Until cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed the mystery behind Don the Beachcomber’s classic Zombie cocktail, the true recipe lay buried for more than 70 years. Berry’s discovery and publication of his findings in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari (2007) spurred a revival and greater appreciation of the deadly drink that continues to this day.
Simultaneously and coincidentally, the world of cinema also went zombie crazy, ushering in a renaissance of the modern horror archetype. Of the 30 films on a recently published list of “The best zombie movies of all time,” half were released in the 21st century.
With the precision of a pathologist, Berry dissected and definitively revealed the template that the bootlegger turned Tiki cocktail pioneer used to create what was arguably the most popular drink of the post-Prohibition era. The original 1934 recipe is a groundbreaking masterpiece, combining multiple rums and spices with sweet and sour juices and syrups, bitters, and even a touch of anise. Stay tuned for the upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film (The Donn of Tiki) for the full story of his life and times.
But what inspired the name of the cocktail? We can only assume it was White Zombie, released just a year or two before the drink and considered to be the first zombie film. Starring monster movie legend Béla Lugosi, it’s a far cry from today’s gore fests featuring flesh-eating corpses. The movie is actually fairly faithful to the true folklore, spinning the tale of a Haitian voodoo priest who drugs his victims and turns them into zombie slaves.
In the ensuring years, that origin story has been widely ignored by pop culture. The movie genre traces its modern roots to director George Romero and his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Nearly every movie or TV series since has loosely followed Romero’s template of reanimated corpses mindlessly running amok for no apparent reason, with political and social statements thrown in for good measure.
Back in the 1930s, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach) simply borrowed the name and made no attempt at connecting it to its island of origin. But what if we go back to the roots of the true zombie legend and use it as inspiration for not one, but two new Zombie cocktails?
BACKGROUND: Haitian zombie folklore rooted in slavery, French colonialism
The true story behind zombie folklore is scarier and more tragic than a movie.
Like its sister islands, what is now Haiti was invaded and colonized by a European power. France established Saint-Domingue in 1664, growing it into the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean on the backs of African slaves.
The brutal practice came to a violent end in 1791, when slaves staged a mass revolt and rose up against their oppressors. By 1794, the French government abolished slavery throughout its empire, more than 70 years before the 13th Amendment ended the practice in the United States.
The revolt sparked the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804 with the island’s independence and heroic ex-slave Toussaint Louverture installed as Haiti’s first governor general. It was a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World, distinctive as the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state that was both free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former captives.
The legend of the zombie, or “zonbi” as it was known in Haitian Creole culture, could be considered a metaphor for the horrors of slavery.
The word itself and the concept of zombie-like creatures can be traced back to African origins. Some research has also found a connection to the island’s indigenous Taíno people, known for their shamanist practices. The African slaves brought with them traditions and from their homeland, including the “Vodou” religion.
Haitian Vodou developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, merging traditional religions of west and central Africa with Roman Catholicism. In Haitian culture, a zonbi is a dead body brought back to life by a Vodou sorcerer known as a “bokor.” According to legend, the zonbi is under the total control of the bokor as a personal slave and lacks any will of its own. It’s part of a complex, spiritual belief (“soul dualism”) that a person has two or more kinds of souls.
One soul (“body soul”) is associated with body functions while the other (“free soul” or “wandering soul”) can leave the body. In the belief system of the enslaved Africans brought to Haiti, the afterlife included a return to their homeland, where both souls were reunited. However, if they had offended their voodoo deity, they would remain a zonbi and be a slave for eternity.
The fear of “zombification” was used by slave drivers to discourage slaves from committing suicide. These men who directed the daily work were often slaves themselves and sometimes also practicing voodoo priests, according to scholars. After the revolution, the zonbi became part of Haitian folklore, a stirring reminder of the past in the hope that it never happens again.
The earliest references to zombies in the United States, cited throughout the 1800s, were also closely associated with slavery and connected to African traditions. But the phenomenon went mainstream during the United States’ military occupation of Haiti (1915–1934).
