In the entertainment and hospitality industry, your biggest fans can also be your toughest critics. So when the new owner of South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai sat down with more than 100 Tiki enthusiasts during The Hukilau on June 11 for an open discussion of his plans to renovate the 65-year-old landmark, their reaction was crucial.
Judging by the many rousing ovations throughout the 50-minute presentation, veteran real estate developer and historic preservationist Bill Fuller passed the test with flying colors. The only murmurs of dissent came when the organizer of The Hukilau, Richard Oneslager, jokingly asked if it was true Fuller planned to replace the restaurant’s signature Chinese ovens with microwaves, and if The Molokai bar was being re-themed to Miami Vice.
Looming thunderstorms put a kibosh on the multimedia presentation planned for the open-air beachside gathering at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach. But Fuller’s words were more than enough to win over the crowd who came from around the world to the 19th Tiki weekender that traditionally culminates with a climactic evening at The Mai-Kai.
Fuller elaborated on those plans during his talk at The Hukilau, divulging some new details. He was joined by two members of The Mai-Kai family, Kulani Thornton Gelardi and Kern Mattei, who also revealed some interesting new projects in the works.
After a spirited intro by event emcee King Kululele, Oneslager sat down with Fuller and led a question-and-answer session under the large thatched hut between the pool and beach at the quaint boutique hotel. The burning questions on everyone’s mind, Oneslager said to Fuller, were: “What’s going to stay? What’s going to change? And are you going to screw things up?”
Fuller said he was “lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to join forces with the family” in September 2021. The reason The Mai-Kai is being preserved is mainly due to the will of the Thornton family, he said. Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, inherited the ownership mantle from her late husband, Robert Thornton, in 1989.
The 85-year-old family matriarch will continue to choreograph and produce the restaurant’s authentic Polynesian show, which she joined as a dancer from Tahiti in the early 1960s. “She has her own nuances, which is what makes special experiences like this tick,” Fuller said. “You can’t just replicate it, you need to have that body of knowledge, that creativity and heritage. That’s what’s so rich within the walls of The Mai-Kai.”
The first question for Fuller from the audience echoed a common refrain on social media: Exactly when can we expect to be back within those walls?
The Hukilau was back on the beach for 2022, hosting its many retro-themed Tiki festivities at a scenic hotel just north of Fort Lauderdale. The 19th Polynesian Pop weekender (the second longest-running in the world), featured four days of live music, educational seminars, cocktails and rum tastings, plus lots more. Click below for extensive photo/video recaps on social media. Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday
The Beachcomber, a family-owned property in Pompano Beach, features lots of outdoor space just steps from the Atlantic Ocean. The Mai-Kai, the longtime host restaurant that remains closed for refurbishment, participated by serving cocktails and offering villagers drinks to go. The new ownership team also presented an exclusive symposium on the exciting new plans for the historic property.
The Hukilau 2022 – June 9-12 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras, King Kukulele, Skinny Jimmy Stingray), symposiums (Ian Burrell, David Wondrich, The Mai-Kai, Rocket Betty, Spike Marble, Headhunter Ray, Jeff Ballard), 15 guest bars, rum tastings, luau on the beach, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more. Official website | Instagram | Facebook page and group
The first weekend in June brought a blast of stormy weather to South Florida, but the second weekend promises an entirely different – and much more festive – tropical disturbance. The Hukilau will innundate the Fort Lauderdale area beachfront with four days of rum-soaked activities, rockin’ surf bands and special guests from across the worldwide Tiki revival.
The 19th Polynesian Pop celebration is scheduled for Wednesday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Highlights include Friday’s luau on the beach and Saturday’s giant Tiki marketplace. Pool parties will feature music by top underground bands (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras) and cocktails served up by 16 Tiki bar teams from near and far.
By Thursday, the hurricane season’s first potential tropical system will be long gone. Weekend forecasts call for rain chances around 30 to 40 percent with high temperatures near 90, a typical early summer weekend in balmy South Florida.
