Modern Caribbean Rum

Beyond Esotico Miami: Kaona Room and Daniele Dalla Pola’s cocktail and rum adventures

Beyond Esotico Miami: Kaona Room and Daniele Dalla Pola's cocktail and rum adventures

The tropical drinks world became a less exciting and flamboyant place earlier this month when Italian master mixologist Daniele Dalla Pola closed up shop at Esotico Miami after nearly 5 years of crowd-pleasing cocktails and cuisine.

Daniele Dalla Pola puts on a show while making his signature cocktails during the final night at Esotico Miami. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)
Daniele Dalla Pola puts on a show while making his signature cocktails during the final night at Esotico Miami. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)

But his influence and creative flair will live on at the adjacent Kaona Room, which will continue to be operated by his son while Dalla Pola sets off on his next adventure. The remaining partners will transform the Esotico space into a new bar and restaurant concept, but the vintage Tiki-themed speakeasy remains open and serving some of the best exotic cocktails (and food) in Miami.

Dalla Pola’s exit was sudden but not unexpected under the circumstances. Legal issues with his work visa make it necessary for him to leave the United States and return to his native Italy, among other destinations, in the coming months. He eventually plans to return to help run the Kaona Room with Billy Dalla Pola when he can legally do so. But in the meantime, he has multiple projects in the works.

Full coverage below: Closing night at Esotico
The Kaona Room keeps torch burning | Dalla Pola’s further adventures
Photos, video: Esotico Miami memories
Cocktail recipe: Esotico Rum Cup

Esotico (left) has closed its doors but its secret speakeasy, the Kaona Room, will continue with its intimate and authentically Tiki vibe and decor. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)
Esotico (left) has closed its doors but its secret speakeasy, the Kaona Room, will continue with its intimate and authentically Tiki vibe and decor. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)

Esotico opened on Aug. 15, 2019, a joint venture between Dalla Pola and Miami’s Graspa Group. At 3,400 square feet, it took up a huge space in the ground floor of the Canvas Condominiums in downtown’s Arts & Entertainment District. [See opening photos]

It closed March 2, a little more than 6 months shy of its 5-year mark. Dalla Pola posted a heartfelt farewell on his Instagram page:

Aloha! Closing the bar today and writing these words is not easy, but this is a step I take because it’s time for a change, time to refresh, time to rethink, and to build something new. I step out from my project Esotico Miami which will move on under a new concept led by my trusted partners, Graspa Group.

Although I will leave Miami for some time, my son Billy Dalla Pola, will continue what I’ve started at The Kaona Room. … As I move forward, I’ll be excited to announce something new, hopefully very soon. Stay tropical!

Daniele Dalla Pola didn't waste any time hitting the road after the closing of Esotico Miami
Daniele Dalla Pola didn’t waste any time hitting the road after the closing of Esotico Miami.

Esotico was the next evolutionary step for the acclaimed bar owner, who made his name in the drinks world with Nu Lounge Bar in Bologna (in which he remains a partner). Dalla Pola first came to the United States more than 25 years ago, and his son was born in Miami in 1999.

Dalla Pola represented rum giant Bacardi while bartending in Miami before establishing himself as a force on the worldwide beverage scene. His presentations on Tiki cocktails have always been well received. Besides the bar in Italy, he owns a piece of the Alamea brand of liquors, which was founded in 2016 and is now distributed in 14 countries.

His career now comes full circle as he once again hits the road to attend events and spread the gospel about rum, cocktails and Tiki culture. His first stop after leaving Miami was Shanghai for the Asian Bar Awards, followed by more appearances across China sponsored by Bacardi.

We’ll detail more of his upcoming plans below, including a new signature rum and a cocktail book. But first, here’s what’s been happening in Miami.

Continue reading “Beyond Esotico Miami: Kaona Room and Daniele Dalla Pola’s cocktail and rum adventures”

Minimalist Tiki

REVIEW: El Dorado’s new High Ester Blend could be a mixologist’s secret weapon

El Dorado's new High Ester Blend could be a mixologist's secret weapon

I’m honored to have been chosen as a “rum influencer” of high enough stature to receive an unsolicited bottle of El Dorado’s new High Ester Blend (LBI / DHE). For non-geeks, those acronyms stand for “La Bonne Intention / Diamond High Ester,” signifying that this is a blend of never-before-released “high ester” marques from two unique stills at Guyana’s Diamond Distillery.

Specifically, we’re taking about high-ester distillate from the John Dore Double Retort Copper Pot Still and the La Bonne Intention marque from the four-column metal French Savalle Still. The former still dates back to the 1950s and is the only one of its kind at the historic distillery. The latter is much older, inherited from another distillery in Guyana that operated as far back as the 1800s.

El Dorado High Ester Blend includes rums from two unique stills at Guyana's Diamond Distillery.
El Dorado High Ester Blend includes rums from two unique stills at Guyana’s Diamond Distillery.

