, quality give the Piña Colada a much-needed dose of respect”

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The delicious Demerara Cocktail just can’t stay retired

Updated October 2016
See below: Our Demerara Cocktail review | Official recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Demerara Float rises again | Mai-Kai cocktail guide
More “lost cocktails” | Tropical drink family tree

The Mai-Kai is world famous for its extensive menu of nearly 50 tropical drinks that date back a half-century or more. Everyone knows about the Barrel O’ Rum, Black Magic, and iconic Mystery Drink.

The Demerara Cocktail makes a triumphant return to The Mai-Kai on Aug. 12, 2012
The Demerara Cocktail makes a triumphant return to The Mai-Kai on Aug. 12, 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

But lesser known are the dozen or so classics that for one reason or another disappeared from the menu over the past half century, destined to never be served again in the legendary Fort Lauderdale restaurant. Or so we thought. One notable drink, the Demerara Cocktail, made a welcome comeback during a special event in August 2012 organized by South Florida tikiphiles.

It has since made several more appearances at special events, leading a parade of other “lost cocktails” that have returned from the dead over the past four years. As of October 2016, we’ve had the pleasure of sampling nine cocktails from the original 1956-57 menu, plus three off-the-menu classics.

The Demerara Cocktail was likely removed in the late ’80s or early ’90s when the crucial Lemon Hart Demerara rum became scarce and was dropped from the bar’s inventory. Over the past decade, however, interest in vintage Tiki cocktails – and the flavorful Demerara rum from Guyana – has experienced a revival that continues to grow.

By mid-2012, The Mai-Kai had become the Mecca for Tiki cocktail enthusiasts, and Lemon Hart made a grand return to the cocktail menu (covered here in great detail). The next logical step was the resurrection of this forgotten gem.

Continue reading “Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The delicious Demerara Cocktail just can’t stay retired”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The timeless appeal of this classic is no Mystery

Updated July 3, 2014
See below: Our Mystery Drink review | Ancestor recipe | Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
Mini Mai-Kai Mystery Bowl offers scaled-down version of a classic
Symposium explores rich history and long-lost stories of The Mai-Kai

A vintage Mystery Girl and Mystery Drink photo
A vintage Mystery Girl and Mystery Drink photo. (Courtesy of SwankPad.org)

Oh Mystery Girl,
   what’s in this Mystery Drink?!
I must steal you away;
   conscience now has no say
Into this heart of darkness I sink.
And now you’re leaving me with this …
   a silken lei a single kiss?
A drink to fill this emptyness?
   Don’t leave me Mystery Girl!

Mystery Girl by The Crazed Mugs

The Mai-Kai’s Mystery Drink (and its accompanying ritual featuring the Mystery Girl) is no mere cocktail. It’s a Polynesian Pop culture icon, immortalized in song, on television and seared into the memory of countless Mai-Kai patrons over the past half-century.

When the drink is ordered, a gong is struck repeatedly as a Polynesian maiden silently delivers the huge, flaming bowl packed with at least 9 ounces of alcohol (some reports say it contains 13 ounces). The Mystery Girl dances before the lucky customer, placing a lei around the neck, then planting a kiss on the cheek before gliding away.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The timeless appeal of this classic is no Mystery”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Hot Buttered Rum is a heart-warming winter classic

Updated Feb. 24, 2020
See below: Our Hot Buttered Rum review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

What could be more comforting on a chilly winter night than some warm rum and spices with a big dollop of butter? The holiday season would not be complete without a traditional Hot Buttered Rum.

From The Mai-Kai's 1956-57 menu
From The Mai-Kai’s 1956-57 menu.

Like the milk punch, Hot Buttered Rum is a seasonal classic that dates back to colonial times. According to the American Heritage Cookbook, the drink even “found its way into domestic politics.” Candidates would ply their constituents with it to influence their vote. If only today’s politicians would try this method instead of the usual dirty politics.

Drinks using the key ingredients – rum, butter and hot water – were documented during the early days of mixology in cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas’ mid-19th century bar guides as Hot Rum and Hot Spiced Rum. The Mai-Kai’s version is not very different than the traditional Hot Buttered Rum and was no doubt influenced by Don the Beachcomber’s early Tiki classic.

Hot Buttered Rum and the lesser known Hot Rum Grog were staples on Donn Beach’s early menus. A menu from the 1940s includes this description of the Hot Buttered Rum: “Rums from the islands of Jamaican and Barbados. Mulled with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, sweet butter and hot water. This will rekindle the fires in your heart.”

The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari
The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari.

By the 1950s, Donn’s copycats were experimenting with the traditional recipe, adding creme de cacao (Pub and Prow Hot Buttered Rum), along with maraschino liqueur and black tea (Volcano House Hot Buttered Rum). We can thank tropical cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for these, which he published in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010) and the Total Tiki app.

Mahalo to the Bum and his 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari in 2017, we have perhaps the most reverent Hot Buttered Rum recipe to Donn’s original (rum, honey butter mix, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon). Berry gleaned it from a 1969 issue of the Stardust Hotel’s in-house magazine, but those who follow Tiki history will know that the Aku-Aku restaurant, which operated from 1960 to 1980 in the iconic Las Vegas landmark, has a direct connection to Don the Beachcomber. Beach consulted on its creation and undoubtedly contributed his recipes to the cocktail menu. Sippin’ Safari is a must-read for many great stories about Donn and the Aku-Aku.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Hot Buttered Rum is a heart-warming winter classic”