Most of The Hukilau’s events and social gatherings take place poolside and under shaded thatched huts at the beachside resort. Organizers are prepared in case of bad weather with back-up plans to move some events indoors, but coverings in the outdoor areas can shield guests during typical rainy days.
The event is not yet sold out, so check the tickets page at TheHukilau.com for pass availability. The best bet for locals and late arrivals is the one-day Palm Pass ($129), which includes Saturday’s Rum Island Pool Party and Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus the evening bungalow parties. Online sales will continue to be available, but walk-ups will also be accommodated on Saturday.
Other options include the multi-day Aloha (Friday-Saturday) and South Seas (Thursday-Saturday) passes. Many symposiums and special events are included in the price of the top-tier passes. All guests receive complimentary craft cocktails from some of the world’s best bartenders as well as tastings of sponsor rums.
If you’re still looking for a room, it’s worth checking the Beachcomber first. The resort is close to selling out, but a few rooms are often held back for last-minute release. There’s also the possibility of cancellations at any time. Call (954) 941-7830 for reservations, and be aware that you’ll need to show proof of an event pass at check-in.
Don’t fret if all of the 150-odd rooms at the Beachcomber are taken, however. The beachfront along scenic State Road A1A is loaded with options, including many small boutique hotels and motels. The official alternate hotel is the Ocean Beach Resort & Suites, a half-mile to the north. Call (954) 942-2030 and mention The Hukilau for a special rate.
The move last year to the Beachcomber was party due to necessity because of the pandemic. It provided much outdoor space, along with a smaller room count as well as fewer expenses. Past host hotels have included massive properties such as the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, which closed for a multi-year refurbishment immediately after The Hukilau 2019.
But the change did not come without some sense of serendipity. The Hukilau, after all, is named for an oceanside gathering of family and friends for a giant fishing festival.
“This is what The Hukilau is meant to be,” organizer Richard Oneslager said in a recent interview. “We’re on the ocean, doing business with a family-run property.”
The entire hotel is reserved for The Hukilau, which both limits its size and makes for a more immersive event. It’s a “complete escape to a Tiki paradise,” Oneslager said, referring to the experience as “our own little world.” Because there are no outsiders, “everyone around you is part of the show,” he said. Very few events can offer that complete package.
Oneslager said there are no plans to grow more than a modest 5 or 10 percent. He said he likes the current configuration, which gives villagers the opportunity to meet new friends, but still have an intimate experience. Previous story: More on the hotel and event history
“Having the whole property to ourselves is a big thing,” he said. While he won’t give an exact number, Oneslager said the total number of passes sold this year will be less than 750. That aligns The Hukilau more with the many medium-sized multi-day events rather than the giant Tiki Oasis in San Diego. The Tiki Times:The Atomic Grog’s exclusive events guide
In addition to all the major highlights on the schedule and noted below, Oneslager continues to add fun, last-minute features. He mentioned the return of Tiki miniature golf as well as a series of outdoor “Ohana-Rama” games that you can play at your leisure or join a competition. There will also be a Tiki bingo event Saturday to benefit the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s educational foundation.
The East Coast’s longest running Tiki weekender is back in full force this June, including many familiar faces along with new features and entertainment for villagers to enjoy at the oceanfront Beachcomber Resort in South Florida. Tickets and room reservations are available now for the 19th live edition of The Hukilau, set for June 9-12, 2022.
Pompano Beach’s Beachcomber Resort & Club hosted the scaled-down 2021 event, proving to be the perfect venue for a more intimate but mostly outdoor gathering of the Tiki tribe. The entire hotel is once again reserved for The Hukilau’s guests. But with fewer than 150 rooms available, it may fill up fast. Call (954) 941-7830 to reserve your spot at the party now. (Reservations will require proof of an event pass at check-in.)
Additional hotels nearby will be announced soon, so don’t despair if the Beachcomber fills up. But locals and those staying elsewhere should consider snagging event passes now before they start to sell out. Tickets are available at three different price points, from $129 to $569. The top-level South Seas Pass includes access to every party and event, most symposiums, a beachside luau and Sunday brunch, unlimited cocktails and rum tastings, a limited-edition pendant, plus more! More info on tickets and passes below.
