Modern Caribbean Rum

EXCLUSIVE: New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023 in Atlanta

New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023 in Atlanta

Tiki fans packed a conference room early on the first day of Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend on Jan. 20, eager to hear and see details of the upcoming multimillion-dollar refurbishments planned for the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in South Florida. The Atomic Grog was happy to oblige, presenting exclusive photos, renderings and video of the project that is poised to shift into high gear in the coming months.

Hurricane Hayward kicks off his presentation, "Okole Maluna! The Return of The Mai-Kai," at Inuhele in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo by Tim Glazner)
Hurricane Hayward kicks off his presentation, “Okole Maluna! The Return of The Mai-Kai,” at Inuhele in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo by Tim Glazner)

Jim “Hurricane” Hayward sprinkled the presentation on the 225-seat room’s large screen with new images and architectural plans. Appearing via pre-recorded video, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller took viewers on 10-minute walk-through of his work in The Molokai bar, one of the restaurant’s oldest dining rooms, plus a stroll through the gardens. The video received a great response after the interior designer and craftsman urged attendees to enjoy their Mai-Kai cocktails after the presentation.

Other upcoming projects were detailed for the first time, including new Mai-Kai mugs and other merchandise by contemporary Tiki artists, plus a signature rum blend from two historic Caribbean distilleries. After digesting all the news, the approximately 175 guests were invited to quench their thirst with authentic Mai-Kai cocktails in a poolside VIP lounge for a meet-and-greet event.

The fourth Inuhele event was held Jan. 20-22 at the Atlanta Sheraton Downtown, just two blocks from the historic Trader Vic’s location, where many attendees paid a nightly pilgrimage. Highlights included a wide array of presentations all three days, an authentic luau, rocking live bands, a marketplace featuring many top artists and craftspeople, daily room parties and special events, plus more. Check out our event preview for an overview of the diversity and creativity of Inuhele’s offerings. Event recap and more photos coming soon!

Jump to more below:
* Chapter 1: The Legacy
* Chapter 2: The Deluge
* Chapter 3: The Renewal
EXCLUSIVE: Updates, new images of the site plan
EXCLUSIVE: New rum, mugs, other merchandise
PHOTOS: Images of presentation, after-party | Video

Judging by the turnout for the presentation at Inuhele in Atlanta, there’s a great deal of interest in The Mai-Kai’s refurbishment plans. (Atomic Grog photo)

Recent coverage of The Mai-Kai
* Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans, clearing way for project to move forward
* The Mai-Kai turns 66 as work progresses on multiple renovation projects

It was a pleasure to share all the latest exclusive information on The Mai-Kai refurbishment plans with an enthusiastic audience. It was the first presentation on the first day, and the line to enter the “Jungle Room” stretched down the hall and into the lobby.

Mahalo to Jonathan and Allison Chaffin and their expert staff for the great event. And okole maluna to hospitality director Lucky Munro and Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner for their help with the cocktails. The support staff at the presentation was also very gracious, helping us solve a few technical issues and get the event on track as fast as we could. We hope to see y’all next year!

Swanky pours the Black Magic while Hurricane Hayward handles the Barrel O' Rum.
Swanky pours the Black Magic while Hurricane Hayward handles the Barrel O’ Rum. (Atomic Grog photo)

Inuhele, which started in 2018 as the Atlanta Tiki home bar tour, means “cocktail journey.” So I thought it was only fitting to kick off the show by talking about my personal cocktail journey at The Mai-Kai. My fascination with the delicious drinks, and the Tiki revival in general, started there around 15 years ago and is still going strong. Go to The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide to see the results of this journey.

Past presentations at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai have included deep dives into the cocktails, the menu, and the restaurant’s historic rum collection. In 2022, we turned our attention on the blog to the massive renovation project, posting exclusive news and photos as work progressed. When the opportunity arose to share our insights at Inuhele, we jumped at the chance.

None of this would have been possible without the crucial cooperation and assistance of several key members of The Mai-Kai team who have be extremely helpful over the years with all of our coverage: General manager Kern Mattei and public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Also mentioned at the top of the presentation was the leader of the new ownership team, Bill Fuller, a founder of both real estate development firm Barlington Group and restaurant management group Mad Room Hospitality.

I thanked Fuller for having the vision to restore and reimagine The Mai-Kai, and for providing access and graciously answering all my questions as I continue to cover the most magical restaurant in the world.

Images from the title slide show three eras of The Mai-Kai: The 1950s, when the restaurant was built in a desolate area far west of the popular beachfront. A recent view from what is now a very busy Federal Highway. And a rendering by "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller of the planned event center addition, coming in the second phase of the renovations
Images from the title slide show three eras of The Mai-Kai: The 1950s, when the restaurant was built in a desolate area far west of the popular beachfront. A recent view from what is now a very busy Federal Highway. And a rendering by “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller of the planned event center addition, coming in the second phase of the renovations.

