Minimalist Tiki

Special event at The Mai-Kai takes guests on a flight back to classic ‘Potions of the Caribbean’

Updated on Sept. 22

Since its release last December, Beachbum Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them has set a new standard for cocktail history books. Chock full of vintage photos and artwork, detailed research and stories, not to mention 77 recipes, the 317-page hardcover opus was recognized in July as Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at the annual Spirited Awards during Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.

Drink Flight at The Mai-Kai featuring 'Beachbum Berry's Potions of the Caribbean'

While critics raved, fans devoured the cocktails along with the stories, creating a unique drinking and reading experience. At Fort Lauderdale’s famous Mai-Kai, which is featured in the the book, general manager Kern Mattei was so impressed with the classic recipes he decided to feature some of them during a one-night-only event on Saturday, Sept. 20.
See below: Virgin Island Kula recipe

From 6 to 8 p.m. in the restaurant’s Molokai bar, Mattei and his staff presented a flight of three cocktails straight from the pages of Potions of the Caribbean. It was the first time ever that these drinks were served in the nearly 58-year history of The Mai-Kai. And at just $12, it was a great bargain. The bar’s regular happy hour started at 5 and revelers stayed well past 8 as they enjoyed many of The Mai-Kai’s nearly 50 acclaimed tropical drinks. Tables were also filled with Pupu Platters and other small plates as a crowd of more than 50 filled the back section of the bar.

Presented by South Florida’s Gumbo Limbo Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai (FOM), the event included a raffle with proceeds benefitting the Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association. The event raised $150 for the non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the area’s endangered reefs through conservation and education. The Fraternal Order of Moai is a social organization with chapters across the country, uniting men and women interested in Tiki culture and the Polynesian Pop era. The group’s regular events typically include charity fund-raising.

Modern Caribbean Rum
The Bible, and the night's menu
The Bible, and the night’s menu. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Many of South Florida’s most dedicated Tikphiles were in attendance, including most of the local FOM members (Don and Janet “LuRu” Rudawsky, Chip and Andy Kerr, Ron and Katie Reusze, et al.). Artist Crazy Al Evans, visiting from California, was spotted with Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid and local artist Tom Fowner. Evans was talking to Mattei about stocking his new Molokai Maiden mug in the gift shop, so look for it soon. Miami Rum Festival organizers Robert A. Burr, Robin Burr and Robert V. Burr were on hand sampling all the drinks. They shared some news and plans for their April event as they also gear up for their rum cruise to the Caribbean on Nov. 22-29. Others in attendance included DJ and bon vivant Mike “Jetsetter” Jones, musician Skinny Jimmy Stingray, and Tiki archivist Jackie Zumwalt.

The author, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, wasn’t able to attend since he’s busy in his hometown of New Orleans preparing for next month’s grand opening of his first Tiki bar, Latitude 29. But attendees made sure to make a toast on his behalf. If you haven’t already, grab a copy of the book on Amazon or via the publisher, Cocktail Kingdom.

The book is Berry’s sixth on tropical cocktails and the pinnacle of his career as “the Indiana Jones of Tiki drinks.” It takes readers on a rough and tumble adventure from the Conquistadors and pirates to the mobsters and tourists who ran roughshod over the Caribbean for centuries. He uncovers not only many iconic drinks that became ubiquitous at modern cocktail bars around the world (Planter’s Punch, Daiquiri, Mojito, Pina Colada), but also the bartenders who created them.

