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

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Big Bamboo features big flavors, unique history

Updated July 2018
See below: Our Big Bamboo review | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Related: Mara-Amu is a second generation classic | Mai-Kai cocktail guide
More “lost cocktails” | Tropical drink family tree

Big Bamboo appeared on a menu for prospective members of the Okole Maluna Society. (Tim Glazner / MaiKaiHistory.com)
Big Bamboo appeared on a menu for prospective members of the Okole Maluna Society. (Tim Glazner / MaiKaiHistory.com)

Of all The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drinks, one of the very best was never available to the general public. Rather, the Big Bamboo is believed to have been an exclusive treat for members of the Okole Maluna Society, whose challenge was to try every cocktail on the extensive menu.

Okole Maluna (translation: “Bottom’s Up,” a traditional Hawaiian toast) was a club The Mai-Kai operated in 1958-59 to promote its fledgling new bar, The Molokai, and at the same time gain customer loyalty and goodwill. Prospective club members received a special menu on which they charted their progress, and a membership card when they checked off every drink.

Loyalty clubs were common in Tiki bars of the mid-century, when competition was fierce. “Most places had five to seven high-end Tiki places in their downtowns,” tropical drink guru and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry told Tales of the Cocktail for a recent article. “So how do you keep people coming back to your place as opposed to all of the other places that are trying to compete with you? A loyalty program.”

An Okole Maluna Society membership card, re-created by author Tim "Swanky" Glazner for the September 2016 release party for "Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant."
An Okole Maluna Society membership card, re-created by author Tim “Swanky” Glazner for the September 2016 release party for “Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.”

Berry, who also owns and operates Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans, first revealed the story of the Okole Maluna Society in his excellent chapter on The Mai-Kai and original mixologist Mariano Licudine in his seminal 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, which was recently re-released as an enhanced 10th anniversary edition. “You were eligible to join after you’d ordered every one of the 48 drinks on the menu, whereupon you received a personalized bamboo cup filled with a Mariano original called the Big Bamboo – a ‘secret’ drink which he only made for Society members,” Berry wrote.

The Tales of the Cocktail article traces the history of loyalty clubs from the Okole Maluna Society up through popular present-day programs at Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, and elsewhere. “Anything that engages customers and make them feel more special and part of a club is a good thing,” Berry said. “That ‘Aloha spirit’ is very important. That’s what a loyalty program helps foster.”

But while The Mai-Kai is renowned for its outstanding hospitality and service, the Okole Maluna Society was shut down after only two years, most likely because it was too popular. Author Tim “Swanky” Glazner details the creation and quick demise of the club in his much-anticpated book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant (2016, Schiffer). In the chapter “Okole Maluna Society: A Drinking Competiton,” Glazner reveals the lengths to which customers would go to overindulge. Check out this blog post that includes exclusive photos from the book.

Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of The Iconic Tiki Restaurant
The new book by Tim “Swanky” Glazner, released in September 2016, explores the history of The Mai-Kai and its legendary loyalty club, the Okole Maluna Society.

In a frenzy to become “president” of the society by being the first to finish the menu, some guests may have gone a little too far, Glazner wrote. One regular camped out at a nearby hotel, completing the task in just three nights. For his accomplishment, he had his portrait painted on black velvet by noted artist Eric Askew and hung as a centerpiece of a display of member mugs behind the Surfboard Bar.

In the interest of keeping interest in the club going, he agreed to keep his accomplishment secret so others could make a bid for the presidency. “I think we killed a few people,” manager Bob van Dorpe told Glazner. Though the society was a huge success for those two years in the restaurant’s infancy and helped boost the popularity of the cocktails, it was decided that perhaps it was not a good idea to encourage guests to consume them so quickly, Glazner wrote in the book.

Glazner’s account of the Okole Maluna Society contains one distinct difference than Berry’s, however. According to his sources, the name of the secret drink given to members upon completion of the regular menu was called the Okole Maluna. It’s unclear if this was a distinctly different drink than the Big Bamboo that Berry revealed in Sippin’ Safari, or perhaps just a different name for the same recipe. Photos and artwork (see below) show a stylized bamboo mug, and the only menus on which the cocktail was featured appear to be the special Okole Maluna Society cards created for The Molokai bar (see above).

The special mugs for members of the Okole Maluna Society can see seen in this vintage artwork of The Mai-Kai's Surfboard Bar, which was later replaced by a dining area. (Courtesy of Tim "Swanky" Glazner, MaiKaiHistory.com)
The special mugs for members of the Okole Maluna Society can see seen in this vintage artwork of The Mai-Kai's Surfboard Bar, which was later replaced by a dining area. (Courtesy of Tim "Swanky" Glazner, MaiKaiHistory.com)

One thing is clear, however, as Berry explains in his book: Big Bamboo is the predecessor to one of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, Mara-Amu. Containing most of the same ingredients, the Mara-Amu just a bit milder.