A side note here that the Diamond distillery and El Dorado share ownership (Demerara Distillers Ltd., aka DDL), so this release can be seen as El Dorado throwing its hat into the ring that independent bottlers have long dominated but has just recently gained at lot of traction in rum enthusiast circles: High-proof, high-ester, uncompromising rums with a pedigree. Rums from Jamaica, known for its “high-ester funk bombs,” have been most notable in this category.

This rum clocks in at a cask strength 57% ABV (114 proof), well above El Dorado’s normal (and industry standard) 40%, which I heartily applaud. It’s a different animal than El Dorado’s flagship aged rums (the 8-, 12- and 15-year-old blends) as well as the dark but lightly aged 151-proof rums (from Diamond, Hamilton, Lemon Hart, et al.) that are essential bottles in our Tiki arsenal. Just not as far removed as you might think. More on that shortly.

The bottle says it was distilled in 2012, which means it likely spent around 12 years in ex-Bourbon casks in Diamond’s aging warehouse. Indeed, the color as very similar to El Dorado 12. The nose, however, is another matter. The flavors are much deeper, with heady aromas of vanilla, toffee and honey most noticeable to my admittedly unsophisticated olfactory senses. There were some subtle cinnamon and fruit aromas as well.

At first sip, I immediately noticed the orange peel and spices prevalent in the blend, as advertised. Sweet vanilla is present, along with slight hints of chocolate and caramel. The spicy finish starts strong before fading slowly, perhaps the best feature of a neat sip.

Continue reading “REVIEW: El Dorado’s new High Ester Blend could be a mixologist’s secret weapon”

Mai-Kai update (February 2024): Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead

Mai-Kai update (February 2024): Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead

The light at the end of the tunnel is about to become much brighter at The Mai-Kai in South Florida as the historic restaurant prepares for an ambitious transformation of its sprawling 2.7-acre grounds.

Jump below: Latest refurbishment news | Landscape reimagination imminent |outside Update on permits, timeline
* The Mai-Kai at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival
Preview: The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog at Tiki-a-Go-Go

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)

Meanwhile, the artists working in and around the vintage A-frame building have turned the energy level up a notch in anticipation of the home stretch of Phase 1 of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar project. All available information points to a summer reopening, with the most optimistic estimate being June.

Excitement for the reopening was fueled in late February by an article in the Wall Street Journal that proclaims Fort Lauderdale a “cool” destination for “hip, hungry travelers.” While extolling the city’s “booming food scene and throwback architecture,” the article mentions the reopening of The Mai-Kai:

Fans of midcentury design are waiting for June, though, when the Mai-Kai will reopen after a 30-month, $15 million renovation. The Polynesian-style restaurant, built in 1956, was arguably the apotheosis of tiki culture. Partnering with distiller Maison Ferrand to resurrect the high ester rum used in classic tiki cocktails like the Jet Pilot, it hopes to retake that honor.

New owner Bill Fuller is leading the restoration efforts, including the creation of a new signature rum. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
New owner Bill Fuller is leading the restoration efforts, including the creation of a new signature rum. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The Journal got that information directly from owner Bill Fuller, who assembled the team that purchased The Mai-Kai in September 2021 after a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen forced the October 2020 closure that has now stretched past three years. Fuller’s historic preservation firm, Barlington Group, spearheaded the purchase. Another company he owns, Mad Room Hospitality, will operate the restaurant along with the founding Thornton family. The new Mai-Kai Rum No. 1 is a blend of Barbados and Jamaican rums created by master distiller Don Benn at the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados, where it will will shipped directly to Florida to be bottled.

That $15 million figure is new, a much higher number than we’ve previously seen reported. It speaks not only to the extra time spent on the detailed restoration, but also the unwavering commitment from the ownership group. Back in June 2022 during a presentation at The Hukilau, Fuller told the faithful fans of The Mai-Kai: “If we need to spend an extra million dollars or two, we’re going to do it because we want it to be perfect.” He has obviously doubled down on that promise.

And while a June reopening date is far from certain, it’s a goal that Fuller and his team have set. Like everything else involving this restoration, it doesn’t hurt to set the bar high and reach for the stars.

The entrance to The Mai-Kai is about to receive a total transformation as crews prepare for a new driveway to be installed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)
The entrance to The Mai-Kai is about to receive a total transformation as crews prepare for a new driveway to be installed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)

Recent coverage
* Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer (January 2024)
* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline

******************************************

FEBRUARY 2024: Restoration efforts reach new heights, expand in new directions

As detailed in our previous reports in January and February (see links above), we’re limited from showing the exquisite interior renovations during the final stages of work, but we did get a chance to chat in late February with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, who filled us in on what he and his crew were up to during that month. Fellow Central Florida artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly shared some images of their work on social media, which you can find below.

We also paid a visit to 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park to document the work on the exterior, briefly chatting with manager Kern Mattei and South Florida artist Tom Fowner, who recently joined the restoration team full-time. Fowner has worked with The Mai-Kai previously, most notably on one of the three Tiki carvings that greet guests near the porte-cochère.