CHAPTER 1 – The Legacy

While most Tikphiles in attendance knew quite a bit about the 66-year history of The Mai-Kai, we couldn’t discuss the significance of the current renovations without a brief tour through the past. Opened Dec. 28, 1956, in the small Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park, The Mai-Kai became a local and national historic landmark in 2014.

The dining rooms were outfitted with authentic artifacts from Polynesia, along with much work by budding restaurant decor firm Oceanic Arts. Massive Tikis by legendary carver Barney West were installed in the early 1960s. Sadly, only one survives. But it’s due to be restored as part of the refurbishments.

The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue was the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii) until the 2020 closing due to a roof collapse over the kitchen and back-of-house area. The show’s original bandleader, Toti Terorotua, came from Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii and continued to perform until shortly before his death in 2020. Inuhele guests were treated to the sounds of Terorotua & His Tahitians, his band from the 1950s, before and after the presentation.

A slide from the Inuhele presentation: The 1970 expansion increased the restaurant's capacity from 350 to its current 450, plus another 150 in The Molokai. For the next five decades, The Mai-Kai could service more than 700 diners comfortably at any one time during the busy season
A slide from the Inuhele presentation: The 1970 expansion increased the restaurant’s capacity from 350 to its current 450, plus another 150 in The Molokai. For the next five decades, The Mai-Kai could service more than 700 diners comfortably at any one time during the busy season.

Launched in 1962, the stage show is poised for a comeback under the leadership of Mireille Thornton. She started as a dancer, soon became the show producer and choreographer, then married owner Bob Thornton. The family, led by daughter Kulani Thornton Gelardi, remains part of the ownership team and will continue to run the restaurant and serve as its creative force.

The Mai Kai was already considered a landmark when it expanded in 1970. The $1 million project (see image above) included new dining rooms, lush landscaping of what is now the Tiki gardens, and the construction of the 7,000-square-foot back-of-house section that was compromised in October 2020. Also added were the kitchen’s rare Chinese wood-burning ovens, which were saved and will be relocated.

Also added: A redesign of The Molokai lounge using decor salvaged from the Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The nautical theme extends to the entrance area and back of house. One of the bar’s signature features is windows that are covered in a constant faux rainstorm that adds to the illusion of being trapped in a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon.

The 1970 additions would be the last major construction project at The Mai-Kai until 2022. For the next five decades, the restaurant cemented its reputation as the most grand Polynesian palace built during the mid 20th century.

A slide from the Inuhele presentation shows the area damaged and later lost after the October 2020 roof collapse. Photos by The Atomic Grog (top) and The Mai-Kai
A slide from the Inuhele presentation shows the area damaged and later lost after the October 2020 roof collapse. Photos by The Atomic Grog (top) and The Mai-Kai.

CHAPTER 2: The Deluge

The Mai-Kai managed better than most during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. While indoor service shut down, cocktails and food were available to go, and the restaurant fully reopened after two months. But the old adage “when it rains, it pours” proved to be true (literally) when a massive storm hit in late October at the same time a pipe burst in a main sprinkler system line, leading to the collapse of the roof over the 1970s-era kitchen.

Continue reading “EXCLUSIVE: New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023 in Atlanta”

Minimalist Tiki

The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

In the entertainment and hospitality industry, your biggest fans can also be your toughest critics. So when the new owner of South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai sat down with more than 100 Tiki enthusiasts during The Hukilau on June 11 for an open discussion of his plans to renovate the 65-year-old landmark, their reaction was crucial.

Related blog posts
* The Hukilau 2022: Daily recap, photos and video
* Beat the summer heat with takeout cocktails from The Mai-Kai

Bill Fuller, leader of the new ownership team that purchased The Mai-Kai in late 2021, speaks to attendees of The Hukilau 2022 at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach on June 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Bill Fuller, leader of the new ownership team that purchased The Mai-Kai in late 2021, speaks to attendees of The Hukilau 2022 at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach on June 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Judging by the many rousing ovations throughout the 50-minute presentation, veteran real estate developer and historic preservationist Bill Fuller passed the test with flying colors. The only murmurs of dissent came when the organizer of The Hukilau, Richard Oneslager, jokingly asked if it was true Fuller planned to replace the restaurant’s signature Chinese ovens with microwaves, and if The Molokai bar was being re-themed to Miami Vice.

Looming thunderstorms put a kibosh on the multimedia presentation planned for the open-air beachside gathering at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach. But Fuller’s words were more than enough to win over the crowd who came from around the world to the 19th Tiki weekender that traditionally culminates with a climactic evening at The Mai-Kai.