The Hukilau 2022 – June 9-12 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras, King Kukulele, et al.), symposiums (Ian Burrell, David Wondrich, Rocket Betty, Spike Marble, Headhunter Ray, et al.), 16 guest bars, rum tastings, luau on the beach, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
* Official website | Instagram | Facebook page and group
While the venue remains small and cozy, the lineup of guests has been expanded for 2022 to include some of the top names in the Tiki, rum and cocktail world. Some old friends are returning after taking a respite during COVID, and new ones are making their first appearance. Below is our take on the most exciting news out the recent announcement, followed by a full rundown on the musical guests,symposium presenters, guest bars, special features, plus the early schedule and info on tickets and passes. You might also want to mix up the Cobra Defanged recipe below (featured at The Hukilau 2021) and enjoy while you get psyched up for 2022.
The Atomic Grog’s Top 5 highlights of The Hukilau 2022
Billed as a “four-day Tiki extravaganza celebrating the history of Polynesian Pop,” The Hukilau has always beefed up that basic premise with lots contemporary artists with a retro-inspired bent. In recent years, the event has also become a top destination for rum and tropical cocktail enthusiasts. A growing roster of bars, bartenders, industry experts and spirits companies flock to “Fort Liquordale” for the festive atmosphere and friendly fans.
In no particular order, here are the some of the unique offerings that we’re looking forward to this year:
The Mai-Kai last hosted an event during The Hukilau 2021 in September, just before the Thornton family announced the sale of the historic property to a new ownership team that will pump at least $5 million into renovations that will restore the restaurant to its vintage glory.
* Past coverage: The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening
THE MAI-KAI SNEAK PREVIEW
For those of us eagerly awaiting news on the future of the legendary Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale, The Hukilau will give us exclusive insights from the new ownership group. Bill Fuller and his crew from Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality are scheduled to share the refurbishment plans in an exclusive presentation on Saturday, June 11. The 65-year-old restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a roof collapse shut down the kitchen and back-of-house operations. Luckily, the stunning decor and dining rooms remain intact, but they’re also due for freshening up. The new owners are partnering with the founding Thornton family to keep The Mai-Kai’s rich legacy alive. Also part of the new crew are longtime managers who are hard at work ramping up the bar to serve The Mai-Kai’s famous cocktails for the first time since The Hukilau 2021 in September. Look for a pop-up bar featuring select signature drinks throughout the weekend.
DAVID WONDRICH JOINS THE PARTY
For more than 20 years, this James Beard Award winning author, cocktail historian, mixologist and educator has documented the craft cocktail movement while also becoming one of the world’s foremost authorities on drinks history. The former English professor gained national exposure as Esquire Magazine‘s drinks correspondent, along with his four acclaimed books:Esquire Drinks, Killer Cocktails, Imbibe! and Punch. His most recent gig was senior drinks columnist at The Daily Beast and co-host of the Life Behind Bars podcast. His latest achievement is serving as editor of The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, an 860-page opus that serves as the first major reference work on the subject. Wondrich is a frequent guest lecturer and regular seminar host at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. It will be an honor to see the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident make his first appearance at The Hukilau in 2022.
* Follow Wondrich on Twitter
THE RUM AMBASSADOR RETURNS
Ian Burrell is back for his fifth appearance at The Hukilau, teaching an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class and hosting one of his signature “$1,000 Rum Tasting” events. The self-appointed global rum ambassador, Burrell is a charismatic spokesman for the spirit, entertaining host, and all-around fun guy to hang out with. Which makes him the perfect fit for The Hukilau. He previously treated villagers to similar premium rum tastings in 2018 and 2019, offering attendees samples of four to six rums that sell at retail for a combined value in excess of $1,000.
