The front and back covers are now blue, replacing the previous yellow. The centerspread featuring the classic tropical drinks remains the same color, and the entire menu has a matte finish (instead of the old laminated, shiny menu).
In the heyday of Tiki in the 1950s and ’60s, having one of the most extensive and iconic tropical drink menus was not enough. At The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, where the list of classic exotic cocktails runs to nearly 50, there were always requests for off-the-menu concoctions that everyone had heard about. To meet this demand, recipes were created but never added to the menu.
Decades later, there aren’t many requests for the Fog Cutter, Singapore Sling and Suffering Bastard. But that didn’t stop the Gumbo Limbo Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai from organizing an event that gave guests a taste of all three of these “secret cocktails.”
On Saturday, Feb. 21, starting at 5 p.m., The Molokiai bar filled up with more than 50 eager participants for a chance to taste a flight of the three mid-century classics that have never appeared on the 58-year-old tropical drink menu. For just $15, we received roughly half-sized samples of all three drinks. In addition to a large turnout of FOM members, several VIPs were in the house after participating in Emeril Lagasse’s “Tiki Showdown” the night before in Miami Beach: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Martin Cate.
Though the event was billed as “The Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai,” these three drinks were not really “lost,” manager Kern Mattei pointed out. “We’ve always had them, but nobody knew it,” he said. Their popularity fell by the wayside and people stopped requesting them. All three recipes date back to the early days of the restaurant, when famous mixologist Mariano Licudine worked with owners Bob and Jack Thornton to create a unique cocktail program based on Licudine’s experience as a bartender for decades for Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber. “They’re Mariano’s recipes,” Mattei said.
Here’s a look at the flight, and the special menu prepared by Mattei:
Each of the three drinks not only has its own distinctive taste, but also a unique and interesting back story:
When The Mai-Kai updated its cocktail menu in May 2018, a decision was made to revive one of the classic “lost cocktails” from the notebook of original mixologist Mariano Licudine, who led the bar program from 1956 to 1979. There were nearly a dozen to choose from, many of them ionic drinks that Licudine had brought with him from his days working for Don the Beachcomber in the 1940s and ’50s.
Over the past five years, these lost cocktails have been featured at multiple special events, from The Hukilau to The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary party. In 2017, a special “Flashback Friday” promotion gave guests the opportunity to sample a different retired cocktail each month on that designated day. While many were popular, one stood out and earned a spot on the main menu, even though it was never on the menu to begin with.
The Suffering Bastard was de rigueur at mid-century Tiki bars. Like many other popular tropical cocktails of the era, it was bastardized (pun intended) and retooled to fit the needs of each particular establishment. The Trader Vic’s version was perhaps the most well-known, instantly recognizable by the iconic Suffering Bastard mug.
The Mai-Kai was no exception, but for reasons unknown it never appeared on the menu. Taking a cue from Trader Vic, Licudine created his Suffering Bastard as an alternative take on the Mai Tai. Of course, The Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai is nothing like Vic’s, and neither is the Suffering Bastard. Licudine did appropriate one distinctive touch from Vic: A large slice of cucumber as garnish. As odd as it seams, it really does work.
Before Berry and other Tiki revivalists came along in the 1990s, many of these classic cocktails were long forgotten. Without a slot on the menu at The Mai-Kai, it’s possible that the Suffering Bastard languished for decades in Licudine’s notebook before being rediscovered. The latest version includes a few new tweaks, so we’ve added a new tribute recipe below.
More than 75 years after its invention, the Mai Tai is widely hailed as the definitive tropical drink. You’ll get some arguments from Zombie fans like myself, but there’s no denying that the Mai Tai is one of the world’s most popular and distinctive cocktails, period.
We subscribe to Berry’s theory that Trader Vic created the Mai Tai after tasting a Don the Beachcomber drink with a similar flavor profile called the Q.B. Cooler. Donn Beach, who created the Tiki bar concept in 1934 in Los Angeles, also had a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle, but it was gone from the menu by 1937. It’s widely accepted that Vic frequented Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood before opening his first Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Could he have lifted the name from one drink and the flavor profile from another in creating his Mai Tai?
It’s entirely possible, but that has nothing to do with The Mai-Kai, or its version of the Mai Tai. The Mai-Kai already serves a descendant of the Q.B. Cooler called the K.O. Cooler (See our previous review). If you’re looking for the taste of a proto Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, try the K.O. Cooler.
In the mid-century, however, The Mai-Kai was not quick to jump on the Mai Tai bandwagon. The cocktail has not been spotted on a menu before 1970 (see image). It’s missing from all previous menus in our collection, including this one from 1966.
At first, it was likely an off-menu drink made upon request, like the Scorpion and Suffering Bastard, two other Trader Vic’s classics popular with many guests. The latter finally made it to The Mai-Kai’s menu during the last major update in 2018.
Rather than copying Vic’s recipe, Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine put his own spin on the Mai Tai (and Suffering Bastard), owing to his roots as one of Don the Beachcomber’s early Filipino barmen. He worked behind one of Donn Beach’s original Hollywood bars in 1939 before becoming assistant bar manager at the Chicago location during his years there (1940-1955). He joined The Mai-Kai as bar manager in 1956, crafting its opening day menu with owners Bob and Jack Thornton.