Photos, recap: Miami festival reunites rum family for one-day tasting event

Photos, recap: Miami festival reunites rum family for one-day tasting event

The 12th annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival may not have reached the epic proportions of past events, but it was a welcome return as we tiptoe into a post-pandemic world. Like an old friend who had only one day for a visit, the short-but-sweet tasting session on Nov. 14 brought the extended “rum family” back together in a safe space.

The crew from Copalli Rum touted their organic, gluten-free rum from Belize.
The crew from Copalli Rum touted their organic, gluten-free rum from Belize. (Atomic Grog photo)

“Our decision to keep it simple paid off,” co-organizer Robert A. Burr said after the event. “We sold out with 500 tickets and the size of the crowd was very comfortable. It’s so satisfying to gather with our rum friends again.” Burr and wife Robin also welcomed back son Robert V. Burr to the rum fest. His move back to South Florida will enable him to once again be involved in the event, he told us during the festivities.

While socially distant interactions are still awkward, it was clear that both attendees and participating rum brands were very happy to be there. The elder Burr said many “expressed their heartfelt appreciation.”

Hosted for a second time at the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club, the event was not spread out over multiple days like years past. The Rum Renaissance Tasting Event featured no seminars or judging sessions, but the Burrs definitely didn’t skimp on the rums. There appeared to be even more tasting booths than there were in 2019.

SEE BELOW: Images of Miami Rum Festival
* Atomic Grog gallery, plus official photos

Tobin Ellis welcomes Hurricane Hayward to the Rhum Barbancourt booth at the Miami Rum Festival.
Tobin Ellis welcomes Hurricane Hayward to the Rhum Barbancourt booth. (Atomic Grog photo)

The tasting session for the general public ran from 2 to 6 p.m., and we spent the better part of that time catching up with old friends and sampling many fine rums. We immediately knew we were in for a treat when we entered the first of two event halls to find an elaborate Rhum Barbancourt booth manned by master mixologist Tobin Ellis. The legendary rum from Haiti was making a rare appearance in Miami with Ellis, an influential bartender and consultant from Las Vegas who made a splash at the rum fest in its early days.

I had not seen Ellis since we faced off in 2011 at the third annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival’s Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai. He won that mixology contest, of course, and I remember him offering this newbie some great advice. It was fantastic to catch up with one of the bar and cocktail world’s most creative minds. It was also comforting to find out that he remains a very humble and down-to-earth guy.

Some other no-less-notable names were in the house, representing dozens of rum brands from around the world. With my time limited, I made an attempt to sample as many new and intriguing rums as possible. It was definitely tough to restrain myself from revisiting the many past favorites, including Diplomatico, Dos Maderas, El Dorado, Pusser’s, and others. Check out our past coverage for all of these, plus more.

Here are seven memories we walked away with from this year’s rum reunion in Coral Gables …

QUICK TAKES: 2021 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival highlights

Haiti's Rhum Barbancourt offered many tasty samples, from the 15-year-old rum to modern cocktails. Karabela by Stella Cho featured the 4-year-old Barbancourt 3 Stars.
Haiti’s Rhum Barbancourt offered many tasty samples, from the 15-year-old rum to modern cocktails. Karabela by Stella Cho featured the 4-year-old Barbancourt 3 Stars. (Atomic Grog photo)

BEST BOOTH: Rhum Barbancourt. The sophisticated kiosk from Haiti’s flagship brand had everything you’d want from a rum festival presenter: Classy and eye-catching displays plus a perfect photo-op spot, the full range of distinctive rums readily available for tasting, and a world-class mixologist shaking up fresh (and delicious) cocktails. It was almost unfair to the rest of the brands. Of course, we’re intimately familiar with the full Barbancourt range from its years as a sponsor of The Hukilau. And we’ve always kept our home bar stocked with the three 86-proof core products – the lightly aged Rhum Blanc, the 4-year-old “3 Stars,” and the 8-year-old Speciale Reserve “5 Stars” – along with the 70-proof Barbancourt Pango, one of the best flavored rums on the market. You’ll find several Barbancourt rums featured in our new Haitian Zombie recipe. But the brand’s crown jewel is the premium sipping rum, the 15-year-old Estate Reserve blend. Like the others, it’s distilled from sugar cane juice in the rhum agricole style and aged in French oak. We were reminded just how good this rum is after tasting the complex, nuanced and very refined sip. Rhum Barbancourt remains one of the most consistent (and reasonably priced) brands on the market.