* Related: Take 5 with Ian Burrell | More blogs featuring Ian Burrell
THE SURFRAJETTES HEADLINE STRONG MUSICAL LINEUP
Surf music fans are in for a treat as The Hukilau welcomes back The Surfrajettes, the all-female instrumental combo from Canada that has been building an ever-increasing underground following and online fanbase since making their first and only appearance at the event in 2017. The foursome’s long-awaited debut album, Roller Fink, is due out April 22 on Hi-Tide Recordings. Veteran instro surf rockers The Intoxicators will once again make the trek from Tallahassee to knock our socks off for the 16th time. (If we’re lucky, we may also see an appearance of the band’s alter ego, The Disasternauts.) Also appearing is Southern supergroup The Manakooras, featuring members of Satan’s Pilgrims, Aqualads and The Intoxicators. The band boasts a unique blend of surf music with steel guitar, ukulele and exotica-influenced percussion. Last but not least, longtime emcee King Kukulele is back where he belongs after missing The Hukilau 2021. The Southern California musician, comedian and entertainer has been a fixture at Tiki events across the country over the past two decades, including every previous Hukilau through 2019. His humor, ad libs and easy-going style are a much-needed addition.
* Full list of performers below
16 TOP TIKI BARS ON TAP
Where else can you sample world-class cocktails from Paris, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Chicago all in one place? At The Hukilau, of course, where Dirty Dick, Tonga Hut, Hidden Harbor, and Three Dots and a Dash are among the amazing number of guest bars scheduled to pop during the four-day event. Each will offer several signature and/or classic Tiki cocktails, mixed and served by the owners, managers and bartenders from these high-profile establishments. New for 2022: Look for smaller samples to keep waste to a minimum. And this all comes at no additional cost beyond your event pass, a deal that’s hard to beat. See the full list of bars below
Below is a rundown of everything we know so far. Much more will be announced in the coming weeks. Sign up for email updates at TheHukilau.com and follow the social media links above. We’ll also cover the major updates here on the blog, plus our social channels. We’re also happy to once again be posting updates on Tiki Central, the influential message board that was instrumental in the creation of The Hukilau 20 years ago. After two years of downtime for extensive renovations, it’s back up and running just in time.
MUSIC & ENTERTAINMENT
Look for bands and musicians performing day and night during the pool parties and other events at the Beachcomber. Those confirmed so far include:
The Surfrajettes (Toronto) – Fresh off a high-profile cruise with The Beach Boys, these underground instrumental surf sensations are making inroads toward broader success and appreciation. If you miss them at The Hukilau, be sure to catch them on their upcoming U.S. tour.
The Intoxicators (Tallahassee) – This hard-hitting instrumental foursome can create a racket, but their extremely tight and accomplished musicianship, memorable tunes and unbridled enthusiasm for The Hukilau create a comforting experience year after year. Check out their catalog of past releases.
At least 17 major rum events are set for this year, beginning with this week’s Miami Rum Congress in Miami Beach. Industry VIPs and rum enthusiasts will gather Friday and Saturday, March 11-12, for seminars, tastings and special events at the Hilton Cabana hotel. Social media recap: Photos, coverage of Miami Rum Congress 2022UPDATED
This will be the third live Miami event presented by The Rum Lab in association with global rum ambassador Ian Burrell. The first Miami Rum Congress was held in February 2019, featuring two days of tastings and educational seminars, plus after-parties and related events.
The 2020 festivities featured more of the same, drawing many of the rum and cocktail world’s top names to South Florida on Feb. 7-8, shortly before COVID caused the world to come to a screeching halt. The Rum Lab founder and organizer Federico Hernandez made a deft pivot, hosting popular virtual seminars that continue to attract viewers on the online Zavvy Network.
Hernandez was able to inch back to normalcy with scaled-down, socially distanced versions of some of his live events in 2021. Following The Rum Lab’s gatherings in New York City (August) and San Francisco (September), the return of the world’s most venerable rum events – The UK RumFest (October) and Miami Rum Renaissance Festival (November) – set the stage for a full slate in 2022.
The 2022 Miami Rum Congress was pushed back from its original February dates due to the last COVID surge, but we remain cautiously optimistic about future events. The rebooted Rum Congress certainly gives us cause for optimism with its roster of top spirits experts and a swank new venue.
