Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The quest for the elusive Moonkist Coconut

Updated May 2024
See below: Our Moonkist Coconut review | Ancestor recipes NEW | The back story NEW | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Postscript: Moonkist Coconut on Make and Drink (video) NEW
Related: The Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Moonkist Coconut is one of the most distinctive – and dodgy – drinks on The Mai-Kai’s vast and colorful cocktail menu.

Moonkist Coconut, September 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Moonkist Coconut in The Molokai bar, September 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Don’t get us wrong. This classic cocktail has been on the iconic South Florida restaurant’s acclaimed tropical drink menu since it opened in 1956. And its quality and consistency are beyond reproach. It’s one of many “rum rhapsodies” on the menu that can be traced back to Tiki pioneer Don the Beachcomber. It’s a bolder and spicier option to the Piña Colada.

The trick is getting this exotic elixir served in its trademark coconut. The young, green coconuts that The Mai-Kai fashions into drinking vessels are seasonal. And the off-season seemingly drags on forever. Not that you really should fret. When the smooth, heavy coconuts are unavailable, you’ll get your drink in a nice big old fashioned glass, often garnished with an orchid (see photo above). Note that you also will receive the drink in a glass during happy hour, when it’s half-priced.

Modern Caribbean Rum
Moonkist Coconut at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Moonkist Coconut at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

If you receive the drink in its traditional vessel, you’re encouraged to take it home as a souvenir. But unless you’re an expert at cleaning and preserving coconut shells, you probably won’t want to hold onto it for long.

When trying to duplicate this presentation at home, you have several options. The easiest is to employ a coconut mug, but if you’re really trying to impress you might want to explore the produce isle of your local grocery. While it may be tempting to pick up a hard-shelled mature coconut (the brown, husky variety), they’re extremely difficult to fashion into a drinking vessel. A better option, which is explored in more detail below, is a soft-shelled young coconut.

Whichever vessel you end up with, we’re sure you’ll enjoy the “official” recipe below, updated to mirror the latest version of the classic served at The Mai-Kai.

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The official menu description

Moonkist Coconut

MOONKIST COCONUT

A cold, frothy blend served in a fresh coconut in the native tradition of the islands. Take the coconut home.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Moonkist Coconut at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Moonkist Coconut at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Size: Medium

Potency: Medium

Flavor profile: Coconut and honey with hints of lime, bitters and falernum.

Review: Rich and exotic with a creamy mouthfeel and just a slight hint of gold rum.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)

Ancestry: Appearing on the Mai-Kai’s original 1956 cocktail menu, this is one of many drinks that can be traced back to Don the Beachcomber. While it’s likely inspired by a Donn Beach drink called the Coconut Rum, it’s also a descendant of Marino Licudine’s White Cloud, uncovered by author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in the 10th anniversary edition of his seminal book, Sippin’ Safari, published in 2017.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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Mariano Licudine's White Cloud from Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2018)
Mariano Licudine’s White Cloud from Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2018)

ANCESTOR RECIPES

White Cloud
(From Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, 10th anniversary edition)

  • 1 ounce white Puerto Rican rum
  • 1/4 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce coconut cream
  • 1/4 ounce falernum

Shake with ice cubes. Strain into a small specialty glass.

Source: Unpublished recipe from Mariano Licudine’s personal papers, circa 1944. Licudine, aka the “Houdini of the liquids,” was The Mai-Kai’s original mixologist from 1956 until his 1979 retirement. He previously worked at Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood and Chicago starting in 1939.

Note: We recommend doubling the recipe and serving in a 6-ounce glass.

Don the Beachcomber in Chicago.
Don the Beachcomber in Chicago.

Tasting and mixing notes

A tart, sweet and creamy treat that still packs a rummy punch. The lime cuts the sweetness nicely.

We recommend a quality, lightly aged and filtered rum in the style of classic Cuban and Puerto Rican rums. There are many options, so grab your favorite. Something a little higher than 80 proof, such as Ron del Barrilito, will add a nice kick. Just make sure it’s a clean and crisp rum, nothing too funky.

Cointreau may seem like an odd choice, but we’ve seen this French orange liqueur in a few other historic recipes from both Don the Beachcomber and Mariano Licudine, so it’s not totally out of character. It adds a nice little citrus bite and complements the lime juice.

In Sippin’ Safari, Berry details how he landed on coconut cream instead of the recipe’s ambiguous call for “coconut juice.” After comparing it to a 1937 recipe for the Coconut Rum that he was given by former Don the Beachcomber bartender Dick Santiago, he concluded that it probably meant a sweetened coconut cream. This also jibes with The Mai-Kai’s Moonkist Coconut, which we’ll discuss below. Berry recommends the traditional Coco Lopez brand, which came on the scene in the mid-20th century. Coco Real is a modern, more shelf-stable option.