Overall, February was very productive. “I feel that we’ve done more this month,” Allsmiller said. Following are some of his thoughts on what was accomplished, along with what’s still to come.

The addition of Fowner has helped Allsmiller, Scheidly and artist Conrad Teheiura Itchener expand the scope of their work in their central workshop in the Hawaii dining room. “We needed help, and he was free,” Allsmiller said.

Artist Tom Fowner strips all the old material off a vintage lamp that hangs high under The Mai-Kai's A-frame. After the lamp frame is shored up, he will restore the outer materials and it will receive new bulbs and wiring before it returns to its perch. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, March 2024)
Artist Tom Fowner strips all the old material off a vintage lamp that hangs high under The Mai-Kai’s A-frame. After the lamp frame is shored up, he will restore the outer materials and it will receive new bulbs and wiring before it returns to its perch. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, March 2024)

Fowner, who recently contributed his Tiki-carving talents to the build-out of the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, went right to work at The Mai-Kai refurbishing some of the massive lamps that hang high under the 40-foot A-frame. We caught him out front, stripping everything off one of the well-worn frames. He said they’re trying to restore them “in a similar fashion” to the originals.

Reaching these uppermost areas filled with vintage lamps, many created by Oceanic Arts in the 1950s and ’60s, has been the most challenging. The crew used scaffolding to reach the ceiling in the rear of the building, above the Tonga dining room. Allsmiller said they removed the large signature fish trap and cleaned it up. “It’s ready to go back up,” he said.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai update (February 2024): Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead”

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

If there were any doubts that the inaugural “next gen” Don the Beachcomber restaurant and tropical bar would not live up to the high standards of its namesake, they were quickly put to rest during last week’s grand opening in Madeira Beach on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast.

Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

In-depth coverage below
* Menus and overview: Cocktails | Food
* Decor, music & more | Tips and guidance
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Doctor Funk
Previous: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida (April 2024)

The first location in a planned national rollout of escapist establishments inspired by the founding father of faux Polynesian cocktails opened to the public on Friday, Feb. 23, after three days of private parties for friends, family and VIPs. Owned and operated by Tampa- based 23 Restaurant Services, the vast 298-capacity restaurant was firing on all cylinders from the get-go.

“We are thrilled with our opening weekend, starting with a largely attended VIP party on Thursday evening,” Marc Brown, president of 23 Restaurant Services, said via email Monday. “We had over 1,200 guests join us Friday through Sunday.”

“We continue to be so excited to be a part of this community and look forward to sharing our amazing vibe and delicious food and drinks with you all,” he said, noting the huge social media reaction and “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.

The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

We attended Thursday’s pre-opening party as well as lunch and dinner seatings during Friday’s service, witnessing a nearly flawless launch by every measurable standard. The well-trained staff of managers, greeters, servers, food-runners, bussers, and bartenders operated like a well-oiled machine. And if there were any culinary or mixological misfires from the kitchen or bar, they were few and far between.

When we arrived late for the first official dinner service, all but one of the 20 tables and booths inside the highly immersive restaurant was full, and all of the 30 or so bar seats were taken. On the patio under a large thatched roof, at least a third of the tables were full despite a steady drizzle. Our Uber driver said he had been taking passengers there all day.

Customers were three deep at the bar for hours during the peak of service, beverage director Marie King told us later. “It was a good night.” And the crowds kept coming. The restaurant was just as packed when we left hours later, around 10 p.m.

The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

Managing partner Sebastien Amoruso seemed very satisfied while surveying the scene and monitoring first-day operations. “It’s a good day,” he said during dinner service. “I’m happy. For the first day, we’re doing great.”

Amoruso estimated that 500 guests would be seated on opening day, but this might not include many who bellied up to the bar and didn’t register in the computerized point-of-sale system. I counted roughly 112 seats inside and 115 outside, plus lots of room for standing near the bar.

More seats could be added if needed, Amoruso, said. If opening weekend is any indication, that may be necessary. Saturday night was even busier than Friday, reported Donn Beach biographer Tim “Swanky” Glazner, who attended both.

The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

But the venue never seemed crowded, with plenty of room for guests to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Amoruso cited the expertise and experience of 23 Restaurant Services.

Continue reading “LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success”

Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

BREAKING NEWS: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

Updated Feb. 28

Nearly 100 years after its namesake founder developed and popularized the Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept, the Don the Beachcomber brand is re-launching this week with the first of multiple locations scheduled to roll out in Florida over the next several years.

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Sunakora Zombie
Previous coverage: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024

The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating.  (Don the Beachcomber photos)
The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating. (Don the Beachcomber photos)

The restaurant in Madeira Beach, between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is scheduled to open to the public on Friday, Feb. 23. Private events for friends, family and VIPs were held in the days prior. Partygoers no doubt will hoist a birthday toast Thursday to the Tiki bar pioneer.
* More Don the Beachcomber history

Ernest Raymond Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach and opened the first Don the Beachcomber as a speakeasy during Prohibition in 1932, was born on Feb. 22, 1907, in rural Texas. His colorful life story will be documented in an upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film The Donn of Tiki).

