Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Double your pleasure with the exotic and delicious Zula #1 (and #2)

Updated November 2023
See below: Our Zula reviews | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipes
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The mysterious Zula #1 is easily one of the most curious (and deliciously distinctive) cocktails on The Mai-Kai’s tropical drink menu. And, as usual, it has a fascinating back-story.

Zula # 1 (left) and Zula #2, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Zula #1 (left) and Zula #2, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The cocktail’s flavors are just as exotic as its origins, which both took us years to figure out. The pineapple-forward taste is unlike any other you’ll find at The Mai-Kai.

But there’s another secret about Zula #1 that not many guests may be aware of: It shares its name (and flavor profile) with a secret off-menu sister drink, the smaller and sweeter Zula #2. But it wasn’t always that mysterious.

If you look back at older menus, you’ll find both drinks. On The Mai-Kai’s original 1956-57 cocktail menu, there’s “Zula No. 1” in a tall glass and “Zula No. 2” in a stemmed coupe similar to other lost classics such as Liquid Gold.

Long-stemmed glassware was extremely popular in the 1950s. You’ll find a dozen cocktails on early menus using the elegant coupe glass, which faded from use at The Mai-Kai but made a big comeback at craft cocktail bars in the early 21st century.

Modern Caribbean Rum
The Mai-Kai's original cocktail menu, circa 1957.
The Mai-Kai’s original cocktail menu, circa 1957.

By 1979, when the menu had been arranged in its now-familiar “mild,” “medium” and “strong” groupings, the names had changed slightly to Zula #1 (strong) and Zula #2 (mild), but the coupe glass endured. We’ve seen menus from the ’80s that still feature Zula #2. But by the 1990s it was gone, never to be seen on a menu again.

What many didn’t realize as the years went by, however, is that you could still order the milder Zula. By the time I started bellying up to the bar in the 2000s, it was a distant memory. I finally discovered it while researching the history of Zula #1 for this cocktail guide.

If you order it today, it will be served in a short, flared rocks glass also used for the Shark Bite, Oh So Deadly and Mai-Kai Special.

Is this the source of the name “Zula”? While doing research for Hulaween 2016, we discovered a vintage Betty Boop clip from 1937 called “Zula Hula.” Click on the image to watch.

I give credit to Tiki Central friends for helping track down the drink’s origins. As we know now, a majority of the vintage cocktails served at South Florida’s Polynesian palace (32 at last count) can be traced back to drinks created by tropical drink godfather Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber).

Most are relatively easy to figure out. Some (Rum Julep, 151 Swizzle) have the exact same name, while others are obvious tweaks (Cobra’s Fang to Cobra’s Kiss, Don’s Pearl to Hidden Pearl).

However, nothing in Beach’s vast repertoire seemed to resemble the Zula. Or so we thought. It was actually right there under our nose since 2007 in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari: Penang Afrididi. Don’t ask us how the names relate, but the flavor profile is indeed remarkably similar. The clincher: There are two versions of Don the Beachcomber’s original, known as Penang Afrididi #1 and Penang Afrididi #2.

So the next time you’re at The Mai-Kai and want to impress your friends, order Zula #2, the retired classic that never really retired and dates back to one of Don the Beachcomber’s original menus in the 1930s.

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The official menu description

Zula
ZULA #1

A tasty concoction flavored with special syrups, herbsaint and pineapple.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Pineapple, mint, hints of anise and a slight rum kick.

Review: One of the most distinctive of The Mai-Kai’s cocktails. A prominent zing of anise mixes nicely with the pineapple juice, plus hints of a few other exotic flavors, such as falernum. Zula #2 is richer and sweeter than #1, full of the same bold and exotic flavors. We give both the same rating, but you may prefer #2 if you like milder, sweeter drinks.

Zula #2 as it appeared on the 1979 cocktail menu.
Zula #2 as it appeared on the 1979 cocktail menu.

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

Ancestry: Zula dates back to The Mai-Kai’s opening in 1956, when there were two versions of the drink on the menu (see above). It’s a direct descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s Penang Afrididi, which had the same flavor profile and also featured two versions (see below).