Closed since October 2020 due to massive flooding that damaged the kitchen beyond repair, the historic property is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar refurbishment. Plans spearheaded by Fuller’s ownership group, which partnered with The Mai-Kai’s founding Thornton family, became public in April after a presentation to the city of Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.

The Mai-Kai's renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space
EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

Fuller elaborated on those plans during his talk at The Hukilau, divulging some new details. He was joined by two members of The Mai-Kai family, Kulani Thornton Gelardi and Kern Mattei, who also revealed some interesting new projects in the works.

After a spirited intro by event emcee King Kululele, Oneslager sat down with Fuller and led a question-and-answer session under the large thatched hut between the pool and beach at the quaint boutique hotel. The burning questions on everyone’s mind, Oneslager said to Fuller, were: “What’s going to stay? What’s going to change? And are you going to screw things up?”

Mireille Thornton on stage at The Mai-Kai in the early 1970s. (Mai-Kai photo)
Mireille Thornton on stage at The Mai-Kai in the early 1970s. (Mai-Kai photo)

Fuller said he was “lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to join forces with the family” in September 2021. The reason The Mai-Kai is being preserved is mainly due to the will of the Thornton family, he said. Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, inherited the ownership mantle from her late husband, Robert Thornton, in 1989.

The 85-year-old family matriarch will continue to choreograph and produce the restaurant’s authentic Polynesian show, which she joined as a dancer from Tahiti in the early 1960s. “She has her own nuances, which is what makes special experiences like this tick,” Fuller said. “You can’t just replicate it, you need to have that body of knowledge, that creativity and heritage. That’s what’s so rich within the walls of The Mai-Kai.”

The first question for Fuller from the audience echoed a common refrain on social media: Exactly when can we expect to be back within those walls?

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022”

UPDATE: Rums of The Mai-Kai include potent, funky flavors from Guyana and Jamaica

Vintage Lemon Hart bottles in the back service bar at The Mai-Kai, along with the latest version of the venerable 151 Demerara rum (right). (Atomic Grog photo, February 2018)

Updated October 2021

APRIL 2021: Deconstructing Kohala Bay

Hurricane Hayward joined the Austin Rum Society online to reveal several new rum blends that hope to duplicate The Mai-Kai’s late, great dark Jamaican mixing rum. In the video below, we also enjoyed a Rum Barrel featuring the new recipe and discussed the history of The Mai-Kai …

AUGUST 2020: The Mai-Kai’s first signature rum

The Mai-Kai re-releases signature rum from The Real McCoy, plus new glassware and spirits menu
The Mai-Kai re-releases signature rum, plus new glassware and spirits menu
Check out our tasting notes on The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend, plus cocktail recipes, the new rum menu and the updated cocktail menu.
* New sipping rum menu introduced
Bonus recipes: The Real McCoy Shark Bite and Special Reserve Daiquiri
Previous coverage: More on Bailey Pryor, The Real McCoy and the new Mai-Kai rum

JUNE 2019: A Mai-Kai rum deep dive at The Hukilau

The Rums of The Mai-Kai, presented by The Atomic Grog at The Hukilau 2019
The Rums of The Mai-Kai symposium on Inside the Desert Oasis Room
Mahalo to Adrian Eustaquio and Inside the Desert Oasis Room for documenting the presentation featuring Hurricane Hayward and Matt Pietrek of Cocktail Wonk live on stage at The Mai-Kai during the closing festivities of The Hukilau 2019.
Click here to listen now

The Rums of The Mai-Kai, presented by The Atomic Grog at The Hukilau 2019
The Atomic Grog presents new class and symposium at The Hukilau 2019
Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog took guests on an virtual journey to the Caribbean to learn about the key rums and styles that have dominated The Mai-Kai’s acclaimed cocktails for more than 60 years. He was joined by rum expert Stephen Remsberg for an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at the Pier Sixty-Six hotel, and by Cocktail Wonk writer Matt Pietrek for an on-stage symposium at The Mai-Kai. See the event preview

The Atomic Grog presents new class and symposium at The Hukilau

JANUARY 2019: Exploring Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai

Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai's Secret Weapon on Jan. 19, 2019, at The Mai-Kai
Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon
The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. Click here to check out our full event recap, including photos and highlights of our Demerara rum discussion.

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

Most of the information below is from 2019 and before. Read our historical coverage and check out the news above. Stay tuned for full update, coming soon.

THE RUMS OF THE MAI-KAI

For more than 60 years, The Mai-Kai has carried on the tradition of Tiki forefather Don the Beachcomber by serving some of the world’s most acclaimed tropical drinks. The secret recipes created by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach) in the 1930s and ’40s became the basis for many of the exotic cocktails on the menu when Bob and Jack Thornton opened their Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale in 1956.