Travel writer William Seabrook’s book, The Magic Island (1929), revealed “voodoo cults” in Haiti and likely inspired the 1932 film White Zombie. Though it takes place in Haiti, the film twists the legend to appeal to its American audience. I Walked With A Zombie, a 1943 horror movie set in a fictional Caribbean island, further strays from the original legend. By 1968 and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the horror film was cloaked in social commentary and civil rights, leaving Haiti’s zonbi myth to the history books.
The Haitian zombie made a brief comeback in 1985, when anthropologist Wade Davis published his controversial findings in the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which recounted his experiences investigating Vodou cults in Haiti. It was criticized for scientific inaccuracies in regards to its theories about psychoactive drugs, but it was a commercial success and inspired the 1988 horror film of the same name (starring Bill Pullman).
But just when you thought the legend was dead and buried, a more socially aware mindset has sparked new interest.
Two of the spirits and Tiki cocktail world’s most respected figures are putting their names on the label of an exciting new release: Beachbum Berry’s Zombie Blend from Hamilton Rum. It’s the first joint rum project for both and is expected to hit stores and bars across America this summer.
This deadly elixir is a potent 118-proof blend of spirits from multiple Caribbean islands that seeks to recreate in one bottle the classic combination of three different rums that Don the Beachcomber famously used in his original Zombie recipe in the 1930s. Berry spent more than a decade decoding Donn Beach’s secrets and published the results in his landmark 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari.
The blend was a hands-on passion project for Berry, who tasted and approved every tweak, Hamilton said. “I love the guy, he’s wonderful to work with,” Hamilton said, adding that he felt more than a little pressure to not disappoint him. It was a two-year project that “started well before COVID.”
Hamilton hopes to have ample supplies of the new rum in 1-liter bottles ready for distribution from his New Jersey warehouse by around the time most of us are celebrating the Fourth of July, he said last Friday night in his weekly Zoom happy hour. The blend is done, Hamilton said, and he’s just working with Berry on finalizing the back label. It will feature a revamped Zombie recipe by “the Bum” that shows off the new rum.
Hamilton said he’s happy that his rums are now available in 40 states, and he’s looking forward to a post-COVID boom that should boost his rum sales above 2019 levels. The partnership with Berry certainly won’t hurt.
“The best people to collaborate with are people who know more than you do,” Berry told us via e-mail. “Ed definitely fills that bill. He knows everything about rum, and he has good taste too. That made the whole sourcing and blending process ridiculously easy.”
The union of these two unique brands is a Tiki lover’s dream. Hamilton, founder of the Ministry of Rum website, was a longtime rum expert and author before he became an importer. His company, Caribbean Spirts, brings into the United States rums and other products from across the West Indies with an emphasis on honesty and authenticity.
Hamilton’s namesake rums include blends from some of the region’s most respected rum-producing islands. His best sellers include Hamilton 86 and 151 from Guyana, plus gold and black pot-still rums from Jamaica. These styles are Tiki bar staples, and Hamilton’s reasonably-priced and flavorful blends are well-received by bartenders and home enthusiasts alike.
Even if you have all the ingredients, the Zombie is a beast of a drink to make. Not only are there three rums but also multiple juices, syrups and spices that add up to 10 ingredients or more. This can discourage not only novices mixing at home but also high-volume cocktail bars. “We wanted something that works in the bars,” Hamilton said. The goal, he said, is for bartenders to say: “Now I can put a Zombie on the menu.”
For Berry, the Zombie is special “not only because it tastes great, but on a more personal level because it was a ‘lost’ recipe that I discovered, and then decoded, and then published for the first time anywhere in Sippin’ Safari in 2007. And now, 15 years later, I’ve blended a rum for the drink as well. That’s a pretty cool feeling!”