The beachside Hilton Cabana occupies a prime location just 5 miles from the heart of South Beach. Built in 2014, the MiMo style 10-story hotel features décor reminiscent of the golden age of 1950s Miami. It includes a stylish ballroom and meeting space in addition to its scenic ocean views.
The lineup of guest speakers includes more than 20 experts representing many of today’s top rum brands as well as writers and rum advocates from around the world. They include: Kiowa Bryan (Spiribam), Alexandre Gabriel (Maison Ferrand), Karen Hoskin (Montanya Distillers), Ben Jones (Saint Lucia Distillers), Paul McFadyen (Plantation Rum), Shannon Mustipher (consultant/educator/author), Matt Pietrek (Cocktail Wonk blogger and author), and Roberto Serrallés (Destillería Serrallés).
Saturday is reserved for the VIP Grand Tasting Experience, featuring separate sessions for industry professionals and the general public. Participating brands include Angostura, Appleton, Barcelo, Bonampak, Bounty, Caliche, Chairman’s Reserve, Clement, Coconut Cartel, Copalli, Deadhead, Diplomatico, Don Papa, Don Q, El Dorado, English Harbor, Equiano, Flor de Cana, Holmes Cay, Long Pond, Montanya, Monymusk, Mount Gay, Plantation, Ron Centenario, Rhum J.M., Rum-Bar, Saint James, Smith & Cross, Tanduay, Thrasher’s, Worthy Park, and Wray & Nephew.
Pre-parties were scheduled for Thursday at two of South Florida’s top cocktail bars, The Broken Shaker and Esotico Miami. Saturday’s after-party will be hosted by Red Rooster Overtown. Tickets for Friday and/or Saturday’s events at the Hilton Cabana range from $45 to $180. Miami Rum Congress is urging all participants and guests to adhere to its COVID health and safety measures, including mandatory masking (except when drinking and eating), recommended vaccinations, and social distancing.
We remain thankful for every bit of good news. While a few of the stories below are frustrating (No. 4) or bittersweet (No. 1), they’re far out-numbered by the explosions of creativity and collective talent that drove most of the year’s activity. For that, we toast the entire Tiki community with a new cocktail and The Atomic Grog’s picks for the 10 most newsworthy stories of 2021. Bonus recipe below:The Tiki Lover
1. ALOHA AND FAREWELL, OCEANIC ARTS
As sure as the sun rose in the east and set in the west, there was one enduring creative force over the past six decades of Polynesian Pop style. In November 2021, there was a total eclipse and extended period of mourning when it was announced that Oceanic Arts would be closing its doors as its 80-something-year-old founders embark on a well-deserved retirement. Established in 1956 in Southern California by Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz, the company was always the go-to provider of original and imported pieces of South Seas art and decor for everyone from home enthusiasts to theme park giants including Disney (the doors to Trader Sam’s in Disneyland are Schmaltz’ handiwork). Art and woodwork originating from Oceanic Arts has been featured in nearly every legendary Polynesian palace, from Don the Beachcomber to Trader Vic’s to The Mai-Kai. The company put together movie set pieces and provided the distinctive style of many of the mid 20th century’s Tiki-themed hotels and motels, bowling alleys, and countless other establishments. Buoyed by the Tiki revival, the small shop in Whittier became a mecca for Tikiphiles from around the world and inspired a new generation of carvers and artists in the 21st century.
While the closing seemed to have come out of the blue, Van Oosting and Schmaltz had been planning their retirement for some time. They joined forces with longtime friend Jordan Reichek, owner of Peekaboo Gallery in nearby Montrose, for an epic career-spanning retrospective coming in 2022. In the spring, look for what’s being called an “experiential Tiki exhibition” featuring art and artifacts from Oceanic Arts paired with special events that include live music and performances, panel discussions, an “epic Tiki bar,” and more. The events will culminate with the “ultimate Tiki auction” art show and sale. In the meantime, the gallery is taking pre-orders for a mammoth Oceanic Arts history book compiled and written by Reichek, who worked closely with Van Oosting and Schmaltz. Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki is a 500-page opus that documents the rich history of Oceanic Arts via thousands of photos, original artwork and historical documents from the archives. After 65 years, Oceanic Arts leaves an indelible mark on pop culture that is likely to last for many more decades to come.