The new restaurant occupies an indoor-outdoor space at the Cambria Hotel at 15015 Madeira Way. It will be open seven days and nights, operating from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays through Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays.

“We’re fully staffed and ready to go” with more than 100 team members, said Lisa Longest, the director of marketing for Don the Beachcomber and other brands owned by Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services. Friday’s grand opening will include a ribbon-cutting attended by city dignitaries right before the 11 a.m. opening, she said in a phone conversation Thursday.

A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)
A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)

Call (727) 870-8454 or go to DonBeachcomber.com for more information. They are currently not taking reservations, so it’s first-come, first-served.

Originally planned for late 2023, then pushed to early 2024, the restaurant finally cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles and passed its final inspection, clearing the way for the grand opening. “We had to do a full build-out,” Longest said of the large space on the ground floor of the hotel. “It took time to get all the permits.”

This is a far cry from Don the Beachcomber’s tiny original bar in Hollywood. The restaurant has a total capacity of 298 with 92 seats inside and 120 outside.

Preview the food and drinks

The restaurant’s food is inspired by the faux Polynesian flavors pioneered by Don the Beachcomber, but the menu will also feature “elevated dishes that will appeal to all,” Longest said in an email following our phone conversation. Dishes will include a pupu platter featuring hand-made crab rangoon, chicken satay and sticky rib skewers, plus signature wings. “We will also feature tempura cauliflower, a variety of fried rice options, fresh grouper, and an array of gourmet burgers,” she said.

A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.

We got a sneak peek at the food and drink menus, which were designed by 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson. The offerings are sure to please every taste – from hardcore Tikiphiles, to adventurous locals, to the hotel guests who simply stumble upon this slice of paradise. In fact, the main menu’s cover is emblazoned with Donn Beach’s mantra: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

Continue reading “Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida”

In year 5, Miami Rum Congress matures into more complex and accessible spirits event

In year 5, Miami Rum Congress matures into more complex and accessible spirits event

Updated Feb. 14

Miami Rum Congress adjourns for its fifth gathering of industry and brand VIPs in February 2024 with two new venues and an expanded schedule of evening activities. Like a vintage 5-year-old rum, the event is approaching its prime years of maturity and showing potential for an expanded audience.
* Jump below: Daily schedule | Q&A with organizer Federico Hernández

Miami Rum Congress 2024

Miami Rum Congress 2024 – Feb. 9-10 at the Miami Beach Convention Center and Feb. 11 at The Gates Hotel South Beach.
* Click here for tickets | Overview, FAQ
Social media recap: Photos, coverage of Miami Rum Congress events UPDATED

The event is geared toward professionals and hardcore enthusiasts, but it also appeals to amateurs who want to dip their toes into the ever-popular spirit. The new main venue will help draw a broad audience. No longer confined by the ritzy yet cramped Hilton Cabana hotel in the Mid-Beach area, the event is moving 4 miles south to the more versatile Miami Beach Convention Center in South Beach for most of its events.

The Gates Hotel, which will host guests as well as a Sunday party, is a half mile away, roughly a 12-minute walk. The convention center, home of such varied events as the Miami International Boat Show and Florida Supercon, has ample space to host multiple groups simultaneously.

The convention center recently completed an extensive renovation and expansion that has been nominated for an Urban Land Institute award, honoring projects that elevate the standards of the industry. The center hosts more than 600,000 visitors a year and is home to $10.2 million in public art acquired by the city. There’s also 12 acres of green space, including a lush tropical park.

Daniele Dalla Pola (left) and Elis Carriero of Esotico Miami and the Kaona Room discuss the finer points of bartending in the Bartenders Head to Head Debate seminar at Miami Rum Congress on Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Daniele Dalla Pola (left) and Elis Carriero of Esotico Miami and the Kaona Room discuss the finer points of bartending in the Bartenders Head to Head Debate seminar at Miami Rum Congress on Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

But beyond the spiffy new facilities, what should excite locals and others who must drive to Miami Rum Congress is the convention center’s 6 acres of surface parking. No more wasting valuable rum-tasting time doing endless circles around the Hilton’s neighboring streets and tiny municipal lots, hoping for an empty space. Beachside hotels notoriously have limited guest parking.

The new location is also closer to downtown Miami and its nightlife, most notably the acclaimed tropical cocktail and rum havens owned and operated by Daniele Dalla Pola: His flagship Esotico Miami and the adjacent hidden Tiki speakeasy, the Kaona Room. Dalla Pola and his team will host rum dinners and other special events before, during and after the main Rum Congress.