Bilge: Herbsaint (from New Orleans) is a brand name of an anise-flavored liqueur considered a less-expensive alternative to Pernod, which itself was created in France as an alternative to absinthe when that controversial spirit was banned early in the 20th century. Donn Beach used Pernod in small doses to dimensionalize drinks, and Mariano Licudine followed suit at The Mai-Kai. Some prefer Herbsaint and consider its flavor more earthy and mixable. Author and bar owner Martin Cate uses it extensively at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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ANCESTOR RECIPE
Penang Afrididi #1

(From Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)

Penang Afrididi # 1
Penang Afrididi #1 by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2012)
  • 1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce unsweetened pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce orange juice
  • 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
  • 1 1/2 ounces white Puerto Rican rum
  • 1 1/2 ounces amber Virgin Islands rum
  • 6 drops (1/8 teaspoon) Pernod
  • 6 ounces (3/4 cup) crushed ice

Put everything in a blender, saving ice for last. Blend at high speed for no more than 5 seconds. Pour into a tall glass. Add more ice to fill.

As served at Don the Beachcomber’s Cabaret Restaurant in the International Marketplace in Honolulu, circa 1958. It was created by Donn Beach in Hollywood around 1937, Berry says. To make a Penang Afrididi #2, simply cut every ingredient in half, blend as above, and strain into a cocktail glass.

Berry secured this previously unpublished recipe from the personal notebook of former Don the Beachcomber bartender Dick Santiago, which listed the drink under its original name of Penang Punch. At the Tiki-Ti is Los Angeles, opened in 1961 by former Don the Beachcomber bartender Ray Buhen, the menu still includes a vintage version called Penang.

Created just four years after the end of Prohibition, Penang Afrididi has all the hallmarks of a 1930s Donn Beach cocktail: Multiple juices and rums, plus Pernod to add some extra pizzazz. It’s simple compared to more complex creations from that era, such as the Zombie and Q.B. Cooler. Just be sure to use high-quality spirits to get the most out of this rum-heavy concoction.

Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine learned his craft working for Donn Beach starting in 1939 in Hollywood, where he would have been familiar with the Penang recipe. Licudine’s genius, however, was not just in duplicating the old cocktails for The Mai-Kai. Teaming up with Mai-Kai owners Bob and Jack Thornton, they actually improved many classics, balancing the bold flavors and making them more accessible to the evolving mid-century palate. (see tribute recipes below).

Penang Afrididi at Lost Lake in Chicago.
Penang Afrididi at Lost Lake in Chicago.

Like many of the recipes published in Beachbum Berry’s books, Penang Afrididi eventually appeared on the menus of some of the Tiki revival’s most celebrated bars. Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach introduced it in 2011, while Portland’s Hale Pele featured it on the opening-day menu in 2012.

Paul McGee created his own distinctive version with orange curacao instead of juice for Lost Lake in Chicago, later taking it on the road to Tales of the Cocktail in 2015. But, in general, it was more overlooked than others in the Don the Beachcomber canon.

November 2023 update

In 2019, modern mixology wunderkind Garret Richard (best known for his “Exotica” pop-up series in New York City), called out Penang Afrididi as one of Tiki’s overlooked gems in an article on The Rum Reader. Richard made several adjustments to Beach’s original similar to Licudine, including the addition of muddled mint, plus more juices and syrups. He cut back on the total amount of rum, but included 151 Demerara to give the drink a great kick.

In the article, Richard said the Penang “covers a lot of bases – fruit forward without being too sweet, herbaceous with the absinthe and mint, with rum providing the structure. It’s a big crowd-pleaser.”

"Tropical Standard: Cocktail Techniques & Reinvented Recipes" is a groundbreaking new book from Garret Richard and Ben Schaffer. The pair have been bar-hopping around the country for book signings and takeovers since the May release.

Richard remained fascinated with the drink, featuring a retooled version in his groundbreaking 2023 book (written with Ben Schaffer), Tropical Standard. Using the original Penang Punch name, Richard extols the use of mint, praising the method of muddling in the glass used at The Mai-Kai and equally historic Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles.

“The original Penang Punch didn’t include mint, which was a later innovation in the Mai-Kai’s version, known as the Zula,” Richard and Schaffer wrote. “The mint oil acts to dry out the drink, working in concert with the herbaceous qualities of the absinthe.”

Along with the more advanced techniques he introduces in the book, Richard slightly reduces the sugar syrup and adjusts the rums. He recommends 1 1/2 ounces each of Barbancourt white and English Harbour 5, both 80 proof. These tweaks bring Richard’s latest version even closer to the Zula, a fitting modern tribute to both Don the Beachcomber and The Mai-Kai.