The entire Tiki community heaved a sigh of relief in September when the announcement came that The Mai-Kai – the historic, 65-year-old restaurant in Fort Lauderdale that has been closed due to storm damage since October 2020 – was saved from extinction by a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into a restoration and refurbishment. The year started with much concern after press reports emerged about the roof damage that destroyed the kitchen. A “Save The Mai-Kai” petition gathered more than 10,000 signatures in less than a month as devoted fans united online to share their support and concerns. The skeleton crew of owners and staff continued to offer regular takeout cocktails and began a series of events in the expansive parking lot. The highlights were The Mai-Kai’s first-ever Tiki Marketplace in April featuring vendors, entertainers, cocktails, rum tasting and more. A follow-up event in July kept the momentum going while behind-the-scene negotiations were likely starting to ramp up.
The big announcement came in September, just after hundreds of Tikiphiles from around the country finally returned to Fort Lauderdale for the 19th edition of The Hukilau. Then, a week later, the long-awaited news dropped. The founding Thornton family released details on social media on Sept. 28, outlining the joint venture with a South Florida-based real estate investment and development company known for working with legacy businesses. Its sister hospitality company already operates several vintage venues in Miami’s Little Havana. “We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the announcement said. “We’re excited to bring back The Mai-Kai better than ever before — and for you to be a special part of it!” Check out links to our in-depth report above and latest updates below.
The crushing blow of the pandemic was not easy to overcome for event organizers, but we slowly came out of our homes in 2021 and began to gather again in safe and physically-distanced environments. Longtime online meet-ups – most notably Tiki Trail Live and Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour – continued to thrive. But many longed for live human interaction, and a handful of key (mainly outdoor) events delivered that experience in the year’s early months. Then, when vaccines became widely available, we saw the return of several major Tiki events starting with Arizona Tiki Oasis on April 22-25. Carefully organized by Baby Doe and Otto von Stroheim, the event paved the way for an active summer, including the couple’s flagship Tiki Oasis on July 28 -Aug. 1 in San Diego. Momentum slowed in the late summer and fall as the first of several coronavirus variants emerged, but Tikiphiles still flocked to scaled-down events including Ohana: Luau At The Lake in upstate New York, The Hukilau and Tiki Fever in Florida, and Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, Calif. Rum aficionados around the world also were able to get back into the swing of tasting events, from the Jamaica Rum Festival in March to the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in November. See the full list of major 2021 events below.
NEW: Check out The Atomic Grog’s annual calendar for all the major events across the world of Tiki culture. The Tiki Times also includes rum events, plus modernism, surf and rockabilly music, Disney and other happenings of interest to the Tiki community. It will be continually updated throughout the year, so check the link below for main calendar page frequently: UPDATES: FULL 2022 EVENTS CALENDAR
Although at times 2021 seemed like 2020 all over again, we made some great strides toward a return to normalcy amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Many live events returned, albeit in abbreviated or scaled-down formats. Regular virtual and online events continued, giving many a safe way to interact. The Tiki Times, The Atomic Grog’s ongoing event guide, documented many of these happenings over the past year. Check below for artwork and links to official sites, plus images and videos from social media. Stay safe and remember to follow all COVID guidance as we face further challenges in 2022. THE WEEK IN TIKI 2022: Latest upcoming live and virtual events Support Tiki bars:Visit their online stores, buy the latest merchandise Social media:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
If you’re in a cold climate, you can curl up in front of the fire with a warm and comforting mug of holiday cheer. If you’re fortunate enough (like us) to hail from closer to the Equator, there are plenty of cool and refreshing concoctions to scratch your tropical itch. Hell, why not enjoy all of the options no matter where you live?