It’s roughly 4 miles (around 30 minutes in peak Miami traffic) across the lesser-known Venetian Causeway (a $2.25 toll) from the convention center area to Esotico. There are larger, free causeways (195 and 395) to the north and south, but those routes are longer and less direct. On the Venetian route, it’s also a quick 5 minute jaunt from Esotico to Wynwood, the area’s vibrant art district.

The new Miami Rum Congress venues on South Beach: The Miami Beach Convention Center and The Gates Hotel. (Official photos)
The new Miami Rum Congress venues on South Beach: The Miami Beach Convention Center and The Gates Hotel. (Official photos)

Now that we’ve covered the logistics, let’s break down the activities day-by-day. Industry attendees and hardcore devotees will likely be attending many, if not all, of the happenings. But locals and rum fans across the state might want to pop in for just a day or two. There’s plenty going on for all levels of interest. Check MiamiRumCongress.com for the latest updates and more information.

Continue reading “In year 5, Miami Rum Congress matures into more complex and accessible spirits event”

Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss

Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss

Like many recent years, 2023 was defined by loss, from a deadly natural disaster to the passing of a beloved artist. But there are two other words that better sum up 2023: Aspiration and revival. Among the year’s highlights are the return of three historic restaurants, the resurrection of a legendary rum, a groundbreaking cocktail book that looks ahead by honoring the past, plus an overall renewed appreciation for Tiki culture and cocktails. If nothing else, it gives us hope for an eventful 2024.
Related: The Year in Tiki 2023: A look back at the top events in photos, video
Bonus recipes below: Beachcomber Punch | Ray’s Mystique

1. TRAGEDY IN MAUI: Lahaina devastated by wildfires

Wildfires ravaged Maui's historic resort city of Lahaina in August 2023. (Wikimedia Commons)
Wildfires ravaged Maui’s historic resort city of Lahaina in August 2023. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wildfires swept across the island of Maui on Aug. 8, killing at least 100 people in one of the nation’s deadliest disasters. The fires destroyed most of Lahaina – the original capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – on the northwest coast. Residents fled as the blazes incinerated thousands of structures, causing more than $5 billion in damage.

Among the historic structures lost were the Old Lahaina Courthouse, Waiola Church, Pioneer Inn, and Kimo’s restaurant. Lahaina’s famous banyan tree, planted in 1873, had most of its foliage charred, though was still standing after the wildfires.

Before the fires, the Lahaina Historic District was a bustling tourist destination with stores and restaurants attracting many visitors. The district included 60 historic sites with Front Street ranked one of the “Top Ten Greatest Streets” by the American Planning Association. Lahaina was also a popular whale-watching site. It has a long history as a shipping and whaling town.

The wildfires were attributed to dry, gusty conditions created by a strong high-pressure area north of Hawaii, and Hurricane Dora to the south. The death toll is the largest for a wildfire in the United States since the Cloquet Fire of 1918 in northern Minnesota, which claimed 453 lives.

The historic tree in Lahaina's Banyan Court Park, shown in 2016, survived the 2023 wildfires. (Wikimedia Commons)
The historic tree in Lahaina’s Banyan Court Park, shown in 2016, survived the 2023 wildfires. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Biden ordered the mobilization of “all available federal assets” to respond to the wildfires, including the Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, and FEMA. Other countries pledged aid, and fund-raising efforts across the U.S. raised $30 million within 10 days. The Maui Strong Fund, which provides financial resources to support the immediate and long-term recovery needs for the people and places affected by the wildfires, has raised more than $177 million to date and awarded grants totaling more than $86 million.

The disaster was also a call to action for many in the Tiki community, which united for fund-raisers and other special events. From bars and restaurants, to concerts and special events, supporters rallied to help in any way they could. Mark Riddle donated profits from the sale of his Lahaina Sunset album, which was inspired by a trip to Maui.

In mid-December, the heart of Lahaina reopened to residents and business owners as the historic banyan tree began sprouting new leaves. As of late December, Lahaina opened its remaining schools and welcomed tourists back to areas unaffected by the fires. Maui county officials say rebuilding the burned structures won’t begin for another 18-24 months, and big-picture plans are hazy. Rebuilding completely, including replacing all of the lost structures, will cost an estimated $5.5 billion.

With the exception of Lahaina, Maui is open and there is plenty to see and experience, according to the GoHawaii.com website. Guests are urged to “visit with aloha, compassion and empathy,” and to support local businesses. The MauiNuiFirst.com website offers many other suggestions.

**************************

2. DON THE BEACHCOMBER: Anticipation for new restaurant chain, film and book reaches fever pitch

A classic portrait of Don the Beachcomber inspired a new mug by Eekum Bookum. The new restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla., will feature a similar photo op. (Facebook photos)
A classic portrait of Don the Beachcomber inspired a new mug by Eekum Bookum. The new restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla., will feature a similar photo op. (Facebook photos)

While slowly building for years, interest in the founding father of the 20th century Polynesian restaurant explosion went through the roof in 2023 as three major projects neared the finish line. By the end of the year, a new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Southwest Florida was hiring staff and putting the final touches on construction. The Donn of Tiki documentary was 99 percent complete as the filmmakers finished up the end credits and licensing rights. Meanwhile, the manuscript for Tim “Swanky” Glazner’s book, Searching for Don the Beachcomber, was nearing the design and editing stages. After several years of non-stop work, these projects are now poised for a major splash in the new year and beyond.