Undoubtedly, it was a year many would rather forget – preferably by downing a few Mai Tais. If we take “hindsight is 2020” at face value, perhaps some day there will be positive lessons to be learned from last year’s many tragedies. Despite this, not all the news was negative in the modern Tiki revival. Dispensing with the bad news first, here are The Atomic Grog’s picks for the nine most newsworthy stories of 2020. Bonus recipe below:The Urban Archaeologist (tribute to The Book of Tiki 20th anniversary and commemorative mug)
1. CORONAVIRUS SHUTDOWNS
Of all the industries that were dealt a sucker punch by the pandemic, the bar and restaurant world is the one that seems to have suffered the most long-running impact. When the mandatory closings swept across the United States (and the world) in March and April, most were ill-prepared to deal with the consequences. Heroically, the majority were able to survive by pivoting to take-out and streamlined operations. Sadly, others have remained closed with still no ETA on reopening dates. The list of businesses that closed permanently is sobering. But as we look back at the year, we’re proud of the efforts everyone put forth to keep their Tiki bars and related companies alive against all odds. We will continue to pray for their survival and encourage everyone to help as best they can.
It’s hard for a community to thrive and survive when it’s stripped of its ability to congregate en masse to celebrate and boost each other’s spirits. This hit home in the Tiki world in early March, when Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend held the dubious distinction of being the last pre-pandemic event to take place. The summer season’s blockbuster festivals were forced to scramble. Some postponed, some went to a virtual format, others canceled altogether. But there was still no keeping the fervent followers from seeking out their friends and favorite events, even in stripped-down and online-only form. We tip our hat to the organizers who keep the faithful happy and their brands alive, along with their supporters who kept their heads up and their communities alive throughout the year.
In any other year, the closing of The Mai-Kai would undoubtedly be news story No. 1. But 2020 was no ordinary year, full of curve balls and unexpected twists. After closing during April and May, The Mai-Kai reopened under state social-distancing guidelines and was successfully navigating the pandemic through the summer and fall. An inventive take-out program was pushing boundaries and pleasing fans, while the historic restaurant was consistently filling its available seats with guests eager to watch the acclaimed Polynesian Islander Revue. All that changed in late October, however, when massive rains flooded the kitchen and back-of-house after a roof collapsed during the storm. With no functioning kitchen, The Mai-Kai has closed until the extensive repairs can be done. The annual Halloween party became a drive-in movie event in the parking lot and online sales were stepped up. A family-run operation since 1956, The Mai-Kai faces perhaps its biggest challenge, possibly with a new partnership or ownership. Here’s hoping the grand reopening will top the list of 2021 news events. The Mai-Kai for sale:See the official statementNEW UPDATES: Owners vow to “preserve family legacy” while continuing take-out drinks and more events
In September, The Mai-Kai, its extended family and longtime fans mourned the death of Toti Terorotua, a founding member of the restaurant’s acclaimed Polynesian Islander Revue in 1962. “Toti was not only an outstanding musician and entertainer, he was a great friend and part of what made the Mai-Kai one great big family,” an official statement from the restaurant said. “Toti was a highly regarded musician in Tahiti before coming to the US, creating two classic Tahitian albums with his namesake band Toti’s Tahitians. You can still hear songs from his albums, along with his unforgettable voice, softly playing in the background on the Mai Kai’s nightly soundtrack.” Toti was discovered in the late 1950s by Donn Beach himself, who picked him to be part of his show at the Don the Beachcomber in Waikiki when it opened at the International Marketplace. Toti came to Fort Lauderdale and The Mai-Kai to be part of the original Polynesian show and never left. He retired 2000 after 38 years, but came back in 2006 to play drums at The Mai-Kai’s 50th anniversary at age 71. He continued to perform on stage for another decade-plus. In announcing his death, The Mai-Kai shared a tribute in Tahitian, translated to: “We will miss you so. But dreams will keep us near you. We know we’ll meet again. Farewell for just a while. For just a little while.” Listen:Buy or stream Lure Of Tahiti by Terorotua & His Tahitians
Classic Beachbum Berry book to be re-imagined, new glassware available
Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, the underrated classic 2007 cocktail book that helped set the stage for today’s robust revival of Tiki bars across the country, will be re-released in the fall as a 10-year anniversary special edition, the author confirmed. Former screenwriter Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s fourth book was his first full-color, story-driven guide to the history of tropical mixology.
