Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Legacy of this classic drink runs deep

Updated June 21, 2015
See below: Our Deep Sea Diver review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Deep Sea Diver, one of the oldest and most distinctive tropical drinks at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai, can be traced back to the 1930s and tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s original cocktail menu. It also features an unusual, rarely used ingredient that remains somewhat of a mystery more than 75 years later.

From a mid-century Don the Beachcomber menu
From a mid-century Don the Beachcomber menu.

Tiki drink historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s excellent 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, includes a recipe for the Peal Diver’s Punch that you’ll find below as well as an entire chapter on The Mai-Kai’s founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine (1907-1980). Licudine worked behind the bar at Don the Beachcomber restaurants from 1939 until 1956, when he was lured to Fort Lauderdale by The Mai-Kai’s fledgling owners, Jack and Bob Thornton.

Sippin’ Safari remains my favorite of the Bum’s books and perhaps the most influential in fostering appreciation of both the roots of tropical mixology and the history of The Mai-Kai. It details how Licudine took the Don the Beachcomber classics he had been making for years in Chicago and adapted them to The Mai-Kai’s new menu. With the help of Bob Thornton, Licudine tweaked the secret recipes, often elevating them to even greater heights.

The slightly altered drinks received slightly altered names. The Vicious Virgin became the Impatient Virgin, Beachcomber’s Gold was turned into Liquid Gold, and the Pearl Diver graduated to Deep Sea Diver. The first two fell by the wayside over the years, but the Deep Sea Diver remains as a proud throwback to the original “farm-to-glass” cocktail era, when fresh ingredients and delicious drinks were the norm.

In May 2015, Beachbum Berry brought back another piece of classic cocktail history when he joined forces with Cocktail Kingdom to release a vintage Pearl Diver Glass. [See story] The classic glassware, featuring a distinctive rippled stem and flared top, has not been seen for decades. Berry was never able to find one in all of his Tiki archaeology expeditions, so he turned to the premium barware company, which in 2014 produced his design for a Navy Grog ice cone mold.
* Cocktail Kingdom: Buy Beachbum Berry’s barware

Modern Caribbean Rum
The Deep Sea Diver featuring Beachbum Berry's Pearl Diver Glass from Cocktail Kingdom makes its debut at The Mai-Kai in June 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Deep Sea Diver featuring Beachbum Berry’s Pearl Diver Glass from Cocktail Kingdom makes its debut at The Mai-Kai in June 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

It didn’t take long for the vintage glass to make its way back to The Mai-Kai. In June 2015, both Berry and Cocktail Kingdom appeared at The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender in Fort Lauderdale that attracts fans of tropical cocktails and retro culture from around the world. Cocktail Kingdom was selling Berry’s merchandise and other bar tools, and Berry was presenting one of his popular symposiums on classic cocktails while also participating in a one-of-a-kind happy hour featuring four Tiki’s top barmen [see full coverage].

Much to everyone’s surprise, the Pearl Diver Glass was immediately put into service during The Hukilau, instantly giving the Deep Sea Diver its classic look. The glass had been used since opening day in 1956 (see menu) until around 20 years ago, when it became unavailable. Also disappearing was the distinctive garnish, a heart-shaped galax leaf with the straw running through it. (The leaves, which are native to the Southeast United States, are mostly commonly used in bridal bouquets.) There’s no word on whether the leaf will also be returning to join the vintage glass.

During The Hukilau, Beachbum Berry and friends were happy to have the glass back to where it belongs. During the waning hours of the event, a round of drinks was ordered, yielding the perfect photo op:

The Pearl Diver glasses are also featured in Berry’s New Orleans bar, Latitude 29, which opened in November 2014. It’s the author’s first forray into the exotic lounge and restaurant business after writing six acclaimed books. You’ll find new takes on classic drinks such as the Missionary’s Downfall, Navy Grog, Mai Tai and Zombie, plus original creations by Berry and his staff of expert mixologists. The Pontchartrain Pearl Diver [see photo] is his tribute to the Donn Beach classic “iced buttered rum,” featuring Latitude 29’s own honey-butter-spice mix blended with passion fruit, lime and Jamaica rum.