By all accounts, both cocktails were original recipes by Licudine, The Mai-Kai’s “Houdini of the liquids” who created the drink menu when the restaurant opened in 1956. Most of the others were Licudine’s take on classics by tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber, for whom he worked during the prior decades in both Los Angeles and Chicago. Many of these drinks and recipes remain exactly as he left them when he retired in 1979. Licudine passed away in 1980.

So assuming you’ve done your duty and sampled all the other drinks on the menu, you’re now an approved member of the Okole Maluna Society and eligible to enjoy this lost classic.

July 2018 update: The Big Bamboo was one of the last of The Mai-Kai’s “lost cocktails” to come out of retirement when it appeared during a special event at The Hukilau in June. Participants in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai,” were given the exclusive privilege of ordering the drink during the Sunday finale in The Molokai bar.
At The Hukilau 2018, students from The Atomic Grog cocktail class not only received the exclusive Big Bamboo, which was being served to the public for the first time since the late 1950s. They earned their own Okole Maluna Society card and a free tour of the restaurant's historic art and architecture from author Swanky himself (pictured with Hurricane Hayward in The Molokai bar)
(Atomic Grog photos, June 10, 2018)
Students from The Atomic Grog class not only received the exclusive Big Bamboo, which was being served to the public for the first time since the late 1950s. They earned their own Okole Maluna Society card and a free tour of the restaurant’s historic art and architecture from author Swanky himself (pictured with Hurricane Hayward in The Molokai bar). You can pick up a signed copy of his book in The Mai-Kai Trading Post’s new online store.

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Big Bamboo

BIG BAMBOO

Okole Maluna Society review and rating

Size: Medium

Potency: Strong

Flavor profile: Gold and dark rums, passion fruit with bitter and sour nuances.

Review: Very well balanced, sweet and full of big flavors similar to Don the Beachcomber’s 1950 Zombie.

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

The Big Bamboo mugs had handles like a stein and were engraved with the Okole Maluna Society member's name
The mugs thought to be used for the Big Bamboo had handles like a stein and were engraved with the Okole Maluna Society member's name. (Courtesy of Tim "Swanky" Glazner, MaiKaiHistory.com)

Ancestry: Big Bamboo was believed to be a special Mai-Kai cocktail available only to members of the Okole Maluna Society after they had ordered every other drink on the menu. It evolved into the milder Mara-Amu, which remains a favorite on the menu and features its own distinctive mug.

Bilge: There’s little information about the special mugs that were used for the Big Bamboo. Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner provided the photo at right that shows the case where it’s believed they were kept. Aside from the photo and artwork above, we’ve been unable to find a trace. It joins the long list of sought-after Mai-Kai collectibles. If you find one, please let us know.

Agree or disagree? Share your reviews and comments below!

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OFFICIAL MAI-KAI RECIPE
Big Bamboo

(From Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari)

Big Bamboo by The Atomic Grog, July 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Big Bamboo by The Atomic Grog, July 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
* 1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
* 1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup
* 1/2 ounce dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce gold Cuban rum
   (or sub Virgin Islands rum)
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters
* 4 ounces (1/2 cup) crushed ice

Put everything in a blender or spindle mixer and blend at high speed for exactly 5 seconds. Pour into a bamboo mug or tall glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.

From the personal notebook of Mariano Licudine, circa 1960.

We like to make a larger version by just doubling the proportions. For a slightly modified version, check out Chemistry of the Cocktail.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* As usual, fresh juices are essential. I prefer all-natural white grapefruit juice with no sugar added. When white grapefruit is out of season, The Mai-Kai uses red or pink grapefruit, but always fresh squeezed from nearby Florida groves. The Mai-Kai has always used distinctive Florida citrus, which gives its cocktails a rich and fresh flavor. It’s sourced locally and 100 percent non-pasteurized. The lime juice is a unique blend, with Key lime juice dominating the sour and tart flavor. I recommend a specific blend if you want to duplicate The Mai-Kai flavor.
* Tiki Central: Click here for a full guide to the juices used at The Mai-Kai

A prototype of the Big Bamboo served by The Atomic Grog at a party marking the release of "Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant" by Tim "Swanky" Glazner in September 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A prototype of the Big Bamboo served by The Atomic Grog at a party marking the release of “Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant” by Tim “Swanky” Glazner in September 2016. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* You can create your own passion fruit syrup by making a simple syrup with passion fruit pulp. There’s a recipe in Sippin’ Safari that works well. Among the better bottled brands on the market are Small Hand Foods, B.G. Reynolds, Monin, Fee Brothers, and our favorite, Aunty Lilikoi. A good budget brand of passion fruit puree is made by Finest Call.

* Inspired by the artwork included in Sippin’ Safari and shown above, we included a garnish of fresh mint, which adds a great additional element with the smell arousing the senses and enhancing the drink. One other tip: Gently slap the mint against your hand to release its aromatics before inserting into the glass. The Mai-Kai also used mint when the drink made a rare appearance at The Hukilau 2018 (see photos above).