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Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Zula #1
By The Atomic Grog (v.2, updated November 2016)

Tribute to Zula #1 by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2016)
Tribute to Zula #1 by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2016)
  • 1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce orange juice
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce rich sugar syrup
  • 1/8 ounce falernum
  • 1 1/2 ounces lightly aged and filtered (white) Spanish-style rum
  • 1 1/2 ounces lightly aged (gold) Jamaican rum
  • 3-4 drops Herbsaint or Pernod
  • 2-3 springs of fresh mint

Lightly muddle the mint in a tall Zombie-style glass and add 1 cup of crushed ice. Pulse blend the other ingredients with 1 cup crushed ice for 5 seconds. Pour unstrained over the ice and mint. The Mai-Kai uses no garnish, but you could always add another sprig of mint to the top.

Go easy on muddling the mint. It should float up to the center of the glass after the drink is poured to create an interesting visual. This same technique is used in The Mai-Kai’s Zombie, to great effect.

The Zula highlights the juices more than the Penang Afrididi, which is a hallmark of The Mai Kai and Mariano Licudine’s reinterpretations of Donn Beach’s classics. In our humble opinion, many of these achieve new heights of deliciousness. The Zula is a prime example.

November 2016 update

We adjusted our recipe to make Zula #1 more sweet and accessible. But it didn’t take much to accomplish this. It’s a wonder how a few simple tweaks can make a cocktail so much more approachable. Here’s the previous version, with just a few differences (noted in italics) …

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Zula #1
By The Atomic Grog (v.1, circa 2012)

Zula tribute by The Atomic Grog, March 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Zula tribute by The Atomic Grog, March 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1 ounce pineapple juice
* 1 ounce orange juice

* 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1/2 ounce rich sugar syrup
* 1/8 ounce falernum
* 1 1/2 ounces lightly aged (gold) Spanish-style rum
* 1 1/2 ounces dark Jamaican rum
* 5-6 drops Herbsaint or Pernod

Lightly muddle the mint in a tall glass and add 1 cup of crushed ice. Pulse blend the other ingredients with 1 cup crushed ice for 5 seconds. Pour unstrained over the ice and mint.

Version 2 is a bit more balanced with extra pineapple juice, plus less OJ and Herbsaint. Version 1 is also slightly more intense by virtue of its darker, bolder rums. Make both to compare and choose your favorite. But beware, both contain a healthy 3-ounce dose of rum. Zula #1 is on the “strong” menu for a reason.

For something a little milder, there’s always …

Tribute to Zula #2 by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2016)
Tribute to Zula #2 by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2016)

Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Zula #2
By The Atomic Grog (October 2016)

  • 1 ounce pineapple juice
  • 1/4 ounce orange juice
  • 1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce rich sugar syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon falernum
  • 3/4 ounce lightly aged and filtered (white) Spanish-style rum
  • 1 ounce lightly aged (gold) Jamaican rum
  • 1-2 drops Herbsaint or Pernod

Pulse blend with 1 cup crushed ice for 5 seconds. Strain into a small, flared cocktail glass or coupe with an optional ice shell. The Mai-Kai uses the same glass and ice feature used for the Shark Bite and another “lost classic,” the Demerara Cocktail. Lacking the ice feature, freeze or chill the glass for best results.

We tried making Zula #1 simply by cutting all of the Zula #1 ingredients in half, like Penang Afrididi, but it never worked to our liking. After repeated tastings, we found some simple adjustments that work well.

The OJ, lime, falernum and Herbsaint are indeed cut in half. But the proportion of pineapple, simple syrup and rum are slightly higher. The boost in flavor from those three ingredients makes for a richer, more savory drink. The lack of mint also gives this a less dry, more sweet profile.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

Here are some suggestions for all of the tribute recipes above …

  • As we like to reiterate in every recipe, using the freshest juices available makes a huge difference. The Mai-Kai does use the ubiquitous Dole brand of pineapple juice, but feel free to press your own fresh juice. The Mai-Kai gets orange juice fresh-squeezed from a local provider, Kennesaw. If you’re outside of Kennesaw’s distribution area, use any quality fresh, lightly pasteurized OJ from Florida (or squeeze your own). The Mai-Kai’s tart Key lime juice blend adds a distinctive flavor. We recommend mixing 2 parts of bottled Key lime juice with 1 part of fresh-squeezed Persian lime juice to come close to the same blend.