Trinidad 2009 is one of the newest limited-edition rums from Plantation.
Trinidad 2009 is one of the newest limited-edition rums from Plantation. (Atomic Grog photo)

BEST NEW RUM: Plantation Trinidad 2009. I almost skipped the booth from longtime festival participant Plantation – the popular rum brand from France’s Maison Ferrand. I own or have tasted most of the booth’s award-winning bottlings, which are sourced from islands across the world before a second aging and bottling in France. But I spotted a new one, and I’m glad I stopped to try it. Plantation Trinidad 2009 is a limited-edition blend that was aged for 11 years in ex-bourbon casks in Trinidad before aging for a year in oak barrels in France. Plantation has perfected this somewhat controversial production style, and it serves this release well. Clocking in a 103.6 proof, this is a dynamic yet delicate blend with light citrus and spice notes along with hints of gasoline (in a good way). The latter was something I don’t recall ever encountering in a modern Trinidadian rum (Angostura is now the island’s sole rum producer). It’s an intriguing release, one I definitely recommend. Just for the heck of it, I compared it head-to-head against a similar rum from the festival’s VIP Tasting Bar: the acclaimed Velier Caroni 15. This is a 15-year-old, 104-proof rum from the Caroni Distillery in Trinidad, which unfortunately closed in 2003 after a long history that included many years of supplying its rich, dark rums to the British Navy. This bottling from Italy’s Velier is outstanding, a rich and powerful rum with lots of dark fruit flavors and an oily, gasoline-like punch. One of my favorites from the tasting bar. The similarities in the two rums was clear, particularly the smoky petrol. To me, the Plantation Trinidad 2009 release comes off as a lighter, more approachable version of the Caroni 15. (Note: There’s also a 12-year-old Caroni from Velier that I have not tried.). The ABV is almost identical, and the same unique gasoline notes stand out. When Caroni closed, the majority of its remaining rum was acquired by Angostura, so it’s entirely possible some Caroni stock is used in this blend. All the Plantation website says is the rum “was chosen from the cellars of Trinidad Distillers” (which owns Angostura). There has been speculation that Angostura uses some of its Caroni stock in the “1787” expression, its top-of-the-line rum blend that’s aged for a minimum of 15 years but released at just 80 proof. It’s possible there’s also a tiny bit of Caroni in this new blend from Plantation as well.

Continue reading “Photos, recap: Miami festival reunites rum family for one-day tasting event”

Minimalist Tiki

RECIPES: French, Haitian Zombies reflect true roots of deadly cocktail’s namesake legend

RECIPES: French, Haitian Zombies reflect true roots of deadly cocktail's namesake legend

Until cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed the mystery behind Don the Beachcomber’s classic Zombie cocktail, the true recipe lay buried for more than 70 years. Berry’s discovery and publication of his findings in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari (2007) spurred a revival and greater appreciation of the deadly drink that continues to this day.

Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari
An ad for ‘Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari’ around the time of its original release.

Simultaneously and coincidentally, the world of cinema also went zombie crazy, ushering in a renaissance of the modern horror archetype. Of the 30 films on a recently published list of “The best zombie movies of all time,” half were released in the 21st century.

With the precision of a pathologist, Berry dissected and definitively revealed the template that the bootlegger turned Tiki cocktail pioneer used to create what was arguably the most popular drink of the post-Prohibition era. The original 1934 recipe is a groundbreaking masterpiece, combining multiple rums and spices with sweet and sour juices and syrups, bitters, and even a touch of anise. Stay tuned for the upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film (The Donn of Tiki) for the full story of his life and times.

But what inspired the name of the cocktail? We can only assume it was White Zombie, released just a year or two before the drink and considered to be the first zombie film. Starring monster movie legend Béla Lugosi, it’s a far cry from today’s gore fests featuring flesh-eating corpses. The movie is actually fairly faithful to the true folklore, spinning the tale of a Haitian voodoo priest who drugs his victims and turns them into zombie slaves.

Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) shows off what appears to be a Zombie along with some of his other groundbreaking creations
Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) shows off what appears to be a Zombie along with some of his other groundbreaking creations. (From

In the ensuring years, that origin story has been widely ignored by pop culture. The movie genre traces its modern roots to director George Romero and his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Nearly every movie or TV series since has loosely followed Romero’s template of reanimated corpses mindlessly running amok for no apparent reason, with political and social statements thrown in for good measure.

Back in the 1930s, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach) simply borrowed the name and made no attempt at connecting it to its island of origin. But what if we go back to the roots of the true zombie legend and use it as inspiration for not one, but two new Zombie cocktails?

SEE BELOW: New original cocktails
>>> VODOU ZONBI (Haitian Zombie)

But first, here’s a quick history lesson on the mythology and cultural significance of what has become known as the zombie.


BACKGROUND: Haitian zombie folklore rooted in slavery, French colonialism

The true story behind zombie folklore is scarier and more tragic than a movie.

"Zombies" by Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud, 1953 (oil on board mounted on wood panel). Part of the Haitian Collection at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.
“Zombies” by Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud, 1953 (oil on board mounted on wood panel). Part of the Haitian Collection at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

Like its sister islands, what is now Haiti was invaded and colonized by a European power. France established Saint-Domingue in 1664, growing it into the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean on the backs of African slaves.