About those rums …

In September 2016, we were honored to be asked by author Tim “Swanky” Glazner to help celebrate the release of his book Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by making cocktails for his special guests during a party at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. The Sept. 16-17 festivities also included a walking tour and special on-stage presentation by Glazner at the restaurant, plus the return of two lost cocktails (Hanalei Bay and Dr. Fong) that had not been served in decades.

Hurricane Hayward mixes up the Big Bamboo during a room party as part of a special event for "Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of The Iconic Tiki Restaurant" in Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 16, 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)
Hurricane Hayward mixes up the Big Bamboo during a room party as part of a special event for “Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of The Iconic Tiki Restaurant” in Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 16, 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)

As it turns out, the key to the outstanding flavors in Big Bamboo are the specific rums called for in the original recipe. Unfortunately, neither is currently available. A quality dark Jamaican rum with a bit of funkiness makes this cocktail really shine. Appleton, which is featured in many of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, sponsored the September event and contributed several bottles for the party. While not as bold and funky as some other options, both the Signature and Reserve blends are s full of flavor and complexity, a fine choice for this cocktail. Appleton was recently pressed into service due to the unavailability of Kohala Bay, the direct descendant of the Dagger brand that was likely featured in the original. Click here for the story of Kohala Bay and Dagger, plus many suggested substitutions.

Big Bamboo by The Atomic Grog
Big Bamboo by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2012)

Cuban rum is even harder to find, at least for now. Formerly contraband in the United States thanks to the longtime embargo, it’s now trickling into the states after travel was recently opened up and rum was allowed to pass through customs in small amounts. In the years prior to Fidel Castro’s rule, this superb rum was featured at The Mai-Kai. Check out this photo of historic Cuban rum from the 1950s that still lines the upper shelves of The Mai-Kai’s back bar, spotted during a 2011 bar tour. If you can track down a bottle of Havana Club or another Cuban brand, by all means use it. My supply of Añejo Años (see photo above) is dwindling, but more recently I secured a bottle of Añejo Especial, another outstanding gold rum from Havana Club. For the party, I sought something that replicated those same flavors. There are many gold rums made in the Spanish style similar to Cuban, but the one that made sense in terms of both cost and taste was Ron Barcelo Añejo from the Dominican Republic. Among the many other choices are Virgin Islands rums such as Cruzan Estate Dark, Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña, plus Puerto Rico’s Bacardi Añejo, Bacardi 8, and Barrilito 3 Star. If you have any questions about the quality or taste of rums, a great resource is Robert Burr’s Rum Guide, which includes tasting notes and information on hundreds of fine rums from around the world. Burr also founded and produces the annual Rum Renaissance Festival.

When compared head-to-head, a Big Bamboo containing Kohala Bay and Havana Club is head and shoulders above any other options. While there are many other rum choices, it’s obvious that The Mai-Kai’s “Houdini of the liquids,” Mariano Licudine, knew best when he created this classic.

Okole maluna!

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Mara-Amu is a second generation classic

Updated September 2016
See below: Our Mara-Amu review | Official recipe
Related: The Big Bamboo features big flavors, unique history | Mai-Kai cocktail guide
‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai

The Mara-Amu is one of the most popular of the 47 tropical drinks on The Mai-Kai’s vast menu, due in part to the fact that it’s the only one that comes in a Tiki mug you can take home after quaffing your cocktail (others require a special trip to the gift shop). The mugs have remained generally the same over the decades, but occasionally you’ll discover a different glaze or an entirely different design (see bottom photo).

Artist Will Anders spruces up the Mara-Amu Tiki in The Mai-Kai's outdoor gardens. (Photo by Tiki Kiliki, September 2015)
Artist Will Anders spruces up the Mara-Amu Tiki in The Mai-Kai’s outdoor gardens. (Photo by Tiki Kiliki, September 2015)

Since they’re given away with the drink, Mara-Amu mugs aren’t especially rare or hard to find. Check the Ooga-Mooga mug collectors site for recent prices and lots of photos. The mug is iconic, however, and inspired a Tiki that now stands in a prominent spot in The Mai-Kai’s famous outdoor gardens.

The Mara-Amu Tiki is unique, created by South Florida artist Will Anders when he was toying with the idea of making Tikis from foam. The idea was they could withstand the elements better than wood, and be easy for people to install in their outdoor pools and Tiki bars. They ended up being more difficult and costly to carve (and also susceptible to lots of superficial damage inflicted by unrespectful guests), so the idea never took off.

One of Anders’ claims to fame is his role in restoring the smaller Tikis in The Mai-Kai’s gardens. He was given access to molds created by late owner Bob Thornton from the original wooden Tikis, and over the years has re-created many of them in concrete. As you meander through the lush tropical paths in the gardens, much of what you see are re-creations by Anders. He also carved a giant new wooden Tiki, dubbed King Kai, that stands near the Mara-Amu in the gardens. See the full story and photos of the creation and installation of this 10-foot icon in May 2016.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Mara-Amu is a second generation classic”