Kern Mattei (right), general manager of The Mai-Kai and the brains behind the 'Potions of the Caribbean' cocktail flight, presents Hurricane Hayward with the Virgin Island Kula
Kern Mattei (right), general manager of The Mai-Kai and the brains behind the ‘Potions of the Caribbean’ cocktail flight, presents Hurricane Hayward with the Virgin Island Kula. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

The Mai-Kai is represented on page 250, where longtime mixologist Mariano Licudine is pictured on one of his trips to the Caribbean to teach resort bartenders how to “Tikify” their cocktails. Licudine made many junkets on behalf of Rums of Puerto Rico, around the same time he was inspired to create his award-winning Derby Daiquiri. Many Mai-Kai cocktails were influenced by the region, most notably the Floridita Daiquiri and Cuban Daiquiri. The book also includes recipes for drinks that were predecessors of The Mai-Kai’s Samoan Grog and Martinique Cocktail.

But at this event, Mattei delivered on his promise of something we’d never tasted before at The Mai-Kai. He had to work within the restraints of the bar’s existing ingredients, but that didn’t hold him back much. The cocktails we sampled included some flavors you rarely find in Mai-Kai drinks, such as dry vermouth, gin and maraschino liqueur. We were also pleased to be treated to a drink featuring Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, which is experiencing a pause in U.S. distribution and is rumored to be in short supply. The lineup included drinks from a variety of mixologists with diverse influences.

The flight was designed to be enjoyed in sequence, starting with a mild and dry cocktail and moving on to something more sweet and potent, then finishing with a bold and strong drink. Here’s a rundown on what was served at this one-of-a-kind event.
* Click here to see the menu

The first cocktail served was the Queen's Park Hotel Super Cocktail, from the Queen's Park Hotel in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
The first cocktail served was the Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail, from the Queen’s Park Hotel in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

First up was the Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail, featuring Trinidad gold rum, vermouth, lime, grenadine and a healthy dose of Angostura bitters. This one was on my short list of drinks from Potions that I had yet to sample, so I was pleased to see it on the menu. This drink is featured in a section of the book about Trinidad, home of the modern bar staple Angostura bitters. The elixir was invented by a Berlin-born surgeon during South America’s fight for freedom from Spain in the 1820s. But the tincture derived from roots, barks and herbs didn’t become popular until it was discovered by American and European bartenders. In 1875, Angostura built a factory in Port-of-Spain featuring cocktails in the Angostura Lounge.

The Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail came from the Queen’s Park Hotel in Port-of-Spain. Berry found the recipe in a 1932 book by a British travel writer who coaxed it from a bartender at the hotel’s Long Bar with the Brass Rail. The hotel was a destination for wealthy Brits and Americans, but its accommodations were woeful, Berry writes. The bar was good, however, serving cocktails loaded with the region’s signature Angostura bitters.

The drink is quite dry thanks to the bitters and vermouth, which form the dominant flavors along with the grenadine. The rum is very subtle, but the drink has enough balance of bitter, sweet and sour elements to keep it interesting. It’s certainly on the mild side, but perfect for the start of the night’s flight. I actually started with a Floridita Daiquiri to get in a Caribbean state of mind, which set the stage nicely [see photo]. I was expecting a daiquiri on the flights menu, but Mattei said he shied away from anything that had a similar flavor to existing Mai-Kai cocktails.

The drink most closely resembling a Mai-Kai classic was up next, courtesy of Ray Buhen of the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles. This makes sense since Buhen was a contemporary of Mariano Licudine. Both worked for Tiki bar pioneer Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber ) in the 1930s before moving on to their own projects. Licudine helped Bob and Jack Thornton open The Mai-Kai in 1956, while Buhen opened his own bar, the famed Tiki Ti, in 1961. Arguably on par with The Mai-Kai in presenting classic Don the Beachcomber tropical drinks featuring the original secret recipes, the Tiki Ti is still going strong in the hands of Buhen’s son and grandsons.

The Virgin Island Kula by Ray Buhen of the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles was served at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 20, 2014
The Virgin Island Kula by Ray Buhen of the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles was served at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 20, 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Virgin Island Kula was easily my favorite from the flight, full-flavored with lots complex sweet elements (apricot brandy, orgeat) to offset a very good gold rum (The Mai-Kai used 10 Cane) and sour citrus (lime and orange juice). It’s made even more distinctive by the sharp zing from dry gin. Very complex, in true Tiki Ti fashion. I would call this a quintessential Tiki mug drink.