The inclusion of falernum is another clue that this cocktail later morphed into the Moonkist Coconut. Both the Fee Brothers brand (which The Mai-Kai has been known to use) and Berry’s own Latitude 29 Formula falernum from Orgeat Works are the best options since they replicate the style used by Donn Beach and his bartenders during the restaurant’s formative years.

A recipe for the Coconut Rum cocktail was featured in the 2004 book by Donn Beach's widow, Phoebe: Hawai'i - Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2024)
A recipe for the Coconut Rum cocktail was featured in the 2004 book by Donn Beach’s widow, Phoebe: Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2024)

Coconut Rum
(By Don the Beachcomber, from Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine)

  • 3/4 ounce lime juice
  • 1 1/2 ounces coconut milk
  • 2 ounces light Puerto Rican rum
  • 1 ounce honey cream mix **

Blend with 6 ounces of cracked ice and pour into a hollowed-out coconut or themed mug.

** To make this version of the honey cream mix, the book recommends separately heating 1 part sweet butter and 1 part honey, then “whipping with a wire whip until both ingredients are well blended. Store in the freezer until ready to use.” We’ve never tried freezing, but our standard practice is to simply heat the butter in the microwave, add the honey and whisk until you get a syrupy consistency. Re-heat slightly if necessary. It should keep at room temperature in a sealed jar for an extended time. Just reheat in the microwave if it starts to thicken too much.

Donn Beach serves up coconut libations in a vintage photo from Waikiki in 1948. (Donn-Beach.com)
Donn Beach serves up coconut libations (perhaps the Coconut Rum) in a vintage photo from Waikiki in 1948. (Donn-Beach.com)

Tasting and mixing notes

Heavy on the coconut with rich honey/butter notes. The rum takes a backseat, but does add some kick.

In both drinks, fresh-squeezed lime juice is essential. As in the White Cloud recipe above, we recommend the same high-quality Spanish-style mixing rum.

Unlike the White Cloud, however, you’ll want to use unsweetened coconut milk (available by the can in most groceries) and not sweetened coconut cream. The honey cream mix will bring plenty of sweetness and a distinctive mouthfeel. The inclusion of butter is actually not that unusual. This mix is featured in a few other cocktails in the book, including the Mystery Gardenia (an ancestor of The Mai-Kai’s Gardenia Lei). It also can be considered a simplified version of Don the Beachcomber’s Pearl Diver’s mix, which is featured in his Pearl Diver’s Punch (and The Mai-Kai’s Deep Sea Diver).

The Moonkist Coconut is a descendant of the Coconut Rum
The Moonkist Coconut is a descendant of the Coconut Rum; drink prices have increased just a bit in the past 80 years.

The back story

This is one of several Mai-Kai cocktails that seems to have two ancestor recipes, leaving us to figure out how it evolved. While Licudine’s White Cloud appears to be the most direct link to the Moonkist Coconut, the drink was also influenced by Don the Beachcomber’s Coconut Rum, which Licudine would have known well from his days at Donn Beach’s establishments.

According to research by Tim “Swanky” Glazner, author of Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant (2016) and the upcoming Searching for Don the Beachcomber, the Coconut Rum first appeared on a Don the Beachcomber menu in 1937 (priced at just $1). It was actually one of the highest-priced drinks on the menu, probably due to the cost of fresh coconuts in those days. Keep in mind that this was decades before the introduction of the Piña Colada in Puerto Rico in the 1950s.

The photo above is likely from the 1940s, when World War II must have played havoc with the availability of fresh coconuts and nearly doubled the price. As the menu shows, the drink was served in a coconut and likely had a similar flavor profile to the Coconut Rum recipe from Phoebe Beach’s book. It should be noted, however, that many of the recipes in Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine were from Donn Beach’s later days after he moved to Hawaii, not necessarily those from his early years. They were married from 1982 until his death in 1989.

The Mai-Kai's Mariano Licudine is featured along with the Moonkist Coconut in the Miami Herald, cira late 1950s. It was not unusual for the Filipino bartender to receive press coverage, unprecedented at the time in the segregated South.
The Mai-Kai’s Mariano Licudine is featured along with the Moonkist Coconut in the Miami Herald, cira late 1950s. It was not unusual for the Filipino bartender to receive press coverage, unprecedented at the time in the segregated South.

In 1939, Licudine worked at the original Hollywood location, which opened during the tail end of Prohibition in 1932. He joined Don the Beachcomber after five years as mixologist and private chauffeur for the legendary comedy team Laurel and Hardy. Licudine’s career in tropical drinks was no joke, however. He was sent to Beach’s new Chicago location in 1940, where he rose to the No. 2 mixologist position. But fate eventually led him to a historic change of scenery.