The revival of the Don the Beachcomber brand took center stage after the announcement in February that Florida-based 23 Restaurant Services would be reviving the restaurant chain nationwide, beginning with multiple locations in the Sunshine State expected to open in the next several years. Skeptics were quickly assured of the legitimacy of the project when veteran bar manager Marie King was plucked from the venerable Tonga Hut to become director of beverage. In addition to leading the oldest Tiki bar in Los Angeles, King had previously built the cocktail program at the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., which closed in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 2018. The design of the new restaurants is in the capable hands of artist Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, long admired for his expertise and craftsmanship in building traditional Tiki bar spaces.

Continue reading “Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss”

First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024

EXCLUSIVE: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in January 2024

Updated February 2024

The much-anticipated re-launch of the iconic Don the Beachcomber brand will kick off in early 2024, when the first of several new restaurants will open in Florida. All indications point to a February grand opening in Madeira Beach on the southwest Gulf Coast.

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success
* Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida (February 2024)

Don the Beachcomber

The indoor-outdoor space on the ground floor of the waterfront Cambria Hotel was originally scheduled to open in November or December. The Don the Beachcomber website currently says “early 2024.”

The space is still under construction, so more delays are possible. However, management started seeking employees several weeks ago, and photos shared on social media show the interior decor nearing the final stages of installation.

A reel posted Dec. 14 on the official pages on Instagram and Facebook provides “a sneak peek into paradise.”

If all goes according to plan, expect a public opening in February with a soft opening for “friends and family” a week prior. An official annoucement on an exact date likely won’t be made until after a certificate of occupancy is issued.

A general rule of thumb in the restaurant business is to begin hiring at least six weeks before a grand opening. The first “now hiring” post appeared Dec. 1 on the Don the Beachcomber Instagram page.

The “GOATS wanted” ad encourages “career seekers” and “badass dreamers” to apply via the website of parent company 23 Restaurant Services. Among the jobs posted on the website are bartender, cook, dishwasher, expeditor, host/hostess, manager, managing partner, server, and service assistant.

Detail photos of the interior decor at the Don the Beachcomber location in Madeira Beach, Fla., posted Nov. 13 on the official Facebook page.
Detail photos of the interior decor at the Don the Beachcomber location in Madeira Beach, Fla., posted Nov. 13 on the official Facebook page.

Jump to more below
YouTube preview: Marie King talks cocktails, upcoming locations
Sneak peek: Renderings, mission statement revealed at Tiki Oasis
Merchandise: Mugs, glassware, apparel, ephemera
Bonus cocktail recipe: Sunakora

The Madeira Beach space was originally slated to be a new Tiki Docks location, but 23 Restaurant Services shifted its strategy away from the Florida beach bar concept and accelerated its focus on the more traditional Don the Beachcomber brand. Additional Polynesian restaurants named for the tropical cocktail genre’s godfather have been announced for Viera in Brevard County on Florida’s east coast and Hamlin in Orange County just north of Disney World.

A photo posted Dec. 11 on Facebook by Daniel "Tiki Diablo" Gallardo shows the entrance to the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A photo posted Dec. 11 on Facebook by Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo shows the entrance to the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla.

Though not yet listed on the official website, there’s also a stand-alone Don the Beachcomber bar planned for Tampa, revealed in October by Marie King, the 23 Restaurants Services director of beverage. King is a respected veteran in the tropical drinks world after managing California’s historic Tonga Hut from 2012 to early 2023. She also ran the bar program at the last Don the Beachcomber in California from 2009 to 2011.

According to the official timeline, the waterfront Viera location at the corner of Viera and Lake Andrews boulevards is set to open in 2025. But King said the smaller Tampa bar could open its doors first, likely in 2024.

Continue reading “First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024”

NEW RECIPES: A frightening flight of deadly cocktails for Halloween 2023

NEW RECIPES: A frightening flight of deadly cocktails for Halloween 2023

Updated Nov. 3

The pursuit of dangerous Zombies and other potent libations served in ominous mugs is a year-round pursuit for many of us. But the Halloween season is prime time for mixologists to conjure up creative new potions for the not-so-faint of heart.

To meet that challenge, we offer up a flight of three deadly drinks with a dark and foreboding flair. And, of course, more than a touch of Tiki.

Go directly to the recipes
Round 1: The Black Magic Cocktail
Round 2: Shrunken Pumpkin Head
Round 3: Return of the Zombie Dolphin NEW

Hulaween on hiatus: Relive 12 years of madness at The Mai-Kai
Hulaween on hiatus: Relive the madness at The Mai-Kai
With the Tiki temple closed for refurbishment, take a look back at 12 years of Halloween events in The Molokai bar.