The brutal practice came to a violent end in 1791, when slaves staged a mass revolt and rose up against their oppressors. By 1794, the French government abolished slavery throughout its empire, more than 70 years before the 13th Amendment ended the practice in the United States.

The revolt sparked the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804 with the island’s independence and heroic ex-slave Toussaint Louverture installed as Haiti’s first governor general. It was a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World, distinctive as the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state that was both free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former captives.

The legend of the zombie, or “zonbi” as it was known in Haitian Creole culture, could be considered a metaphor for the horrors of slavery.

A zonbi at twilight in sugar cane field in Haiti. (Wikimedia Commons)
A zonbi at twilight in sugar cane field in Haiti. (Wikimedia Commons)

The word itself and the concept of zombie-like creatures can be traced back to African origins. Some research has also found a connection to the island’s indigenous Taíno people, known for their shamanist practices. The African slaves brought with them traditions and from their homeland, including the “Vodou” religion.

Haitian Vodou developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, merging traditional religions of west and central Africa with Roman Catholicism. In Haitian culture, a zonbi is a dead body brought back to life by a Vodou sorcerer known as a “bokor.” According to legend, the zonbi is under the total control of the bokor as a personal slave and lacks any will of its own. It’s part of a complex, spiritual belief (“soul dualism”) that a person has two or more kinds of souls.

One soul (“body soul”) is associated with body functions while the other (“free soul” or “wandering soul”) can leave the body. In the belief system of the enslaved Africans brought to Haiti, the afterlife included a return to their homeland, where both souls were reunited. However, if they had offended their voodoo deity, they would remain a zonbi and be a slave for eternity.

The Magic Island

The fear of “zombification” was used by slave drivers to discourage slaves from committing suicide. These men who directed the daily work were often slaves themselves and sometimes also practicing voodoo priests, according to scholars. After the revolution, the zonbi became part of Haitian folklore, a stirring reminder of the past in the hope that it never happens again.

The earliest references to zombies in the United States, cited throughout the 1800s, were also closely associated with slavery and connected to African traditions. But the phenomenon went mainstream during the United States’ military occupation of Haiti (1915–1934).

Travel writer William Seabrook’s book, The Magic Island (1929), revealed “voodoo cults” in Haiti and likely inspired the 1932 film White Zombie. Though it takes place in Haiti, the film twists the legend to appeal to its American audience. I Walked With A Zombie, a 1943 horror movie set in a fictional Caribbean island, further strays from the original legend. By 1968 and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the horror film was cloaked in social commentary and civil rights, leaving Haiti’s zonbi myth to the history books.

Zombi Child

The Haitian zombie made a brief comeback in 1985, when anthropologist Wade Davis published his controversial findings in the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which recounted his experiences investigating Vodou cults in Haiti. It was criticized for scientific inaccuracies in regards to its theories about psychoactive drugs, but it was a commercial success and inspired the 1988 horror film of the same name (starring Bill Pullman).

But just when you thought the legend was dead and buried, a more socially aware mindset has sparked new interest.

Continue reading “RECIPES: French, Haitian Zombies reflect true roots of deadly cocktail’s namesake legend”

Rum Spotlight: Ed Hamilton brings new West Indies blend to Florida

Rum Spotlight: Ed Hamilton brings new West Indies blend to Florida

Updated Dec. 23, 2020

Importer Ed Hamilton has announced the arrival of a new Hamilton Rum blend bottled for the Florida Rum Society, soon to be available in retail locations across the Sunshine State. Plans call for the rum, a blend of Jamaican and Guyanese rums, to be distributed in 2021 to other states as well.

Ministry of Rum Private Collection, Florida Rum Society Blend

The first shipment arrived in Orlando on Friday (Dec. 4) from Hamilton’s New York bottling facility, he announced during a Zoom happy hour event that evening. On Thursday, he teased Florida rum lovers with an Instagram post containing the label, announcing that the rum was “on I-75 on the way to Florida.”

Jump below: 15 things you need to know about Ed Hamilton and Hamilton Rum
Recipe: Hamilton Navy Grog, as served at The Mai-Kai

The quick arrival pleased the longtime rum connoisseur, author and owner of his own boutique label and import company, Caribbean Spirits. The new rum will be part of Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum Private Collection, containing a similar label but more limited-edition bottlings than his standard Ministry of Rum releases. These include a variety of rum blends sourced from Jamaica, Guyana, St. Lucia and other islands.

He also imports a selections of acclaimed rums from Martinique, including the Neisson, La Favorite and Duquesne labels. Ministry of Rum refers to the website and message board Hamilton launched in the late 1990s that remains an essential reference tool for researching and learning about all rum.