More on The Mai-Kai’s rums below
* Rums from Guyana star in classic cocktails
* The legacy of Jamaica’s dark rums
* Rating the Kohala Bay replacements
* Appleton rums: Jamaica’s gold standard
* Full list of sipping rums
Related: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide, reviews and ratings

From Sippin' Safari: This vintage photo shows Mariano Licudine displaying his rum collection in 1962.
From Sippin’ Safari: This vintage photo shows Mariano Licudine displaying his rum collection in 1962.

To run the bar program, the Thorntons tapped one of Beach’s top mixologists, Mariano Licudine, who spent 16 years honing his craft at Don the Beachcomber in their native Chicago. Licudine brought more than skills, secret recipes and a penchant for creating his own distinctive cocktails. He brought a great appreciation for rum. That legacy continues today in the drinks that carry on the tradition of Beach, the Thornton brothers and Licudine.
Menu: Vintage Don the Beachcomber rum list from 1941

By their very nature, Tiki bars are known for their rums and cocktails highlighting cane spirits. But The Mai-Kai takes it to the extreme. The 48 drinks on Licudine’s original menu called for 43 different brands of rum, reports author and Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in The Mai-Kai chapter of Sippin’ Safari, the seminal 2007 book on Tiki’s unheralded bartenders that was recently expanded and enhanced for a 10th anniversary edition.

The back of an Okole Maluna Society membership card, circa late 1950s.
The back of an Okole Maluna Society membership card, circa late 1950s.

A membership card for the Okole Maluna Society, the short-lived rewards program that challenged guests to sample every cocktail on the menu, touted 52 different rums, “light and dark … obscure and renowned … robust and delicate.” The society has its own chapter in historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner‘s 2016 book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.

“Shortly after opening, The Mai-Kai became the largest independent user of rum in the U.S., pouring more than 2,000 cases of Puerto Rican rum in 1958 alone,” Berry wrote in Sippin’ Safari. Some 60 years later, lighter bodied rums from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands still make up a large chunk of the total volume of rum poured in The Mai-Kai’s secluded back bars. They play a key role in the many popular drinks on the tourist-friendly mild section of the menu.

But Beach’s true genius, as carried on by his brethren at The Mai-Kai, was the ability to blend rums of different body and character and create an entirely new and bold flavor profile. Many of The Mai-Kai’s most robust cocktails feature three and four different rums, such as the Zombie and Jet Pilot.

A 1941 rum menu from Don the Beachcomber in Chicago, where mixologist Mariano Licudine worked for 16 years before starting The Mai-Kai's bar program with owners Bob and Jack Thornton in 1956.
A 1941 rum menu from Don the Beachcomber in Chicago, where mixologist Mariano Licudine worked for 16 years before starting The Mai-Kai’s bar program with owners Bob and Jack Thornton in 1956.

The rums that define The Mai-Kai style are straight out of Donn’s playbook. As a counterpoint to the Spanish-style column-stilled rums, Beach often added two English-style pot-stilled rums: The dark and funky rums from Jamaica, and the rich and smoky Demerara rums from Guyana. These have always been the distinctive flavors that define many of The Mai-Kai’s best cocktails, particularly those on the strong section of the menu.

Thanks to Berry and his research, The Atomic Grog has been able to document in the Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide the direct connection between The Mai-Kai’s cocktails and those Donn Beach classics.

Following is a deep dive into these two rum styles as they’re served at The Mai-Kai today and through history, including discussion and reviews of the current brands and cocktails.

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

DEMERARA RUMS: Lemon Hart, Hamilton shine in strong, flavorful cocktails

Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
The newest release of the iconic Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum.

The Mai-Kai began using the latest reboot of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, the iconic mixing rum from Guyana, in September 2016. This black blended overproof rum, which disappeared from the U.S. market in mid-2014, was reintroduced in the summer of 2016 and continues to regain distribution across the country. Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum (known as Original 1804) is making slower progress, and The Mai-Kai continues to use Hamilton 86 as its standard black blended Demerara rum as of mid-2018.
* Tiki Central: Latest updates on Lemon Hart’s return

It was during the two-year absence of Lemon Hart that Hamilton 151 and 86, also from Guyana, stepped up to fill the void. The Hamilton rums were embraced not only at The Mai-Kai, but at Tiki and craft cocktail bars across the country. While some bars have chosen to stick with Hamilton across the board, The Mai-Kai is splitting the difference with Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86.

Following is a list of the drinks at The Mai-Kai using Lemon Hart and Hamilton rums. The links will connect you with reviews and recipes.

Cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai. (Atomic Grog photo, April 2018)
Cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai. (Atomic Grog photo, April 2018)

151 Swizzle (151 proof)
Bora Bora (86 proof)
Jet Pilot (151 proof)
K.O. Cooler (151 and 86 proof)
Martinique Milk Punch (86 proof)
Oh So Deadly (86 proof)
Shrunken Skull (151 proof)
Sidewinder’s Fang (86 proof)
S.O.S. (86 proof)
Special Planters Punch (151 proof)
Suffering Bastard (151 proof)
Yeoman’s Grog (86 proof)
Zombie (151 proof)

Retired cocktails featuring Demerara rum: In addition to the current drinks listed above, you can also sample a few recipes for drinks that are no longer featured on The Mai-Kai menu. Both of these have made comebacks at special events, so you never know when they will return for an encore.
Demerara Cocktail | Demerara Float

HISTORY: The saga of Demerara rums at The Mai-Kai

An ad for the new Lemon Hart 151 rum, which is returning to its traditional yellow label after several years off the market in the United States.
An ad for the new Lemon Hart 151 rum, which returned to its traditional yellow label after several years off the market in the United States.

What exactly is Demerara rum and why is it so important to Tiki cocktails? According to Berry, aged Demerara rums “are the rich, aromatic, smoky ‘secret weapon’ in most truly memorable tropical drinks.” They hail from the banks of the Demerara River in Guyana, hence the name. The last remaining distillery in Guyana is Demerara Distillers, which produces its own extensive suite of rums under the El Dorado brand. It also supplies all of the world’s Demerara rum, including those bottled by Lemon Hart and Hamilton.

The historic distillery, aka Diamond Distillery, was established in 1670. The rums are made using molasses from local Demerara sugar, which along with the distillery’s special strain of cultured yeast, historic stills and Guyana’s tropical climate, provide a unique combination that yields some of the world’s richest rums. Diamond employs some of the oldest and unique stills the world, including the last wooden pot stills, which can be traced back to the 1730s.

There are more than 20 different styles of rum produced at the distillery, we learned in a 2014 seminar at the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami. Master distiller Shaun Caleb offered a fascinating look at the inner workings of Diamond Distillery and the excellent El Dorado rums.

Continue reading “UPDATE: Rums of The Mai-Kai include potent, funky flavors from Guyana and Jamaica”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans

Updated July 2021
See below: Our Mutiny review | Tribute recipes
Prostscript: Mutiny on blogs, in bars, and on social media
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
The Black Magic emerges from the shadows as a true classic

There are many great cocktail debates, most notably the Martini (gin or vodka?) and Old Fashioned (rye or bourbon?). At The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, it’s the Mutiny vs. the Black Magic in an epic battle between two classic rum-and-coffee cocktails.

The Mutiny is served in a heavier but still voluminous mug, which made its debut in April 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mutiny is served in a heavier but still voluminous mug, which made its debut in April 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The only way to truly compare these titans until recently was to sit down at the restaurant’s legendary Molokai bar and taste them side-by-side. This can be a daunting task since they’re both very strong and very large cocktails, not that we haven’t tried many times.

But thanks to our research, you can give it a whirl in your home bar with the tribute recipes posted below and on the Black Magic review. These aren’t simple drinks, but we’re sure you’ll find the results well worth the effort.

I pitch my tent solidly in the Mutiny camp. It’s always been decidedly higher in my Mai-Kai cocktail ratings (currently sitting at No. 10) and has an incredible complexity that keeps drawing me back. The Black Magic isn’t far behind at No. 14.

So where did these distinctive cocktails come from, and why are they so similar? The Black Magic came first, reportedly created before The Mai-Kai’s opening by mixologist Mariano Licudine, who was then working for Don the Beachcomber. It appeared on the original 1956 Mai-Kai menu and was joined some 15 years later by the Mutiny.

Mutiny stands above the Black Magic and The Hukilau in the Atomic Grog ratings
The Mutiny stands above the Black Magic and The Hukilau in the Atomic Grog ratings. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2010)

According to legend, the Mutiny was conceived on one of the many Mai-Kai staff fishing trips at which the participants always brought an ample supply of two cocktails: the Black Magic and Barrel O’ Rum. According to the story, there was a rebellion against those two drinks always being featured. To quell an impending mutiny, an idea was hatched to somehow combine them into one monster drink, and the Mutiny was born.

It’s unclear if they were actually mixed together that day on the boat. More likely, Licudine put his talents to work later to create an amalgamation of two of the most popular drinks on the menu. This would not be out of line for the owners to request. The cocktails already share many of the same ingredients, so it took just a few tweaks to yield some amazing results.

The Mutiny has been cited as a favorite of the late Mai-Kai co-owner Bob Thornton, so perhaps he was the driving force behind the drink’s creation. Over the years, it’s been mentioned as favorite by a who’s who of Tiki revival VIPs, including bar owners and authors Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Martin Cate, plus Tiki Oasis co-founder Otto von Stroheim.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic

Updated October 2023
See below: Our Black Magic review | Tribute recipes
The Black Magic on Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour
NEW: The Black Magic Cocktail is a new twist on the classic
Postscript: The Black Magic picked up by bloggers and bartenders, goes viral on social media
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide
The Mutiny is a worthy foe in the battle of the tropical titans

Prior to the opening of The Mai-Kai in 1956, there were perhaps other icy cocktails that employed dark rum and coffee as key ingredients. But none perfected it quite like the Black Magic.