**************************************************

First, let’s warm up with a new twist on the ever-popular classic from The Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant

The Black Magic Cocktail
(A tribute to The Atomic Grog’s tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Black Magic)

The Black Magic Cocktail at The Atomic Grog, October 2023. The Mai-Kai Shrunken Head mug by Tiki Tony and Eekum Bookum for The Hukilau 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Black Magic Cocktail at The Atomic Grog, October 2023. The Mai-Kai Shrunken Head mug by Tiki Tony and Eekum Bookum for The Hukilau 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

• 1/4 ounce fresh orange juice
• 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
• 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
• 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
• 3/4 ounces freshly brewed and chilled coffee
• 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum (Mai-Kai blend or substitute)
• 1 ounce gold (lightly aged) Spanish-style rum
• 1/2 ounces dark rum
• 1/4 ounce Mariano’s Mix #7
• 1/2 teaspoon allspice dram
• 1-2 dashes Angostura bitters

Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5 seconds. Strain into a chilled 6-ounce cocktail glass.

There’s a symphony of flavors packed into this small sipper. It’s rich and heavy on the spice and coffee, even more so than its big brother. Without the ice in the glass, it stays robust to the last drop. The bitters and allspice balance the sweet and sour notes, leaving the rums to form a solid but not overwhelming backbone.

Continue reading “NEW RECIPES: A frightening flight of deadly cocktails for Halloween 2023”

The Mai-Kai team joins The Atomic Grog for two special presentations at Tiki Oasis

The Mai-Kai at Tiki Oasis

The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog are headed to Tiki Oasis! We’re honored to be joined by manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller at the world’s original and largest Tiki weekender Aug. 2-6 in San Diego.

Follow us at Tiki Oasis: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Tiki Oasis

JUMP BELOW
NEW: Social media coverage, photos
* Sneak preview of The Mai-Kai seminars
* Full event preview and daily highlights

The 23rd annual event at the Town and Country Resort features live entertainment (Man or Astroman, The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Messer Chups, The New Les Baxter Orchestra, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, King Kukulele, Medusirena), seminars (Sven Kirsten, Charles Phoenix, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Ian Burrell), artists, vendors, and much more.

Tiki Oasis guests will enjoy five nights and four days of poolside lounging, fashion shows, room parties, live bands and DJs, a curated art exhibit, a gigantic Tiki marketplace, tropical cocktails curated by top mixologists, plus much more.

Click here for event tickets, ranging from $40 for Wednesday to $499 for a deluxe Wednesday-Sunday pass. If you have kids in tow, don’t fret. Tickets cost just $35 for ages 6 to 17. Children 5 under are free.

Click below for tickets to the seminars, which must be purchased separately.

**************************************************

THE MAI-KAI AT TIKI OASIS

Jim "Hurricane" Hayward (left) is participating in Tiki Oasis 2023 with two key members of The Mai-Kai team: manager Kern Mattei and creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller. (Mai-Kai photo)
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward (left) is participating in Tiki Oasis 2023 with two key members of The Mai-Kai team: manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. (Mai-Kai photo)

For the first time in event history, South Florida’s historic Mai-Kai will be on hand for not one, but two official presentations. Last year, designer and artist Allsmiller taught a sold-out, two-day shelf-building class shortly after diving into his work restoring The Mai-Kai. This year, he’ll be featuring one of his restored vintage lamps from The Mai-Kai in a lamp show that runs all weekend.

On Friday, Hayward and Mattei will present a seminar on one of The Mai-Kai’s most iconic cocktails, the Derby Daiquiri. On Saturday, they will be joined by Allsmiller for a presentation jam-packed with the latest information on the restoration and reopening.

Here are are more details on the events:

The Derby Daiquiri and Beyond: How to Create Your Own Classic
Hosted by Kern Mattei and Jim “Hurricane” Hayward
2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, $45 [BUY TICKETS]

In 1958, Mariano Licudine created the Derby Daiquiri, one of the most celebrated drinks of the mid-century tropical cocktail boom.
In 1958, Mariano Licudine created the Derby Daiquiri, one of the most celebrated drinks of the mid-century tropical cocktail boom.

The Mai-Kai’s Derby Daiquiri was one of the most celebrated cocktails of the mid-century, a simple riff on the Cuban classic by master mixologist Mariano Licudine. Six decades later, it remains one of the most popular drinks on the historic restaurant’s menu. It also provides a case study on how a vintage recipe can be enhanced by just a few simple tweaks, creating something new and exciting. Join The Mai-Kai’s longtime manager, Kern Mattei, and cocktail blogger Jim “Hurricane” Hayward for an examination of Licudine’s genius as they guide you toward creating your own signature classic.