Ed Hamilton spars with rum ambassador Ian Burrell at the first Miami Rum Congress in February 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Ed Hamilton spars with rum ambassador Ian Burrell at thefirst Miami Rum Congress in February 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

For the Florida Rum Society blend, Hamilton said he went with a modified version of his popular Navy Strength blend, a powerful 114-proof combination of 60 percent Guyana rum and 40 percent Jamaican rum. The new blend is more accessible, clocking in a 45 percent alcohol by volume, or 90 proof. Hamilton said the blend is 65 percent from Demerara Distillers in Guyana and 35 percent from Worthy Park Estate in Jamaica.

Besides the proof and percentages, there’s a slight variation the age of the rum, Hamilton said. The Jamaican component is a 1-year-old rum while the Navy blend contains unaged distillate. The Guyanese rum is the same blend of 2- to 5-year-old rums that Hamilton uses in the Navy Strength bottling, as well as the Hamilton 86 and 151 Guyana rums that are well-known and loved at Tiki bars across the country. Check our in-depth look at Hamilton’s journey in bringing these rums to market, and their use at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.

The Florida Rum Society blend promises to be more versatile and just as tasty as the Navy blend, its lower proof and added aging making it more assessable as a sipper and all-purpose mixer. It’s also a higher proof than the similar New York Blend, an 84-proof version of the Navy blend. At 65 percent Demerara, it could also make a fine substitute for Hamilton 86 in cocktails. During the Zoom meeting, Hamilton sipped on one of his favorite easy-to-make highballs, a blend of Hamilton 86, Hamilton Jamaican Pimento Dram, and orange juice. I tried a mix of 1 part dram, 3 parts rum and 6 parts juice, and it was delicious.

The flagship Hamilton rums from Guyana are available at Total Wine stores in Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2016)
The flagship Hamilton rums from Guyana are available at Total Wine stores in Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2016)

The new rum should also work well in classic Tiki cocktails that call for a roughly equal blend of non-overproof Demerara and Jamaican rums, such as the Navy Grog (and Beachbum Berry’s The Ancient Mariner), Pearl Diver’s Punch, and Sidewinder’s Fang. The extra 5 percent ABV will give the drink a boost to help it hew closer to the original rums. In the mid-century heyday, it was not unusual for standard mixing rums to be higher than 80 proof, especially those from Guyana and Jamaica. During the Zoom meeting, I enjoyed a Navy Grog featuring three of Hamilton’s signature rums (see recipe below).

Follow the Florida Rum Society on Facebook and Instagram for updates on distribution. Hamilton confirmed that the main retail location will be the Sarasota Liquor Locker. The rum society boasts a robust online store with quick delivery across the state featuring rums stocked by the Sarasota store.

UPDATE: Sarasota Liquor Locker and the rum society’s online shop were the first get the rum. Soon after, it was on its way to Five Star Liquor & Wine in Orlando, Primo Liquors in Broward County (multiple ocations), Big Game Liquors in Miami, and Beach Liquors in the Panhandle (multiple ocations).

Florida Rum Society

Hamilton said he expects retail outlets across the state to carry the rum. Part of the goal of the partnership with the Florida Rum Society, he said, is to leverage the group’s influence to persuade more retailers to carry the Hamilton (and Caribbean Spirits) product line. The bottling includes 112 cases, he said, though he didn’t rule out another batch in the future depending on demand. If the store you frequent in Florida doesn’t carry Hamilton rums, or you’d like to request the new blend, ask them to contact the distributor: Progress Wine Group from Opa Locka, (321) 230-4682.

UPDATE: The Florida Rum Society announced an online cocktail contest featuring the new blend, with the winner earning “a hoard” of Hamilton rums. The group has quickly ramped up its activities after forming only in mid-2019. Members began holding in-person gatherings before the pandemic and have continued them online, with Hamilton and other high-profile rum industry veterans, such as Privateer Rum’s Maggie Campbell, joining in.

The Hamilton blend is not the society’s first special bottling. Just last week, a Plantation 2008 single cask rum from Guyana featuring a Florida Rum Society label landed in Orlando. This label release is extremely limited (just 140 bottles) and available at Five Star. There are also a few bottles remaining at Five Star from the exclusive (214 bottles) release in August of a 109.2 proof New England rum from Privateer dubbed Rumdemic. The release marked the return of Privateer’s single barrel program (now known as the Letter of Marque series).

If that’s not enough for Florida rum fanciers, another exclusive release is coming in 2021. The Florida Rum Society Masters Selection from Chairman’s Reserve and St. Lucia Distillers is available for pre-sale at Jensen’s Liquors in Miami. This 115.6 proof blend is expected around April. Shipping and pick-up are both available.

For more on the Florida Rum Society, check out the interview with founder Jay Cocorullo on the Rumcast podcast, episode 14.