Courtesy of TheSwankPad.org
From a 1963 Mai-Kai calendar. (Courtesy of TheSwankPad.org)

The drink that has spawned dozens of imitators – and even two similar concoctions at The Mai-Kai – has taken on legendary status in the Tiki cocktail community. The Black Magic is the oldest of what some call the “Holy Trinity” of large snifter drinks at The Mai-Kai: The Black Magic, Mutiny and The Hukilau.

One of the keys to this drink is a distinctive dark rum favored by original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine: Dagger was a dark Jamaican brand that stopped production some time ago. It became somewhat of a holy grail of Tiki mixologists looking to duplicate the key flavor in many Mai-Kai cocktails, especially the Black Magic.

During a back-bar tour in November 2011, Manager Kern Mattei revealed the secret of how that flavor is preserved: An obscure dark rum called Kohala Bay that was produced by Wray & Nephew, the same company that previously made Dagger.

Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum
Kohala Bay dark Jamaican rum was a key ingredient in many Mai-Kai cocktails. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2012)

Needless to say, we immediately went on an intensive search, but short of taking a trip to Jamaica it was nearly impossible to locate. We were told it was being imported only to Florida, and The Mai-Kai was one of only two bars to serve it. After some digging, however, we miraculously found a rare retail outlet that carried Kohala Bay and immediately stocked up. Our discovery of Kohala Bay sparked many other tribute recipes that you’ll find in this guide, and also spurred many other home mixologists to seek out the rum. Click here for more on the history of Kohala Bay at The Mai-Kai.

But all good things must come to an end. Kohala Bay was taken off the market in April 2016 and has not returned. While still seeking out an appropriate dark and funky run to fill the bill, The Mai-Kai switched to one of the Appleton Estate rums as its dark Jamaican mixer. Then, suddenly, a new rum appeared in April 2019. It’s a secret in-house multi-rum blend, similar to one of those we had been touting here on the blog. Click here for an in-depth guide along with all the suggested Kohala Bay substitutes.

The Black Magic is served in The Molokai bar in October 2016. It's not really raining. That's The Mai-Kai's special windows that simulate a calming tropical downpour. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Black Magic is served in The Molokai bar in October 2016. It’s not really raining. That’s The Mai-Kai’s special windows that simulate a calming tropical downpour. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The name Black Magic comes from the combination of dark rums and coffee, which sets this drink apart from most others from its era. It was reportedly created by Licudine while he was still working for Donn Beach as the No. 2 bartender at the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Chicago. But even Beach’s top men were not given the opportunity to contribute their own creations to his legendary drink menu.

Lured to Fort Lauderdale to run The Mai-Kai’s bar and create what would decades later become an iconic menu in its own right, Licudine borrowed heavily from Beach’s classics but also added his own flair (Mara-Amu, Derby Daiquiri, etc.). The Black Magic may be his crowning achievement, and it was his first creation to appear on a Mai-Kai menu.

While it’s not nearly as complex, an early Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1930s called the Jamoca could possibly have influenced Licudine, since he worked at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles at the tail end of that decade. As revealed by Tiki cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the Jamoca contains 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice, 1/2 ounce coffee syrup, 1 ounce chilled coffee, 1 ounce gold Puerto Rican rum, 1 ounce gold Jamaican rum, and 4 ounces of crushed ice. Blended at high speed for 5 seconds and poured into a specialty glass, it’s a coffee-heavy drink that hits few of the high notes later achieved by Licudine with the Black Magic. Berry theorized that it may have been an early Donn Beach experiment inspired by turn-of-the-century soda fountain fare. It’s historically worth noting, but probably not a true ancestor of the Black Magic. We consider this classic to be a true Mariano Licudine original.

************************** Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Black Magic emerges from the darkness as a true classic”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Cobra’s Kiss is an exotic taste explosion guaranteed to strike your fancy

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Cobra's Kiss is an exotic taste explosion guaranteed to strike your fancy

Updated June 2023
See below: Our Cobra’s Kiss review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe
* The ever-evolving story of fassionola UPDATED
Postscript: The Cobra’s Kiss tribute on social media NEW
Related: The Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Cobra’s Kiss is one of the hidden gems at The Mai-Kai, a complex and layered cocktail on the medium-strength section menu that may take newbies time to fully appreciate. But if you truly savor rum and exotic flavors, you’ll eventually experience a revelation.