Here’s the previously unpublished recipe from Potions, which Berry culled from Buhen’s personal notebook. It’s included in the chapter on Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, explaing how simple Caribbean cocktails were elevated by 20th century Tiki bars into a new genre that captured the cocktail world’s imagination for decades. The drink is no longer offered on the Tiki Ti menu, making it another lost classic.

* 1 ounce apricot brandy
* 1 ounce dry gin
* 1 ounce gold Virgin Islands rum
* 1 ounce fresh lime juice
* 1 ounce orange juice
* 1/2 ounce white sugar syrup (aka simple syrup)
* 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
* 1/2 ounce soda water

Shake with ice cubes. Pour into a tall glass or Tiki mug. Garnish with orange slice and cherry.

This reminds me a bit of a Trader Vic’s classic, the Fog Cutter, which also includes rum, gin, brandy, OJ and orgeat. Additional kudos to Mattei and The Mai-Kai for presenting the drink with the traditional garnish.

Speaking of Trader Vic’s, the flight’s finale was an early classic from Victor Bergeron in that same chapter on the influence of various Caribbean classics such as the Daiquiri and Planter’s Punch. The Myrtle Bank Punch is a lesser known cocktail that both Beach and Bergeron offered on their menus, no doubt inspired by the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica.

Myrtle Bank Punch by Trader Vic Bergeron, circa 1940s, reimagined at The Mai-Kai in 2014
Myrtle Bank Punch by Trader Vic Bergeron, circa 1940s, reimagined at The Mai-Kai in 2014. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The hotel was the social epicenter of Kingston in the 1920s and ’30s, Berry writes in Potions of the Caribbean. Built in the late 1800s, the hotel was one of the grandest in the Caribbean and was famous for its Planter’s Punch. To boost tourism, a head bartender from the hotel’s Patio Bar was sent by Myers’s Rum to the 1925 British Exposition’s Jamaica Pavilion to mix up Planters Punches for visitors, including the Duke and Duchess of York. “They were amused,” Berry writes.

The Trader Vic’s recipe for the Myrtle Bank Punch in Potions is from Bergeron’s Book of Food and Drink (1946). Also included is a 1941 recipe for Don the Beachcomber’s much different version, which I prefer. It’s a bit too much like a Mai-Kai cocktail, however, so Mattei threw us a curve ball with Trader Vic’s version (Lemon Hart 151 rum, maraschino liqueur, lime juice, sugar syrup, grenadine).

I’ve made this at home several times and considered it to be too one-note, with the maraschino and Lemon Hart being too strong and dominant. But somehow Mattei and his bar staff balanced out and improved this drink greatly, perhaps upping the sugar and grenadine and/or reducing the maraschino and 151 rum. The exotic maraschino flavor still dominated, but the grenadine brought a nice sweet balance to the table with the Lemon Hart lurking in the background.The somewhat disparate flavors blended very nicely into the most distinctive drink of the night.

It was an evening packed with both history and unique flavors. Mattei hinted at possible future events featuring more historic cocktail flights. That’s a trip we’ll gladly take again.

The Mai-Kai
* Official website | Facebook page

Beachbum Berry
* Official site | Potions of the Caribbean | Latitude 29

More on The Atomic Grog
* Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide | Mai-Kai tropical drink family tree | Take 5: Kern Mattei
* Returning to The Hukilau, Jeff Berry proves he’s never too busy to be a ‘Beachbum’
* Navy Grog ice cone: Lost art is revived by cocktail enthusiasts, handy gadget
* ‘Potions of the Caribbean’ cruises back to the birthplace of Tiki cocktails
* Take 5: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Tiki cocktail author and historian extraordinaire
* See all posts on: The Mai-Kai | Beachbum Berry

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