15 things you need to know about Ed Hamilton and Hamilton Rum

As part of the inaugural Miami Rum Congress in February 2019, the “Minister of Rum” (he actually prefers to be called “Administer of Rum”) hosted his first-ever master class at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale on his Hamilton Rum product line, including a discussion of his journey from Caribbean sailboat adventurer to rum importer and label owner.

Hamilton Rum master class at The Mai-Kai

The hands-on symposium took place in the historic restaurant’s intimate Samoa dining room and included rum and cocktail samples, plus a heaping helping of Hamilton’s wit and wisdom. Here are a few nuggets we gleaned from the presentation:

  • After studying chemical and mechanical engineering and getting his college degree, Hamilton worked a job “selling bomb parts” in the mid-1970s. “It really wasn’t something I wanted to base my career on,” he said. When his boss queried him about what he wanted to be doing in five years, he exclaimed: “Go sailing.” Asked how he could make that happen, he replied: “I quit.” He says never spent another day looking for a job after that.

Continue reading “Rum Spotlight: Ed Hamilton brings new West Indies blend to Florida”

Photos: Demerara rum flows at The Mai-Kai’s magical retro event featuring The Atomic Grog

The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk about “Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon” during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled.

SEE BELOW: Event photo gallery | Previous: Atomic Grog event preview

Armed with a Zombie, Hurricane Hayward is ready to get started with his talk on Demerara rum
Armed with a Zombie, Hurricane Hayward is ready to get started with his talk on Demerara rum.

A big thanks to sponsor Lemon Hart & Son rum and brand ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis for all the assistance, including the photos below plus the promo materials featured at the event as well as a special Blackpool spiced rum package that was presented to a lucky charity raffle winner. The raffle raised $275 for the Humane Society of Broward County.

The event kicked off at 4 p.m. with an extra hour of happy hour that included our talk in The Molokai bar. There was a full house of close to 100 people on hand for the 30-minute presentation, plus two sample cocktails featuring Lemon Hart’s two traditional Demerara rums.

Lemon Hart 151 is a legendary Tiki cocktail ingredient and one of the world’s most distinctive rums. The Mai-Kai features it in seven of its most flavor-packed (and strong) cocktails, including the Jet Pilot and Zombie. Guests at the Jan. 19 event were treated to a mini version of the 151 Swizzle, a classic that showcases the rich and smoky overproof rum.

Demerara Float samples make the rounds
Demerara Float samples make the rounds.

As a special treat, we also sampled the long-lost Demerara Float, perhaps the best of all the drinks from the 1956 menu that have been retired over the decades. It’s served only at special events, so it was a unique opportunity to try this Don the Beachcomber creation (originally known as the Demerara Dry Float) using Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum, aka Original 1804.

Historically, this is the rum used by Don the Beachcomber and The Mai-Kai in their mid-century masterpieces that you can still taste at the Fort Lauderdale Tiki temple. Be sure to check out the Yeoman’s Grog (aka Navy Grog), S.O.S. (aka Three Dots and a Dash) and Bora Bora (aka Donga Punch). These days, The Mai-Kai employs the 86-proof Hamilton rum from the same distillery as Lemon Hart, the famed Demerara Distillers in Guyana.

Attendees received my handy checklist documenting all The Mai-Kai cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86, with the strong warning that I don’t advise trying all 13 in one sitting. Or two. Or three. Take your time and savor them.
RELATED: See all the cocktails featuring Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai

Here are some nuggets of info from the 30-minute talk:

Continue reading “Photos: Demerara rum flows at The Mai-Kai’s magical retro event featuring The Atomic Grog”

Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival

Miami Rum Festival Cocktail WeekFueled by the first Miami Cocktail Week, mixologists upped their game at the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in April, presenting new and classic drinks with a modern flair. From the full week of events hosted by area bars, to the three-day Grand Tasting exhibits attended by more than 10,000 enthusiasts, there were plenty of opportunities to sample some of the best rum drinks being created today.

This story covers my search for the tastiest and most creative cocktails of the entire week. Click here for an overview of the festival and reviews of the best rums.