It includes not only dozens of vintage tropical drink recipes, but also the fascinating stories and exclusive photos of some of the genre’s most talented yet under-appreciated barmen from the early and mid-20th century. Berry, the owner of the acclaimed Latitude 29 restaurant and Tiki bar in New Orleans, gave us a sneak peek of what we can expect:
“This edition will feature a new afterward taking readers through the 10 years after Sippin’ first appeared: The explosive Tiki cocktail revolution that no one saw coming in 2007, which was aided and abetted by the craft cocktail renaissance that grew on parallel tracks, ending with the opening of amazing new Tiki cocktail bars.” The book will be published by Cocktail Kingdom, which released Berry’s award-winning Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them in late 2013.
“It also features a new preface talking about what led up to the writing of Sippin’, covering the years 1964 to 2006,” Berry said via e-mail. “I’ve also added footnotes to the main text, and a bunch of additional recipes, both old and unpublished, and new ones from the Tiki revival.” It’s a revival that Berry had a large hand in spurring, from his early books (Grog Log, Intoxica) to his symposiums at Tiki and cocktail events across the world.
Potions of the Caribbean, which won the Spirited Award for Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at Tales of the Cocktail in 2014, was originally intended to be the final chapter in Sippin’ Safari, detailing Tiki’s links back to the Caribbean. Berry used that idea as a jumping off point for a full-blown history book as told through cocktails, following the template established in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari.
The book tells the story of the men who toiled behind the scenes for Don the Beachcomber, Steve Crane and other giants of the early days of Tiki. It reveals the intriguing back stories of such mixologists as Ray Buhen (Tiki-Ti), Bob Esmino (Kon-Tiki) and Mariano Licudine (The Mai-Kai). The final chapter includes a revealing peek behind the scenes at at The Mai-Kai, exploring the grand vision of original owners Bob and Jack Thornton and detailing the early years via stories from Licudine’s son, Ron. Sippin’ Safari is definitely a must-have in any Tiki cocktail book collection.
Meanwhile, some cool new glassware was added to the Beachbum Berry barware collection on the Cocktail Kingdom website. In late 2015, the premium barware company released its first custom mug for Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans: A 15-ounce coconut mug featuring the Latitude 29 logo that serves as a vessel for the bar’s Painkiller cocktail. It later was released online, along with a similar coconut mug featuring the Beachbum Berry logo. All of the coconut mugs, which harken back to classic vessels popularized by Trader Vic’s, are just $12.95 each, with steep discounts for bulk orders. Unlike the traditional Trader Vic’s coconut, the Cocktail Kingdom mugs developed in collaboration with Berry include a special hole for a straw.
More recently, Berry and Cocktail Kingdom scared up some new cocktailware that we’re dying to get our hands on: Beachbum Berry Zombie Glasses. These vintage-style 15-ounce glasses were uniquely designed for Don the Beachcomber’s original 1934 Zombie cocktail and the 1950 mid-century version, both unearthed after years of painstaking research by Berry. The 1934 recipe, especially, was considered one of the most significant classic recipe revelations of the modern Tiki era. First published in Sippin’ Safari., it shows off Donn Beach’s magic in creating one of the most popular and distinctive drinks in the early days of tropical mixology. The glasses come in a two-pack: One with the 1950 recipe, the other with the 1934 recipe. They’re $18.95 for the set, with discounts for larger orders.
Of all The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drinks, one of the very best was never available to the general public. Rather, the Big Bamboo is believed to have been an exclusive treat for members of the Okole Maluna Society, whose challenge was to try every cocktail on the extensive menu.