As this season’s wildly popular pop-up bars – most notably Miracle and Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Santa – continue to prove, there’s no shortage of demand for creative and well-themed Christmas cocktails. Beyond the big dogs, there are also one-off themed overlays in bars across the globe that are also worth checking out.
We make no claim to the expertise of those fantastic folks in the trenches, but it’s always fun to experiment with holiday flavors like a spoiled kid in a toy store. Joining The Atomic Grog’s pantheon of winter cocktails are three new creations, including our first seasonal Zombie ….
This time of year is not all snowmen and mistletoe. There are some elements of the season that make us feel like the walking dead. What better way to deal with the holiday hubris than a nice, stiff Zombie …
CHRISTMAS CREEPER (By Hurricane Hayward, The Atomic Grog)
Pulse blend with 1 1/2 cups of crushed ice for 6-9 seconds. Pour into a Zombie glass, adding more ice to fill. Garnish with mint and swizzle stick.
This looks like a Zombie and tastes like a Zombie, but it’s also full of sweet and tart holiday cheer. The potent rums and lime-cranberry combo hit you hard, but the spice and anise notes creep up on you. As will the alcohol content, so consume with caution or risk becoming a holiday party story your relatives will retell with relish.
Ingredient, mixing tips
* The cranberry and pomegranate, combined with the fresh lime, provide an enveloping underlying tartness that serves as a great base for the bold rums, anise and unique punch of the kirsch. We recommend a high-quality (or homemade) grenadine and natural cranberry juice. We didn’t try this, but it might also be worth swapping the grenadine for a cranberry simple syrup.
* Brown sugar syrup is easy to make by heating 1 part dark brown sugar with 1 part water on the stove until it starts to boil, then cooling in the fridge. We also make our own ginger and cinnamon syrups, and there are quite a few recipes available online. But if you’re not adventurous, we also recommend the bottled options, from B.G. Reynolds and Real Syrups.
* Kirschwasser, aka kirsch, is a colorless brandy that originated in Germany and is made from fermented cherries. It’s usually bottled at 80 to 90 proof and has a distinctive bitter cherry flavor that works well in a Zombie. It’s traditionally drunken neat as a digestif, but you can also find it in cocktails. It can also be used in festive holiday cakes, candies and the flaming cherries jubilee dessert. It’s relatively easy to find in liquor stores and worth seeking out for this distinctive cocktail. It works well with the rums and the traditional cocktail spices, absinthe and allspice. For the latter, we chose the subtle touch of a bitters (such as Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters) but a very small dash of pimento dram would work as well.
The 12th annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival may not have reached the epic proportions of past events, but it was a welcome return as we tiptoe into a post-pandemic world. Like an old friend who had only one day for a visit, the short-but-sweet tasting session on Nov. 14 brought the extended “rum family” back together in a safe space.
“Our decision to keep it simple paid off,” co-organizer Robert A. Burr said after the event. “We sold out with 500 tickets and the size of the crowd was very comfortable. It’s so satisfying to gather with our rum friends again.” Burr and wife Robin also welcomed back son Robert V. Burr to the rum fest. His move back to South Florida will enable him to once again be involved in the event, he told us during the festivities.
While socially distant interactions are still awkward, it was clear that both attendees and participating rum brands were very happy to be there. The elder Burr said many “expressed their heartfelt appreciation.”
Hosted for a second time at the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club, the event was not spread out over multiple days like years past. The Rum Renaissance Tasting Event featured no seminars or judging sessions, but the Burrs definitely didn’t skimp on the rums. There appeared to be even more tasting booths than there were in 2019.
The tasting session for the general public ran from 2 to 6 p.m., and we spent the better part of that time catching up with old friends and sampling many fine rums. We immediately knew we were in for a treat when we entered the first of two event halls to find an elaborate Rhum Barbancourt booth manned by master mixologist Tobin Ellis. The legendary rum from Haiti was making a rare appearance in Miami with Ellis, an influential bartender and consultant from Las Vegas who made a splash at the rum fest in its early days.