Miami Rum Renaissance Festival was held April 25-27 at the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center. Miami Cocktail Week was April 21-27 at venues throughout South Florida.
See recipes below: Don Q Cocktail | Miami Swizzle | Passion Fontaine | Good Head
Jump below: The Grand Tastings | The Top 10 cocktails
Related coverage: Upstart spirits share spotlight with major players at Miami Rum Fest
Atomic Grog photo gallery | RumXP International Tasting Competition results

Matt Robold pours Plantation Rum as he mixes up Caña Rum Bar cocktails
Matt Robold pours Plantation Rum as he mixes up Caña Rum Bar cocktails at The Broken Shaker on Monday, April 21. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

THE PRE-PARTIES: Cocktail Week kicks off

It’s fitting that the first event of the week was held at Miami Beach’s The Broken Shaker, one of the most acclaimed cocktail bars in South Florida. But this was not just an ordinary evening at the funky indoor/outdoor bar, which would have been just fine. I did manage to squeeze in one of the establishment’s carefully hand-crafted rum cocktails before I left, but the main attraction of the evening was the pop-up bar sponsored by Plantation Rum and featuring mixologists from Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles. [See the flyer]

There were four complimentary drinks [see menu] expertly mixed by Daniele Crouch and Matt Robold, aka Rumdood. This was no easy task considering the temporary bar set up on the patio, not far from the pingpong table and quite a distance from any traditional bar fixtures and plumbing. But the drinks were spot-on, made to order and consummately garnished. This pair deserves an award for most impeccably produced drinks under strenuous circumstances. I noticed Rumdood sweating in the Miami heat, but he and Daniele never lost their cool. My only complaint would be that they ran out of their homemade peach cordial before I could try the Gypsy Cab cocktail, which got high marks from the folks I talked to.

Continue reading “Cocktails reach new heights of creativity at Miami Rum Festival”

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The classic Demerara Float rises again … and again

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The classic Demerara Float rises again ... and again

Updated June 2024
See below: Demerara Float review | Ancestor recipe
Official recipe | Tribute recipe
Related: The delicious Demerara Cocktail just can’t stay retired
Mai-Kai cocktail guide
More “lost cocktails” | Tropical drink family tree
Demerara rum – The Mai-Kai’s secret weapon
NEW: Demerara Float on Make and Drink (YouTube)

Most fans of the spectacular tropical drinks at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale are content with the current menu’s 47 cocktails, a majority of them classic concoctions that have withstood the test of time for more than 65 years. But The Atomic Grog can’t get enough of The Mai-Kai, so we like to crank up our flux capacitor and go back in time to dig up a few “lost cocktails” that disappeared from the menu over the years.

A classic returns: The Demerara Float in March 2013
A classic returns: The Demerara Float in March 2013. (Photo by Christie J. White)

Consider this the advanced level of the Okole Maluna Society, our cocktail guide that includes reviews and recipes of every current drink and a few long-lost classics.

When the Demerara Cocktail came out of retirement in August 2012, it gave us the inspiration to dig deeper into the history and explore some of the other long-gone drinks. Here’s the cool part: They’re not really long gone. The old recipes are still kept in The Mai-Kai back offices, safely under lock and key.

So after the return of the Demerara Cocktail, the next logical step was to revisit its sister drink, the Demerara Float. It took more than six months, but our wish was granted unexpectedly in early in 2013, when the photo above popped up on the Facebook news feed of The Hukilau organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White. It looked like a Shark Bite with its Appleton rum floater. But this was no Shark Bite. The rum was noticeably darker. Could it be?

Continue reading “Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The classic Demerara Float rises again … and again”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Ignite your passion for flaming drinks with the Kona Coffee Grog

See below: Our Kona Coffee Grog review | Ancestor recipe
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

This is the 51st weekly review in our yearlong series exploring the cocktails at the iconic Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, and it marks the completion of all the drinks on the current menu. Next week, we conclude our odyssey with a historic drink that’s no longer on the menu.

Kona Coffee Grog
From an old Don the Beachcomber menu.

One of the great rituals at The Mai-Kai is ordering the Kona Coffee Grog, a potent after-dinner drink that’s served tableside with a flamboyant pouring of flaming 151 rum. The traditional preparation and presentation of this classic has been passed down to generations of servers, and it remains one of the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian restaurant’s signature experiences.

The Kona Coffee Grog is just as much a throwback to the early days of Tiki as the Zombie or Mai Tai. And the fact that it’s still served in the exact same style only enhances the authenticity. Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, served many hot drinks in the early days of tropical mixology. There was Hot Buttered Rum, Hot Tiger’s Milk, and Don the Beachcomber’s Coffee Grog. The Kona Coffee Grog was likely a variation of the latter.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Ignite your passion for flaming drinks with the Kona Coffee Grog”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors

Updated September 2020
See below: Our Jet Pilot review | Ancestor recipes
Tribute recipes | Social media tributes
Related: The Atomic Grog makes a Jet Pilot on The Tiki Trail Live
Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Test Pilot

Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot was one of the most copied drinks during the mid-century heyday of Polynesian cocktails. It morphed into the Ace Pilot, Space Pilot and Astronaut, among others. At The Mai-Kai, it became the Jet Pilot.

As discussed in the review of the vintage S.O.S. (Don the Beachcomber’s Three Dots and a Dash), Donn Beach was a decorated World War II veteran and always had a deep connection to the armed forces. In his honor, a B-26 Marauder was painted with a replica of the Don the Beachcomber driftwood sign on its nose. The plane and crew flew many successful missions in the Pacific.