About Kern and Jim

Kern Mattei was born into The Mai-Kai family and has worked there since his youth, from barback and bartender to the past three decades as manager. His father was the GM before him, and his mother performed in the stage show. His unique position makes him intimately familiar with the restaurant’s famous cocktails, their history and the secret recipes. During the current refurbishment, he runs the takeout cocktail program, providing quarts and gallons of classics like the Barrel O’ Rum and Black Magic to thirsty locals. Blogger and journalist Jim “Hurricane” Hayward has covered The Mai-Kai for more than a decade, documenting and recreating the cocktail recipes in exacting detail. As we approach a late 2023 reopening, The Atomic Grog has become a key source of information on The Mai-Kai restoration project.

Mariano Licudine serves the Derby Daiquiri in Puerto Rico in 1959. The seminar will reveal The Mai-Kai's relationship with the Rums of Puerto Rico trade group. (From Potions of the Caribbean, courtesy of The Mai-Kai)
Mariano Licudine serves the Derby Daiquiri in Puerto Rico in 1959. The seminar will reveal The Mai-Kai’s relationship with the Rums of Puerto Rico trade group. (From Potions of the Caribbean, courtesy of The Mai-Kai)

Seminar sneak preview

Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect during the first-ever official Mai-Kai cocktail seminar at Tiki Oasis:

  • Three different Daiquiris will be served by the Tiki Oasis cocktail crew, including the Derby, as we reveal and dissect each recipe.
  • Rare and never-before-seen images from the archives will be shown, including Mattei family photos.

  • We’ll take the most detailed look yet at the creation and explosive popularity of the Derby Daiquiri, known as “the $100,000 Drink.”

  • The seminar will conclude with the premiere of a new recipe created especially for Tiki Oasis and San Diego.

The Derby Daiquiri: The Mai-Kai’s ‘$100,000 drink’ is worth its weight in gold
The Derby Daiquiri: The Mai-Kai’s ‘$100,000 drink’ is worth its weight in gold UPDATED
A deep dive into the fascinating history of the cocktail that made The Mai-Kai and its head mixologist famous.
>>> UPDATED HISTORY, REVIEW AND MORE
NEW: Tribute recipe | The Derby Daiquiri on Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Classic Daiquiri lost favor when Cuba fell, but influence endures
Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Classic Daiquiri lost favor when Cuba fell, but influence endures UPDATED
Revisit The Mai-Kai’s version of a classic, including a recently unveiled recipe that links back to Don the Beachcomber.
>>> UPDATED HISTORY & REVIEW | NEW: AUTHENTIC RECIPE

More on The Atomic Grog
* Okole Maluna Society: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
* More on the Daiquiri, plus 18 other recipes in the A-Z cocktail guide

The Mai-Kai is in the midst of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration and renovation project. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / July 2023)
The Mai-Kai is in the midst of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration and renovation project. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / July 2023)

Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward with “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and Kern Mattei
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5, $20 [BUY TICKETS]

The Mai-Kai is a miraculous survivor. The South Florida historic landmark endured a near-catastrophic roof collapse in late 2020 but found new owners with deep pockets and an ambitious vision to preserve it for generations to come. When the restoration of the 66-year-old Polynesian palace is complete, it will be meticulously returned to its former glory and also include millions of dollars in enhancements that respect the past and charge boldly into the future. In this multimedia presentation, embedded journalist Jim “Hurricane” Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog will take you behind the scenes at The Mai-Kai. He’ll be joined by two key members of The Mai-Kai team: Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller will offer unique insights into the painstaking restoration efforts, while longtime manager Kern Mattei will provide up-to-the-minute news on the renovation project, along with his unique perspective on Mai-Kai history.

Creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller (right) has been joined by fellow Florida artist and craftsman Scott "Flounder" Scheidly for the ambitious job of restoring the interior of The Mai-Kai, including more than 100 vintage lamps. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / July 2023)
Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller (right) has been joined by fellow Florida artist and craftsman Scott “Flounder” Scheidly for the ambitious job of restoring the interior of The Mai-Kai, including more than 100 vintage lamps. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / July 2023)

About The Mai-Kai team

Jim “Hurricane” Hayward is a veteran journalist and blogger, best known for The Atomic Grog blog – covering Tiki events, music, art cocktails and culture since 2011. Along with its popular Mai-Kai cocktail guide, the blog has become the go-to source of information on the landmark restaurant’s closing, sale, restoration, and reopening. Typhoon Tommy is a multiple Thea Award-winning scenic artist with 13 years of experience in the theme park industry. After turning his talents full-time to creating magical escapes in the world of Tiki, he became creative director and designer for The Mai-Kai renovation project in 2022. Kern Mattei grew up at the historic restaurant during its heyday and now leads the efforts to modernize the infrastructure while maintaining as much of its original beauty as possible. He has been general manager since 1993, following in the footsteps of his father, Kern Mattei Sr. (1964-1991).

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai team joins The Atomic Grog for two special presentations at Tiki Oasis”