A Cobra's Kiss is enjoyed during The Hukilau in June 2010. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A Cobra's Kiss is enjoyed during The Hukilau in June 2010. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

For The Atomic Grog, that revelation came during the 2010 Hukilau (see photo). It became the event’s drink du jour, a suddenly under-appreciated classic. If you hang out at The Mai-Kai and sample enough of the cocktails, you’ll have many similar experiences. Fittingly, the cocktail made a grand return to The Hukilau 13 years later at the 2023 opening-night party at the Beachcomber Resort while the restaurant nears the home stretch in its massive restoration project.
The Hukilau highlights: Photos and memories from Tiki weekender

While the Cobra’s Kiss flavor profile is distinctive, it’s not unique. Tiki cocktail fans may already be familiar with the Cobra’s Fang, an early Don the Beachcomber classic.

But as he did with many of Donn Beach’s classics, former Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine tweaked the Cobra’s Fang just enough to give it his own stamp at The Mai-Kai. In this case, it is indeed milder but also arguably more polished than the original.

Cobra's Fang

It’s one of our favorites on the medium menu, along with the Shark Bite and Rum Julep. All are intensely flavorful and highly recommended.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Cobra’s Kiss is an exotic taste explosion guaranteed to strike your fancy”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle

Updated November 2021
See below: Our 151 Swizzle review | Ancestor recipe
Tribute recipes UPDATED
Postscript: The 151 Swizzle tribute on social media NEW
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide | All 100+ Mai-Kai cocktail recipes
Demerara rum: The Mai-Kai’s secret weapon
Rums of Guyana star in classic cocktails

NEW: The Atomic Grog on Tiki Trail Live

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, Hurricane Hayward was the special mixology guest on Tiki Trail Live on Zoom, mixing up the new tribute to The Mai-Kai’s 151 Swizzle.
* Click here to jump to the recipe below
Tiki Trail Live: Get more show details on Instagram and Facebook
* Buy the 151 Swizzle Cup from Cocktail Kingdom

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

The 16 deadly drinks in the “strong” section are no doubt the stars of The Mai-Kai’s legendary cocktail menu. There’s a reason they comprise 13 of the Top 20 in our rankings. They’re by far the most inventive, mysterious and flavor-packed drinks on the menu.

The only thing more dangerous than a 151 Swizzle: Two 151 Swizzles
The only thing more dangerous than a 151 Swizzle: Two 151 Swizzles. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2015)

Just be careful when imbibing. The Mai-Kai doesn’t use the word “strong” lightly. Some contain 3 ounces of rum (or more), others a healthy dose of overproof. Among these, there are “strong” drinks and then there are “STRONG!” drinks. In the latter category, one of the first cocktails that comes to mind is the classic 151 Swizzle.

Like many Mai-Kai drinks, this deliciously dangerous concoction dates back to Tiki originator Donn Beach (better known as Don the Beachcomber) and has been on the Fort Lauderdale restaurant’s cocktail menu since its opening in 1956. It has become an iconic standard at some of the world’s top Tiki bars, from the 60-year-old Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles to the 5-year-old False Idol in San Diego. At Hale Pele in Portland, The Mai-Kai gets a shout-out in the menu description, and the presentation is very familiar. It’s likely they’re using a variation of one of our seven tribute recipes below.

Martin Cate, one of the world’s top rum and Tiki cocktail authorities, considers the 151 Swizzle his favorite drink on The Mai-Kai’s menu. [See interview] “When it’s made perfectly, it’s a wonderful drink,” he said. “That to me is my mothership.” At his acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, he serves a souped up version called the 2070 Swizzle, which he calls “my giant killer.” [See recipe]

The Swizzle Cup is part of the Tiki barware collection produced by Cocktail Kingdom in association with Beachbum Berry
The Swizzle Cup is part of the Tiki barware collection produced by Cocktail Kingdom in association with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. (Cocktail Kingdom photo)

Revealed in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s groundbreaking 1998 cocktail guide, Grog Log, the original Don the Beachcomber recipe is fairly simple (see below). As the cocktail sleuth pointed out in the book, it was originally served in a metal cup with a flared top, “but good luck finding one.” The Mai-Kai, of course, follows tradition and has always served its 151 Swizzle in a chilled metal cup.

Finding the correct cup outside of the handful of bars mentioned above, however, has traditionally been difficult. You could typically find a Mint Julep cup or other close approximation on eBay, but they fall short of the sleek, flared design of the original. Berry took matters into his own hands in May 2015, when he released a new line of Tiki barware via Cocktail Kingdom, including a Swizzle Cup. [See story]

When metal cups are in short supply, this is how you're likely to be served the 151 Swizzle at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)
When metal cups are in short supply, this is how you’re likely to be served the 151 Swizzle at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2017)

Beyond the cup, The Mai-Kai’s version of the 151 Swizzle is unlike any other. Like many Mai-Kai drinks, it’s based on the Don the Beachcomber version but was given a unique twist by original owner Bob Thornton and mixologist Mariano Licudine, who learned his craft from Donn Beach. We’ve taken a stab at re-creating the same flavor profile and have posted an ever-evolving list of “tribute recipes” below. Like Thornton, his stepson Dave Levy also tinkered with the recipe from time to time when he was in charge over the past 30 years, especially when changes were made to the rums.