The Test Pilot is also an interesting study in how Donn Beach constantly tweaked his drinks. A Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s or ’40s could be vastly different than one with the same name in the 1950s or ’60s.

The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be the strongest of the strong
The Jet Pilot features four rums, including Lemon Hart 151, and may be The Mai-Kai’s strongest of the strong. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Included below is a Test Pilot recipe unearthed by cocktail sleuth and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry from the 1940s. It’s one of the most popular in the Tiki revival, and it features many of the same ingredients as The Mai-Kai’s Jet Pilot. We’ve also listed a later recipe from a book by Donn Beach’s widow, Phoebe. It’s slightly different but also very strong and has a similar flavor profile. Other popular old-school versions include the Jet Pilot served at Steve Crane’s The Luau chain in the 1950s (revealed by Beachbum Berry in Sippin’ Safari in 2007) and the Space Pilot, still served today at the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles (est. 1961).

In Minimalist Tiki by Cocktail Wonk blogger Matt Pietrek, a 2020 Spirited Award nominee for Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book, the Test Pilot and Jet Pilot are both listed among the “Classic 30” cocktails from the first golden era of tropical mixology.

Like Tiki Ti owner Ray Buhen, The Mai-Kai’s original mixologist, Mariano Licudine, worked for Donn Beach in the early days. In 1956, he was lured from the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago to design The Mai-Kai’s original tropical drink menu. So it’s likely he had a vast knowledge of multiple versions of the Test Pilot when he created arguably one of the best, The Mai-Kai’s high-octane Jet Pilot.


The official menu description

Jet Pilot
Fast and courageous, a vigorous blend of heavy bodied rums and zesty juices.

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)
Jet Pilot (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September, 2015)

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Dark and powerful rums, spicy and bitter notes with a hint of exotic sweetness.

Review: Very complex and intense. Not for the timid. Sweet, spicy and strong all at the same time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (see how it ranks)

Ancestry: The Jet Pilot dates back to The Mai-Kai’s original 1956 menu and is based on Don the Beachcomber’s Test Pilot.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Jet Pilot soars over its ancestors with flying colors”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: A near-perfect Zombie, the classic deadly cocktail

The Mai-Kai's Zombie back from the dead for Halloween

Updated Oct. 27, 2022
See below: Our Zombie review | Ancestor recipes | Tribute recipes
Related: More Zombie recipes, facts, history | Mai-Kai cocktail guide
* Beachbum Berry, Ed Hamilton join forces on Zombie rum blend

The Mai-Kai's deadly Halloween quarts and gallons, plus more great moments in Zombie cocktail history
NEW: The Mai-Kai’s deadly Zombie resurrected for Halloween, along with mysterious legend
The iconic cocktail is available for the first time since the historic restaurant closed after an October 2020 storm, and for the first time in takeout quarts and gallons.
VIDEO: How to pour a Mai-Kai Zombie at home
HISTORY: 5 greatest moments in Zombie lore

Few realize that the Zombie – not the Mai Tai – is the drink that kicked off the tropical drink craze. Created in the 1930s by the Dr. Frankenstein of tropical mixology, Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber), the Zombie remains his masterpiece.


Beach’s mad scientist approach to combining multiple rums, juices, syrups and spices was groundbreaking and set a standard that remains an influential touchstone for today’s bartenders in both the Tiki and craft cocktail worlds. But if it weren’t for cocktail sleuth, historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, we might not have ever discovered that legacy.

Berry rescued the Zombie (and many other Tiki classics) from bad bartending and half-assed attempts to re-create the originals. But his first attempt at the Zombie in his seminal 1998 book, Grog Log, was not a whole lot better than the imitators. By 2002, however, he had begun to unearth some great Zombie recipes, three of which are published in his second recipe book, Intoxica. One of these, later dubbed the “mid-century version” and purported to be a Don the Beachcomber recipe published in 1950, is shown below.

But Berry was just scratching the surface of Zombie lore. His 2007 masterpiece, Sippin’ Safari, yielded the motherlode. An entire chapter, “A Zombie Jamboree: The Curse of the Undead Drink,” provides the definitive research on the elusive cocktail. There’s more background on the 1950 Zombie, plus a much different 1956 version attributed to the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Waikiki.

Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011
Beachbum Berry mixes a classic Zombie at the Zombie Jam at The Mai-Kai on April 25, 2011.