Okole Maluna (translation: “Bottom’s Up,” a traditional Hawaiian toast) was a club The Mai-Kai operated in 1958-59 to promote its fledgling new bar, The Molokai, and at the same time gain customer loyalty and goodwill. Prospective club members received a special menu on which they charted their progress, and a membership card when they checked off every drink.
Loyalty clubs were common in Tiki bars of the mid-century, when competition was fierce. “Most places had five to seven high-end Tiki places in their downtowns,” tropical drink guru and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry told Tales of the Cocktail for a recent article. “So how do you keep people coming back to your place as opposed to all of the other places that are trying to compete with you? A loyalty program.”
Berry, who also owns and operates Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans, first revealed the story of the Okole Maluna Society in his excellent chapter on The Mai-Kai and original mixologist Mariano Licudine in his seminal 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, which was recently re-released as an enhanced 10th anniversary edition. “You were eligible to join after you’d ordered every one of the 48 drinks on the menu, whereupon you received a personalized bamboo cup filled with a Mariano original called the Big Bamboo – a ‘secret’ drink which he only made for Society members,” Berry wrote.
The Tales of the Cocktail article traces the history of loyalty clubs from the Okole Maluna Society up through popular present-day programs at Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, and elsewhere. “Anything that engages customers and make them feel more special and part of a club is a good thing,” Berry said. “That ‘Aloha spirit’ is very important. That’s what a loyalty program helps foster.”
But while The Mai-Kai is renowned for its outstanding hospitality and service, the Okole Maluna Society was shut down after only two years, most likely because it was too popular. Author Tim “Swanky” Glazner details the creation and quick demise of the club in his much-anticpated book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant (2016, Schiffer). In the chapter “Okole Maluna Society: A Drinking Competiton,” Glazner reveals the lengths to which customers would go to overindulge. Check out this blog post that includes exclusive photos from the book.
In a frenzy to become “president” of the society by being the first to finish the menu, some guests may have gone a little too far, Glazner wrote. One regular camped out at a nearby hotel, completing the task in just three nights. For his accomplishment, he had his portrait painted on black velvet by noted artist Eric Askew and hung as a centerpiece of a display of member mugs behind the Surfboard Bar.
In the interest of keeping interest in the club going, he agreed to keep his accomplishment secret so others could make a bid for the presidency. “I think we killed a few people,” manager Bob van Dorpe told Glazner. Though the society was a huge success for those two years in the restaurant’s infancy and helped boost the popularity of the cocktails, it was decided that perhaps it was not a good idea to encourage guests to consume them so quickly, Glazner wrote in the book.
Glazner’s account of the Okole Maluna Society contains one distinct difference than Berry’s, however. According to his sources, the name of the secret drink given to members upon completion of the regular menu was called the Okole Maluna. It’s unclear if this was a distinctly different drink than the Big Bamboo that Berry revealed in Sippin’ Safari, or perhaps just a different name for the same recipe. Photos and artwork (see below) show a stylized bamboo mug, and the only menus on which the cocktail was featured appear to be the special Okole Maluna Society cards created for The Molokai bar (see above).
One thing is clear, however, as Berry explains in his book: Big Bamboo is the predecessor to one of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, Mara-Amu. Containing most of the same ingredients, the Mara-Amu just a bit milder.
By all accounts, both cocktails were original recipes by Licudine, The Mai-Kai’s “Houdini of the liquids” who created the drink menu when the restaurant opened in 1956. Most of the others were Licudine’s take on classics by tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber, for whom he worked during the prior decades in both Los Angeles and Chicago. Many of these drinks and recipes remain exactly as he left them when he retired in 1979. Licudine passed away in 1980.
So assuming you’ve done your duty and sampled all the other drinks on the menu, you’re now an approved member of the Okole Maluna Society and eligible to enjoy this lost classic.
July 2018 update: The Big Bamboo was one of the last of The Mai-Kai’s “lost cocktails” to come out of retirement when it appeared during a special event at The Hukilau in June. Participants in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai,” were given the exclusive privilege of ordering the drink during the Sunday finale in The Molokai bar.