The official menu description
Deep Sea Diver

Rich and creamy, a superb blend for those wishing to explore the depths.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Medium

Deep Sea Diver, September 2011)
Deep Sea Diver, September 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Flavor profile: Lime, honey cream, allspice, gold rum.

Review: Creamy and complex, this unique exotic cocktail goes down easy.

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

Ancestry: The Deep Sea Diver is another cocktail that has been on The Mai-Kai’s menu since the restaurant opened its doors in 1956. It evolved from Don the Beachcomber’s Pearl Diver’s Punch and Pearl Diver.

Bilge: Beachbum Berry hasn’t been shy about proclaiming the Deep Sea Diver one of his favorite drinks at The Mai-Kai. He’s mentioned it in symposiums and in an interview with The Atomic Grog in April 2013 [see story]. He’s particularly enamored with the “honey butter mix,” which he re-created at Latitude 29 (see above and below).

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!


Pearl Diver’s Punch

(1937 Don the Beachcomber recipe, from Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)

Pearl Diver's Punch by The Atomic Grog, September 2011
Pearl Diver’s Punch by The Atomic Grog, September 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 1/2 ounces gold Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 3/4 ounces Demerara rum
* 1/2 ounce gold Jamaican rum (Appleton Special)
* 1 ounce orange juice
* 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
* 3/4 ounce Pearl Diver’s mix (see below)
* 1 teaspoon falernum
* 6 ounces (3/4 cup) crushed ice

Put everything into a blender (Pearl Diver’s mix first, ice last). Blend at high speed for 20 seconds – no more, no less. Strain through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a pilsner glass, pressing gently on solids to release all liquid into glass. (Discard solids.) Add crushed ice to fill. Update: Beachbum Berry’s Pearl Diver Glass from Cocktail Kingdom is now the preferred vessel.

Pearl Diver’s mix: Cream 1 ounce softened sweet unsalted butter and 1 ounce orange blossom honey with 1 teaspoon cinnamon-infused sugar syrup and 1/2 teaspoon each vanilla syrup and pimento liqueur. Prepare just before using. The mix must stay at room temperature; refrigerated, it will become a sticky mess in your blender.

This early recipe was replaced a decade later by the stripped down Pearl Diver, which remained a Don the Beachcomber staple for decades. We prefer this early classic.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Pearl Diver’s mix may seem like a lot of trouble, but it’s well worth the effort and not as difficult as it sounds. B.G. Reynolds offers both vanilla and cinnamon syrups (plus falernum). The most popular pimento (allspice) liqueurs are sold by Wray & Nephew in Jamaica, and St. Elizabeth in Europe and the U.S. Just warm the butter and whisk with all the other ingredients. If you don’t have a sieve, just strain through cheese cloth.

* Our other rum choices were: Cruzan Estate Dark (a fine gold Virgin Islands rum … don’t let the name fool you); and El Dorado 5-year-old Demerara rum.

This nearly 75-year-old classic tastes very similar to the Deep Sea Diver you can order at The Mai-Kai today, featuring the same unique lime/honey/allspice taste explosion. But after years of research, we came up with this tribute recipe that comes even closer …


Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Deep Sea Diver
By The Atomic Grog

Deep Sea Diver tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2015
Deep Sea Diver tribute by The Atomic Grog, June 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce light Puerto Rican or Virgin Islands rum
* 1 1/2 ounces gold Jamaican rum (Appleton Special)
* 1/2 ounce orange juice
* 1 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 3/4 ounce honey cream mix (see below)
* 1/2 ounce Don’s Spices #2 (see below)
* 1 teaspoon falernum

Pulse blend with 1/2 cup of crushed ice for 20 seconds. Pour into a Pearl Diver Glass from Beachbum Berry and Cocktail Kingdom (or other specialty glass), adding more crushed ice to fill. Garnish with three speared red cherries and a pineapple chunk.