I had not seen Ellis since we faced off in 2011 at the third annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival’s Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai. He won that mixology contest, of course, and I remember him offering this newbie some great advice. It was fantastic to catch up with one of the bar and cocktail world’s most creative minds. It was also comforting to find out that he remains a very humble and down-to-earth guy.
Some other no-less-notable names were in the house, representing dozens of rum brands from around the world. With my time limited, I made an attempt to sample as many new and intriguing rums as possible. It was definitely tough to restrain myself from revisiting the many past favorites, including Diplomatico, Dos Maderas, El Dorado, Pusser’s, and others. Check out our past coverage for all of these, plus more.
Here are seven memories we walked away with from this year’s rum reunion in Coral Gables …
QUICK TAKES: 2021 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival highlights
BEST BOOTH: Rhum Barbancourt. The sophisticated kiosk from Haiti’s flagship brand had everything you’d want from a rum festival presenter: Classy and eye-catching displays plus a perfect photo-op spot, the full range of distinctive rums readily available for tasting, and a world-class mixologist shaking up fresh (and delicious) cocktails. It was almost unfair to the rest of the brands. Of course, we’re intimately familiar with the full Barbancourt range from its years as a sponsor of The Hukilau. And we’ve always kept our home bar stocked with the three 86-proof core products – the lightly aged Rhum Blanc, the 4-year-old “3 Stars,” and the 8-year-old Speciale Reserve “5 Stars” – along with the 70-proof Barbancourt Pango, one of the best flavored rums on the market. You’ll find several Barbancourt rums featured in our new Haitian Zombie recipe. But the brand’s crown jewel is the premium sipping rum, the 15-year-old Estate Reserve blend. Like the others, it’s distilled from sugar cane juice in the rhum agricole style and aged in French oak. We were reminded just how good this rum is after tasting the complex, nuanced and very refined sip. Rhum Barbancourt remains one of the most consistent (and reasonably priced) brands on the market.
BEST NEW RUM: Plantation Trinidad 2009. I almost skipped the booth from longtime festival participant Plantation – the popular rum brand from France’s Maison Ferrand. I own or have tasted most of the booth’s award-winning bottlings, which are sourced from islands across the world before a second aging and bottling in France. But I spotted a new one, and I’m glad I stopped to try it. Plantation Trinidad 2009 is a limited-edition blend that was aged for 11 years in ex-bourbon casks in Trinidad before aging for a year in oak barrels in France. Plantation has perfected this somewhat controversial production style, and it serves this release well. Clocking in a 103.6 proof, this is a dynamic yet delicate blend with light citrus and spice notes along with hints of gasoline (in a good way). The latter was something I don’t recall ever encountering in a modern Trinidadian rum (Angostura is now the island’s sole rum producer). It’s an intriguing release, one I definitely recommend. Just for the heck of it, I compared it head-to-head against a similar rum from the festival’s VIP Tasting Bar: the acclaimed Velier Caroni 15. This is a 15-year-old, 104-proof rum from the Caroni Distillery in Trinidad, which unfortunately closed in 2003 after a long history that included many years of supplying its rich, dark rums to the British Navy. This bottling from Italy’s Velier is outstanding, a rich and powerful rum with lots of dark fruit flavors and an oily, gasoline-like punch. One of my favorites from the tasting bar. The similarities in the two rums was clear, particularly the smoky petrol. To me, the Plantation Trinidad 2009 release comes off as a lighter, more approachable version of the Caroni 15. (Note: There’s also a 12-year-old Caroni from Velier that I have not tried.). The ABV is almost identical, and the same unique gasoline notes stand out. When Caroni closed, the majority of its remaining rum was acquired by Angostura, so it’s entirely possible some Caroni stock is used in this blend. All the Plantation website says is the rum “was chosen from the cellars of Trinidad Distillers” (which owns Angostura). There has been speculation that Angostura uses some of its Caroni stock in the “1787” expression, its top-of-the-line rum blend that’s aged for a minimum of 15 years but released at just 80 proof. It’s possible there’s also a tiny bit of Caroni in this new blend from Plantation as well.