(Atomic Grog photos, June 10, 2018)
Students from The Atomic Grog class not only received the exclusive Big Bamboo, which was being served to the public for the first time since the late 1950s. They earned their own Okole Maluna Society card and a free tour of the restaurant’s historic art and architecture from author Swanky himself (pictured with Hurricane Hayward in The Molokai bar). You can pick up a signed copy of his book in The Mai-Kai Trading Post’s new online store.
Okole Maluna Society review and rating
Flavor profile: Gold and dark rums, passion fruit with bitter and sour nuances.
Review: Very well balanced, sweet and full of big flavors similar to Don the Beachcomber’s 1950 Zombie.
Ancestry: Big Bamboo was believed to be a special Mai-Kai cocktail available only to members of the Okole Maluna Society after they had ordered every other drink on the menu. It evolved into the milder Mara-Amu, which remains a favorite on the menu and features its own distinctive mug.
Bilge: There’s little information about the special mugs that were used for the Big Bamboo. Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner provided the photo at right that shows the case where it’s believed they were kept. Aside from the photo and artwork above, we’ve been unable to find a trace. It joins the long list of sought-after Mai-Kai collectibles. If you find one, please let us know.
Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce gold Cuban rum
(or sub Virgin Islands rum)
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 4 ounces (1/2 cup) crushed ice
Put everything in a blender or spindle mixer and blend at high speed for exactly 5 seconds. Pour into a bamboo mug or tall glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.
From the personal notebook of Mariano Licudine, circa 1960.
We like to make a larger version by just doubling the proportions. For a slightly modified version, check out Chemistry of the Cocktail.
Notes and tips for home mixologists
* As usual, fresh juices are essential. I prefer all-natural white grapefruit juice with no sugar added. When white grapefruit is out of season, The Mai-Kai uses red or pink grapefruit, but always fresh squeezed from nearby Florida groves. The Mai-Kai has always used distinctive Florida citrus, which gives its cocktails a rich and fresh flavor. It’s sourced locally and 100 percent non-pasteurized. The lime juice is a unique blend, with Key lime juice dominating the sour and tart flavor. I recommend a specific blend if you want to duplicate The Mai-Kai flavor.
* Tiki Central: Click here for a full guide to the juices used at The Mai-Kai
* Inspired by the artwork included in Sippin’ Safari and shown above, we included a garnish of fresh mint, which adds a great additional element with the smell arousing the senses and enhancing the drink. One other tip: Gently slap the mint against your hand to release its aromatics before inserting into the glass. The Mai-Kai also used mint when the drink made a rare appearance at The Hukilau 2018 (see photos above).
About those rums …
In September 2016, we were honored to be asked by author Tim “Swanky” Glazner to help celebrate the release of his book Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by making cocktails for his special guests during a party at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. The Sept. 16-17 festivities also included a walking tour and special on-stage presentation by Glazner at the restaurant, plus the return of two lost cocktails (Hanalei Bay and Dr. Fong) that had not been served in decades.
As it turns out, the key to the outstanding flavors in Big Bamboo are the specific rums called for in the original recipe. Unfortunately, neither is currently available. A quality dark Jamaican rum with a bit of funkiness makes this cocktail really shine. Appleton, which is featured in many of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, sponsored the September event and contributed several bottles for the party. While not as bold and funky as some other options, both the Signature and Reserve blends are s full of flavor and complexity, a fine choice for this cocktail. Appleton was recently pressed into service due to the unavailability of Kohala Bay, the direct descendant of the Dagger brand that was likely featured in the original. Click here for the story of Kohala Bay and Dagger, plus many suggested substitutions.