Full of bold flavors (spicy, creamy, sweet, sour) but not overpowering. This is not an exact replica, but it’s in the ballpark of The Mai-Kai’s distinctive cocktail.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

For years, I was reluctant to create a tribute recipe for the Deep Sea Diver. I knew the complex flavors and textures would be difficult to duplicate. Also, the Pearl Diver’s Punch was a fine ancestor recipe that was already pretty close in flavor. But after years of research, I decided to give it a shot, spurred by the recent discovery of Don’s Spices #2 as a key ingredient in several other cocktails (Yeoman’s Grog, Special Planters Punch, Black Magic).

An empty glass containing the residue from the honey cream mix in the Deep Sea Diver at The Mai-Kai
An empty glass containing the residue from the honey cream mix in the Deep Sea Diver at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2014)

* A very old Don the Beachcomber ingredient, Don’s Spices #2 is simply equal parts of pimento liqueur (aka allspice dram) and vanilla syrup. It made sense that Mariano Licudine would employ this instead of straight allspice liqueur to give his drinks extra body and sweetness. I believe he used this in the Deep Sea Diver, a drink known for both its sweetness and great spicy notes. It’s also unlikely that Pearl Divers mix (see above) was used at The Mai-Kai. There doesn’t seem to be any cinnamon in this drink, and it would not make sense to create a complex mix just for one drink at a busy bar with nearly 50 labor-intensive recipes. But Don’s Spices #2 is found in quite a few other drinks.

* But what about the sweet creaminess that came from the Pearl Divers mix? That had to be honey cream mix (aka honey butter mix), also found in the Gardenia Lei. It’s another old Don the Beachcomber ingredient that you’ll rarely find anywhere. It adds a sweet and creamy element, but it’s not very easy to handle in modern cocktail bars. I’m unsure how The Mai-Kai makes their version, but I follow the recipe that was published in a 2004 book by Donn Beach’s widow, Hawai’i – Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine. Simply combine equal parts sweet (unsalted) butter and honey by heating both separately in the microwave, then whisking them together until smooth. Let it cool slightly to room temperature for a short time before using, but you probably don’t want to refrigerate. It can become a gooey mess when chilled. It’s possible to freeze and thaw later, but that’s not recommended. These idiosyncrasies in preparation and storage are what make it such a tricky and rarely used ingredient. Its presence can also be confirmed by the sticky residue left inside the glass (see photo above). This is evidence that real butter is included. Also, adding the mix first and straining through a sieve (as recommended for the Pearl Diver’s Punch) doesn’t seem to be necessary. But if it’s still very warm, I’d be sure to save the ice for last to avoid dilution.

Honey butter mix is prepared for the Deep Sea Diver tribute
Honey butter mix is prepared for the Deep Sea Diver tribute. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, June 2014)

* Another distinctive ingredient is falernum, that exotic combo of lime, ginger, almond and clove that can be found lurking in many cocktails at The Mai-Kai (S.O.S., Cobra’s Kiss, Moonkist Coconut, etc.). It’s used here with great restraint, exactly as it was in the Pearl Diver’s Punch. There are many recipes online on how to make your own (with and without rum). The best versions that replicate the taste of the falernum that Donn Beach and The Mai-Kai likely used come from non-alcoholic syrups from Fee Brothers and B.G. Reynolds. FYI: You can also find a bottled version of Don’s Spices #2 in the B.G. Reynolds store.

* Jamaica’s Appleton, another flavor you’ll often find in The Mai-Kai’s cocktails [see story], is the perfect gold rum choice. Also be sure to use a quality light rum that meets the same high standards of the other ingredients. I’m partial to Flor de Caña, a Puerto Rican-style rum from Nicaragua, as a quality yet affordable mixer.