The pièce de résistance, however, is Berry’s discovery of a 1934 recipe for “Zombie Punch” in the notebook of 1930s Don the Beachcomber bartender Dick Santiago. The find was considered the Holy Grail of lost tropical drinks, but one frustrating puzzle remained to be solved: the cryptic ingredient listed as “Don’s Mix.” This combination of grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup has now become a common ingredient, but the 2007 revelation was a landmark in the Tiki drink world. Berry and Cocktail Kingdom later released a 10th anniversary edition of Sippin’ Safari, which includes additional recipes, both old and unpublished, plus new ones from the Tiki revival.
* More on Berry’s search for the original Zombie | Books and Total Tiki online + app

In 2010, Beachbum Berry Remixed continued the tradition of digging deeper into the history of the drink that started it all. In addition to the discoveries in Intoxica and Sippin’ Safari, Berry presented several new recipes, including a simplified version of the complex creation. You can also find Berry’s Zombie recipes in his Total Tiki app for iPhone and iPad, a unique repository of more than 250 exotic drink recipes from yesterday and today. Launched in 2022, Total Tiki Online is subscription service accessible via all platforms that takes the app to the next level with exciting new information management features.

If you desire a more tactile way to enjoy Berry’s handiwork, pick up a set (or a case) of his signature Zombie Glasses from Cocktail Kingdom, which include the original 1934 and 1950 recipes on the side along with distinctive artwork and packaging. They’re also available at the author’s New Orleans bar and restaurant, Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, along with the Bum’s own twist on the vintage recipe.

A contemporary Zombie from "Beachbum Berry Remixed."
A contemporary Zombie from “Beachbum Berry Remixed.”

In addition to his acclaimed books, app and barware, Berry had a profound influence on today’s Tiki and cocktail scenes over the past decade or two by way of his entertaining and boozy symposiums around the world. His first-ever Zombie seminar took place at The Mai-Kai in April 2011 during the Miami Rum Fest. He resurrected that talk at The Hukilau in April 2012, again at The Mai-Kai, with a few additional surprises. [Full coverage]

Of course, The Mai-Kai’s Zombie is a descendant of Don the Beachcomber’s classics. There’s a reason it’s the top-rated cocktail in this guide, and the only one with a perfect rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps its the complex, undefinable flavors. The Zombie stands atop the tropical cocktail mountain as a true original with its intense flavors and high potency.

Despite its seeming cacophony of flavors, the Zombie (when made correctly) achieves perfect balance. The combination of spices are exotic and unique. The sweet juices and syrups are counteracted by intense anise and sour notes. And the coup de grâce is the blend of three rums in perfect harmony.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: A near-perfect Zombie, the classic deadly cocktail”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Drink like a native with the deadly Shrunken Skull

The Mai-Kai's Shrunken Skull, from ancestor to tribute

Updated October 2023
See below: Our Shrunken Skull review | Ancestor recipe
Official recipe | Tribute recipe | Bonus recipes
NEW: Shrunken Pumpkin Head is a sinister, seasonal spin on the classic
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Our expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.

The Shrunken Skull, served in the Abelam mug in May 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Shrunken Skull, served in the Abelam mug in May 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were common during Tiki’s golden age. The ominous Shrunken Skull and its variations were among the most infamous. The idea was to conjure up a sense of danger lurking in your local tropical getaway. Classic Tiki bars offer the ultimate escape from the mundane day-to-day existence, and every island adventure needs a little bit of macabre yet kitschy risk-taking.

In this case, the danger lies in the strong rums that permeate this deadly concoction. The Shrunken Skull is one of only two current Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other also comes with an element of danger attached to its name: the Shark Bite.

The Shrunken Skull is also one of only a handful of Mai-Kai cocktails to come in its own custom mug, originally a vintage shrunken head design by Al Kocab. The artist had his hand in many projects at The Mai-Kai, from furniture to advertising design.

It was replaced some time in the 1980s by a modern version based on Kocab’s design that remains to this day. The modern version features the details painted under the glaze, while the vintage version has the details painted over the glaze.

Our collection includes Mai-Kai Shrunken Skull mugs from the 1960s (left), 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Our collection includes Mai-Kai Shrunken Skull mugs from the 1960s (left), 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The above links and info come courtesy of My Tiki Life, a website featuring a user-generated database of mugs past and present. This highly recommended resource is so robust, in fact, it lists nearly 300 mugs (as of October 2023) with a tag of “skull.” Featuring photos, designer and manufacturer info, plus a full description of the mugs, is essential even if you don’t register as a member.

In recent years, the Shrunken Skull is also often served in a modern Abelam mug, which features a mask-like design of the Abelam people who live in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. The original was also designed by Kocab.

Both mugs have a handle, which is atypical of most Tiki mugs. It’s usually an indication that the mug does double-duty on the dessert menu as a vessel for hot coffee drinks. At The Mai-Kai, the current Abelam mug also can be enjoyed with an after-dinner classic, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog. The Shrunken Skull mug is also used for the Tahitian Coffee.

When the restaurant reopens in 2024, look for both mugs in the gift shop, aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Drink like a native with the deadly Shrunken Skull”