Cuban rum is even harder to find, at least for now. Formerly contraband in the United States thanks to the longtime embargo, it’s now trickling into the states after travel was recently opened up and rum was allowed to pass through customs in small amounts. In the years prior to Fidel Castro’s rule, this superb rum was featured at The Mai-Kai. Check out this photo of historic Cuban rum from the 1950s that still lines the upper shelves of The Mai-Kai’s back bar, spotted during a 2011 bar tour. If you can track down a bottle of Havana Club or another Cuban brand, by all means use it. My supply of Añejo Años (see photo above) is dwindling, but more recently I secured a bottle of Añejo Especial, another outstanding gold rum from Havana Club. For the party, I sought something that replicated those same flavors. There are many gold rums made in the Spanish style similar to Cuban, but the one that made sense in terms of both cost and taste was Ron Barcelo Añejo from the Dominican Republic. Among the many other choices are Virgin Islands rums such as Cruzan Estate Dark, Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña, plus Puerto Rico’s Bacardi Añejo, Bacardi 8, and Barrilito 3 Star. If you have any questions about the quality or taste of rums, a great resource is Robert Burr’s Rum Guide, which includes tasting notes and information on hundreds of fine rums from around the world. Burr also founded and produces the annual Rum Renaissance Festival.
When compared head-to-head, a Big Bamboo containing Kohala Bay and Havana Club is head and shoulders above any other options. While there are many other rum choices, it’s obvious that The Mai-Kai’s “Houdini of the liquids,” Mariano Licudine, knew best when he created this classic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menu includes many drinks that have survived since the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace’s inception in 1956. Our unofficial count is 33 originals among the current menu’s 47 cocktails. The origins and recipes for some of these have long been mysteries, and we hope this guide unravels a few.
But even more mysterious are the great lost cocktails of The Mai-Kai. Those drinks that appear on early menus but for one reason or another were retired or replaced. Among the 12 of these that we’ve been able to identify are such exotic temptations as the Impatient Virgin, Dr. Fong and Liquid Gold. Those three, along with many others, were descendants of Don the Beachcomber cocktails that original Mai-Kai bartender Mariano Licudine reconfigured after spending decades learning from tropical drink originator Donn Beach.
This connection, along with the rich history of The Mai-Kai, is detailed in depth by cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum Berry” in his excellent 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari. This lavishly illustrated guide is recommended not only for all the great recipes, but for the stories behind the cocktails that you won’t find anywhere else. Look for a special 10th anniversary edition – featuring new recipes, photos and stories – to be released in July 2017.
Our expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.
Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were common during Tiki’s golden age. The ominous Shrunken Skull and its variations were among the most infamous. The idea was to conjure up a sense of danger lurking in your local tropical getaway. Classic Tiki bars offer the ultimate escape from the mundane day-to-day existence, and every island adventure needs a little bit of macabre yet kitschy risk-taking.
In this case, the danger lies in the strong rums that permeate this deadly concoction. The Shrunken Skull is one of only two current Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other also comes with an element of danger attached to its name: the Shark Bite.
The Shrunken Skull is also one of only a handful of Mai-Kai cocktails to come in its own custom mug, originally a vintage shrunken head design that can fetch more than $100 on the open market. It was replaced by a modern version that is not quite as rare but can still reach $50 or more for older versions.
The above links and info come courtesy of Ooga Mooga, the premiere website for Tiki mug collectors. This highly recommended resource lets users track their mug collection while showing it off to others. Loaded with photos of great vintage mugs, it’s worth checking out even if you don’t register as a collector.
The Shrunken Skull also often comes in an Abelam mug (average price: $30), which features a mask-like design of the Abelam people who live in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. A vintage Abelam mug is typically priced in the $100 range.
All of the above mugs have a handle, which is atypical of most Tiki mugs. It’s usually an indication that the mug does double-duty on the dessert menu as a vessel for hot coffee drinks. At The Mai-Kai, the current Abelam mug also can be enjoyed with an after-dinner classic, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog. The shrunken head mug is also used for the Tahitian Coffee.
I picked up both mugs in the gift shop, aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post. I’ll be monitoring their prices on Ooga Mooga like any good mug investor.