Two Chicago brothers, Bob and Jack Thornton, were so inspired by Don the Beachcomber and other Tiki temples of the mid-century that they opened their own grand restaurant in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale in 1956. They named it The Mai-Kai and hired away the No. 2 chef and No. 2 bartender from Don the Beachcomber in Chicago.

As documented in the Berry and Glazner books, the Thorntons and Licudine took Donn Beach’s classics and tweaked them slightly to become Mai-Kai cocktails. Most of the Don the Beachcomber restaurants disappeared, but The Mai-Kai rose to become the preeminent Polynesian palace of the past 50 years, thanks in no small part to Licudine’s cocktails.

White Cloud, pictured in The Atomic Grog in April 2024, was published in the 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
White Cloud, pictured in The Atomic Grog in April 2024, was published in the 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

After Berry published the original Sippin’ Safari in 2007, Licudine’s son Ron shared one of his father’s recipe notebooks, revealing the previously unknown White Cloud. The notebook was dated 1944, some 12 years before the mixologist left Chicago for South Florida.

Don the Beachcomber bartenders – many of them Filipino immigrants like Licudine – were rarely encouraged (or even permitted) to contribute cocktails to the restaurant’s menu. It was a sign of the times more than any direct disrespect by Donn Beach himself, but nevertheless Licudine was left to keep any extracurricular cocktails to himself.

The Thorntons had a different mindset, however, breaking new ground by putting Licudine in the spotlight as one of their restaurant’s star attractions. He appeared in ads, made many public appearances, and brought several new cocktails to The Mai-Kai menu (most notably the beloved Black Magic).

Based on the size, look and taste of the drink, it appears that the White Cloud may have been designed as an after-dinner cocktail. Was Licudine secretly working on this concept more than a decade before The Mai-Kai, or was there a call for such a menu in Chicago?

The Mai-Kai did not introduce its now standard after-dinner drinks menu until 1972-73, when four new drinks were added. The other three (Gardenia Lei, Missionary’s Doom / Wahine Delight, Kona Coffee Grog) had been around since 1956.

When that 1956 menu was created, perhaps Licudine and the Thornton brothers thought the visual appeal of a fresh coconut containing a robust drink like the Moonkist Coconut made more of an impact than the delicate White Cloud. Whatever the reason, the nimble mixologist took elements from both ancestors and created a new and enduring classic.

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The Atomic Grog's reinterpretation of the Moonkist Coconut, March 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Atomic Grog’s reinterpretation of the Moonkist Coconut, March 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

OFFICIAL MAI-KAI RECIPE

Moonkist Coconut
(Based on a 1959 Esquire magazine article; reinterpreted by The Atomic Grog)

  • 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 1 ounce rich honey syrup (2 parts honey to 1 part water)
  • 1/4 ounce falernum
  • 1 1/2 ounces coconut milk
  • 1/2 ounce coconut cream
  • 1 1/2 ounces light Puerto Rican (or Virgin Islands) rum
  • 3/4 ounce gold Barbados rum
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Pulse blend (in a top-down mixer if available) with 1 cup (8 ounces) of crushed ice for 5-7 seconds. Serve in a hollowed-out young coconut or specialty glass with more crushed ice.

  • The original recipe (see below) was shared on the Tiki Central message board in October 2010. The full Esquire article was subsequently posted by Glazner on his blog. We recently discovered a clipping of the same recipe published in the Miami Herald, likely around the same time period (an educated guess based on the sexist comment at the end, LOL.)
The Mai-Kai's Moonkist Coconut in Esquire magazine in 1959 (top) and the Miami Herald (date unknown).
The Mai-Kai’s Moonkist Coconut in Esquire magazine in 1959 (top) and the Miami Herald (date unknown).

Our reinterpretation

While the recipe published in 1959 may have been accurate at the time, we always felt it was not quite the same as the version served over the past several decades at The Mai-Kai. So in 2015, we made several tweaks.

We increased the honey from 1/2 ounce to 1 ounce, removed rock candy syrup (1/4 ounce), and added 1/2 ounce of coconut cream. This update boosted the sweetness and richness, bringing it more in line with what you’ll taste at The Mai-Kai today. Also, as noted in the comments below, we believe 3 ounces of rum is too much for a drink on the “medium” side of the menu, so we removed the 3/4 ounce of vague West Indies rum. It’s possible the drink was boozier in the early days, but this is no longer the case.