  • A rich 2:1 sugar syrup is essential to add the required sweetness to balance the liquors and acidic juices.

Zula #2 is a "lost cocktail" that you can still order at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2016)
Zula #2 is a “lost cocktail” that you can still order at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2016)
  • Traditionally, The Mai-Kai has used Fee Brothers falernum, a syrup (not a liqueur) that closely resembles the old formula that Don the Beachcomber would have used to spice up his vintage Tiki cocktails. Other options include Latitude 29 Formula Falernum from Orgeat Works, or a rich homemade version.

  • Though it’s a strong drink, the Zula features smooth rums that take a back seat to the citrus and other flavors. We recommend Appleton Estate Signature as the lightly aged Jamaican rum, which offers great quality for the price. It’s also a rum The Mai-Kai uses frequently (see the full list). For the dark Jamaican rum in version 1 of Zula #1, you could upgrade to Appleton’s 8- or 12-year-old Estate rums, or go for something a little bolder depending on your tastes. Just avoid anything funkier than traditional dark Jamaican rums such as Coruba or Meyers’s. There’s a wide variety of lightly aged Spanish-style rum (both white and gold) from Puerto Rico. Bacardi and Don Q are the most obvious choices. But any good Spanish-style rum should work, including those from the Virgin Islands (Cruzan), Nicaragua (Flor de Cana), and elsewhere in the Caribbean and Central America.

  • Herbsaint and Pernod can be considered interchangeable, though Pernod can have a more aggressive flavor. We prefer the milder Herbsaint in the Zula. However, it’s likely The Mai-Kai currently uses Pernod, despite the menu description that dates back to the 1970s.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

Okole maluna!

PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY!

Postscript: Zula on social media

12 Replies to “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Double your pleasure with the exotic and delicious Zula #1 (and #2)”

  1. Lovin’ these recipes! This is a great undertaking and a truly indispensable resource.

    In regards to the Zula’ anscestor–I think it’s quite similar to the Penang Afrididi #1 (see Sippin’ Safari). It has a similar flavor profile (lime, pineapple, orange and herbsaint) and DTB also offered it as a #1 (on the rocks) or #2 (smaller and served up).

    In any case I’m having one of these tonight

    1. Mahalo Quince, I just saw what you and mamelukkikala posted on Tiki Central. That one slipped by me, and all the other experts who I shared my list with.

      That now makes 28 known Don the Beachcomber descendants on The Mai-Kai menu. I’ll be updating the review and posting the ancestor recipe posthaste.

      Okole maluna!

  2. Really tasty! Definitely more juice-centric than the Penang, which is totally consistent with the character of the Mai Kai.

    The Zula is a really intersting drink to me–I didn’t care for it when I first tried it, but as my tastes matured it grew on me. I rank it right up there with my other favorites, the Special Planters, the Zombie, the Gardenia Lei, the Cobra Kiss, and the 151 Swizzle.

    Keep up the great work! I especially like that you’re turning me on to drinks I’ve overlooked in the past, like the Hidden Pearl, and the KO Cooler (definitely trying those on my next visit.)

    1. Glad to be of service!

      We’re in the final stretch, with 12 more weeks of Mai-Kai reviews to go, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to continue our research ad infinitum.

      Aloha!

  3. You forgot the 1/2 passion fruit syrup in your repost of the Penang recipe. Makes a big difference. 🙂

    1. Thanks Rob, it was an oversight. I’ve added it.

      Let me know what you think of the tribute recipe. I used sugar syrup instead of passion fruit and it seemed to come closer to The Mai-Kai’s version. I’ve never tasted passion fruit in the Zula.

      Mahalo!

  4. Great job on the update, tastes like what I remember. A really fantastic cocktail.

    The old version from several years ago was more sour, I remember it being kind of lemony and more anise-forward.

  5. Tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Zula #1 ABV is 20%, not too heavy on the palate despite the 3 oz. rum. Just mixed it up and tasted it and it is a well balanced drink. I used Mount Gay Eclipse and Coruba Dark, shaken with cracked ice, all poured into a Trader’s tiki mug (Don doesn’t really sell anything nicer), Guests will love this tribute that is better than the original.

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