The recipe grew out of discussion on The Grogalizer, a site highly recommend if you’re a fan of classic Tiki cocktails. Developed by The Swank Pad’s Tim “Swanky” Glazner, The Grogalizer is a database of hundreds of recipes from all of Beachbum Berry’s books, plus a few select others. The site allows you to rate the drinks, see how other mixologists rank them and share comments on each.

Sign up (it’s easy) and keep track of your progress through all the great recipes in these books. It’s also a seamless way to keep track of all the various bar ingredients you’ll need to re-create these classics, which include many in this guide. After compiling your online bar, you can figure out which drinks you can make with which ingredients, as well as resources for buying hard-to-find stuff. In September 2016, Glazner released his long-awaited book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, an essential addition to any Mai-Kai fan’s collection.

Metal cups for the 151 Swizzle, along with other frozen glassware, are kept in a special freezer in The Mai-Kai's kitchen service bar
Metal cups for the 151 Swizzle, along with other frozen glassware, are kept in a special freezer in The Mai-Kai’s kitchen service bar. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, November 2011)

The evolution of the tribute recipe has gone through several stages, as you’ll see below. The first big breakthrough came in March 2012, when I discovered Kohala Bay, a rare dark Jamaican rum that was a key ingredient in many of The Mai-Kai’s strong cocktails. In addition, a search of eBay yielded a set of metal cups that were similar to the real deal. With the cup and rum in my arsenal, I were able to come up a much more accurate tribute recipe.

But just when I thought I had it down pat, The Mai-Kai dropped a bombshell in late April 2012 with the reintroduction of Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum, which had been absent from its bars for some 15 years. This only made a great drink even better and returned it to its vintage recipe. This resulted in tribute recipes No. 2 and No. 3. The fourth variation of the recipe, created in early 2015 when Lemon Hart was replaced by Hamilton 151 rum from Guyana, is more complex and full of outstanding flavors.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: Robust flavors and potency are hallmark of 151 Swizzle”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Barrel O’ Rum is the Rodney Dangerfield of tropical drinks

The Barrel Before Christmas was part of The Mai-Kai's holiday pop-up in December 2019

Updated December 2023
See below: Updated tribute recipe | NEW: Barrel Before Christmas tribute
* Our Barrel O’ Rum review | Official recipe
Postscript: The Rum Barrel on social media
Related: Master Mixologist Rum Barrel Challenge
* Mai-Kai cocktail guide

There is no doubt that the Barrel O’ Rum (aka Rum Barrel) is the signature cocktail at The Mai-Kai in South Florida. From the iconic mug to the big, boozy yet accessible flavor profile, it epitomizes the over-the-top experience you’ll find at the 67-year-old Tiki temple.

The women's version of The Mai-Kai's new Rum Barrel T-shirt, based on the artwork for the upcoming cocktail menu by artist Eric October.
The women’s version of The Mai-Kai’s new Rum Barrel T-shirt, based on the artwork for the upcoming cocktail menu by artist Eric October.

After the Polynesian Islander Revue and the historic property itself, one of the first images that jumps to mind is delighted guests holding “Barrels,” as they’re affectionately known, soaking up the vintage atmosphere. And while we’ve been able to enjoy take-home quarts and gallons of the “spirituous libation” since early in the pandemic in April 2020, we sadly have not been inside the hallowed halls for an evening of regular service since a catastrophic roof collapse in October 2020.

Luckily, the multimillion-dollar renovation project is now in the home stretch, with a hoped-for reopening in early 2024. Takeout cocktails have become more scarce as construction ramps up, so we thought it would be a great time to revisit our tribute to the Barrel O’ Rum.

We made just one small addition to the earlier version posted in April 2020. The timing is perfect to share the update and more detailed mixing notes during The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender that invades South Florida every summer and has been the occasion for many Barrels to be consumed over the past 20 years.

During Sunday’s closing Tiki Brunch, The Atomic Grog joined Matt “Spike” Marble for a live recording of his popular YouTube show, Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour, to mix a few Rum Barrels. Guests in attendance were treated to a large batch of Barrels, thanks to The Hukilau’s bar team.

It was the culmination of a weekend featuring multiple ways to enjoy The Mai-Kai as we await the grand reopening. Next year, undoubtedly, we’ll be toasting The Mai-Kai’s return with a Barrel O’ Rum.

The Hukilau highlights: Photos and memories from Tiki weekender

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The Barrel O’ Rum is the Rodney Dangerfield of tropical drinks”