It’s likely the recipe was updated after 1959 to accommodate modern tastes, which demanded sweeter drinks. While rich and fresh coconut milk adds authentic flavor and texture, coconut cream is required to add the sweetness. We later heard that The Mai-Kai uses a special blend for their coconut drinks; we’re guessing it’s a combination of cream and milk similar to the recipe above.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

  • Fresh-squeezed limes and rich honey mix are essential in giving the drink the required tartness and sweetness. Licudine wisely didn’t use the honey-butter mix as this would have created too many competing flavors.
 Moonkist Coconut served in a soft-shelled young coconut in The Atomic Grog, September 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Moonkist Coconut served in a soft-shelled young coconut in The Atomic Grog, September 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
  • As noted in the ancestor recipes above, a rich falernum syrup (not the liqueur) works best in duplicating the Don the Beachcomber and Mai-Kai flavor profile. If you make your own lightly sweetened coconut cream, that might work instead of the milk-cream combo. If using unsweetened milk from a can, just add Coco Lopez or Coco Real coconut cream. Don’t skip the bitters. It cuts the sweetness and adds an essential spice note.

  • Also discussed above is the lightly aged and filtered rum, which forms the base spirit of the cocktail. The Mai-Kai’s well rum is usually a standard brand from Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, but feel free to use something a little more upscale. It just shouldn’t be too aggressive. The subtle hints of rum in this cocktail should come from the Barbados rum, either lightly or medium aged. There are a plethora of choices nowadays, so use your favorite. Among our go-to brands are Doorly’s, Mount Gay, Cockspur, and The Real McCoy (including the special Mai-Kai blend bottled and sold during the pandemic in 2020-2023).

  • As discussed above, the coconuts used at The Mai-Kai are seasonal and difficult to handle. In a 2018 story in Eater (“A Brief History of Drinking Cocktails From Coconuts”), manager Kern Mattei said The Mai-Kai prefers to serve fresh medium to large green coconuts that only a few bartenders are trained to cut because of the dangerous process. The bottom is cut to stand level on a table, then the coconut is trimmed from the top down to the hard shell, Mattei told Eater. The shell is then cracked and emptied of coconut water, the final step before it’s ready to serve drinks in. As an alternative for home bartenders, we suggest soft-shelled young coconuts, often imported from Thailand and available in some supermarket produce departments. They’re much more user-friendly. I found the one shown in the photo above at Publix. They’re not totally trouble-free, however. You’ll probably want to remove the top with a saw or very sharp blade. Also feel free to use your preferred ceramic coconut mug, such as the Trader Vic’s Aloha Coconut [see photo].

  • As pointed out on the Tiki Central thread, Mai-Kai drinks have a unique texture and intense flavor that we’ve been able to approximate in this instance by using rich syrups plus the highly recommended top-down mixer. As stated in our review of the Mai_Kai Special, a mixer such as the Hamilton Beach model we used to create the Moonkist Coconut [see photo] gives the drink a creamier texture since there is less dilution of the ice and more trapped air.

Related coverage: Cocktail of the week (October 2015)

Okole maluna!

PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!

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Postscript

In 2023, the Make and Drink vlog on YouTube featured both the White Cloud and Moonkist Coconut (Esquire magazine version) in a how-to video. Mahalo!

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7 Replies to “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The quest for the elusive Moonkist Coconut”

  1. One other item of note on 2:1 syrups (my personal standard): the volume of the liquid is roughly quite equal to dry. That is, 1 tsp of sugar = 1tsp 2:1 syrup. You can substitute thus in other recipes with confidence.

  2. Thanks Craig, we welcome your input! That’s the standard we typically adhere to as well.

    FYI, we’ll be referencing your Dark Magic recipe some time down the road when we review the Black Magic. It was a key to understanding that complex creation.

  3. Hi – Your recipe is missing an ingredient. According to that Esquire article, the Moonkist Coconut should also include 3/4 oz West Indies rum. Is that one of your “tweaks” or just an oversight?

    1. I should have pointed that out. It has to be a mistake by Esquire. For starters, that’s too much rum for this “medium” drink. Most of the medium Mai-Kai drinks have around 2 ounces of rum. The strong drinks usually have 3 or more ounces.

      Also, Barbados and West Indies rum are technically the same thing. It doesn’t really make sense to call for both. My guess is the fine editors at Esquire goofed and should have left one of those out. I haven’t tried it with that much rum, but it tastes very close to the original with the 1 1/2 ounces of light rum and 3/4 ounce of gold Barbados rum.

  4. Thank you for all of your research and sharing these recipes. In all of my years of going to the Mai Kai since I was a kid, I’ve never tried this drink. Tonight I’m going to attempt to make it at home, and I will check the supermarkets for the coconuts. Worst case scenario I can use one of my coconut mugs.

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