* One last tip: In lieu of a standard blender, try to seek out a top-down mixer (aka spindle or milkshake mixer). It’s the key to getting the rich consistency of many of The Mai-Kai’s blended cocktails, and another throwback to Don the Beachcomber. (I use a simple Hamilton Beach model). The mixer blends the drink much differently than a standard blender, creating a creamier texture with less dilution of the ice.

Okole maluna!

10 Replies to “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Legacy of this classic drink runs deep”

  1. The Pearl Diver’s Mix sounds yummy. May have to try it next time we have guests. I find BG’s cinnamon syrup about twice as strong as needed. What do you think tasting your drink and the Mai-Kai’s?

    1. Yes, B.G. Reynolds (formerly Trader Tiki) cinnamon syrup is very strong, especially if you let it sit on the shelf for a while. The reason? I’m not sure this is done with every batch, but my bottle contains an actual cinnamon stick that has continued to break down. Not that I’m complaining, but you have to take that into account in your drinks and perhaps use a bit less. In the above recipe, it’s a small amount in a mix so it’s not much of an issue. I like to use B.G. Reynolds in drinks that call for a heavy dose of cinnamon, such as the Shrunken Skull and 151 Swizzle.

      I also use the widely available Sonoma cinnamon syrup, which is just as flavorful but not quite as intense. I would recommend this in most recipes that don’t need that over-the-top cinnamon punch. And I also keep a homemade syrup on hand for large batch drinks or for daily use. It’s much cheaper and easy to make. Yes, I stock three different cinnamon syrups. (Don’t ask how many different sugar syrups I keep in my overloaded bar fridge.) Homemade also allows you the ability to adjust proportions of sugar or cinnamon to get different levels of intensity. To achieve the right flavor, I’ve had to add lots more sticks and extend the time spent in the pot. It’s a lot of work to break down the sticks. I’ve heard cinnamon bark is easier to work with, and I plan to seek this out. Also, check out this very interesting post from Colonel Tiki on the difference between cassia and ceylon (true) cinnamon. I just came across this yesterday and will definitely take his advice the next time I make a purchase.

      At The Mai-Kai, I like to think they still make their syrup in-house per Mariano’s old recipes. It’s pretty prominent in quite a few of the drinks, not quite as intense as B.G. Reynolds but close. I’d also assume they’re using true cinnamon, which (as the colonel points out) has essences of citrus and is mellower and warmer than the common supermarket stick.

      This calls for more experimentation (and cocktails).

  2. Where do you find “Demerara rum” anymore? Is El Dorado Rum the only distiller of “Demerara rum” or are there any others? Does “Demerara rum” refer to gold rum? Currently El Dorado offers dark, gold, white, cream, spiced, etc. rums.

    1. Technically, all rums from Guyana are Demerara rums since the only distillery left is Demerara Distillers, which owns the El Dorado brand. All of the El Dorado spirits say “Demerara Rum” on the label, even the white. But the distillery also sells rum to other brands, including Lemon Hart and Hamilton. These deals are cut separately on different terms, as we recently found out with the Hamilton rums, which are not allowed to use the phrase “Demerara Rum.” Regardless, they’re all from the same distillery and are among the tastiest rums you’ll ever find. There’s a full story on this saga elsewhere on the blog:

  3. I wonder why The Pearl Diver didn’t make it into “Remixed” The Skin Diver is in there, based on The Pearl DIver, but there is no butter in it.

    1. Sharon: There aren’t many recipes from Sippin’ Safari in Remixed. It’s essentially a compilation of Jeff’s first two books. However, many Sippin’ Safari drinks (including the Pearl Diver) made it into the Total Tiki app.

  4. Irrelevant Remarks Dept…

    I have that exact measuring glass pictured in the last photo. It belonged to my grandparents so it’s at *least* from the ’70s. I’ve always wondered as to its actual age. I also have a goldenrod swizzle stick–complete with functioning whistle–that is the same color as the one pictured.

    I enjoy your blog immensely and appreciate the effort that goes into it.

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