Modern Caribbean Rum

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Double your pleasure with the exotic and delicious Zula #1 (and #2)

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Double your pleasure with the exotic and delicious Zula #1 (and #2)

Updated April 2024
See below: Our Zula reviews | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipes, video UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The mysterious Zula #1 is easily one of the most curious (and deliciously distinctive) cocktails on The Mai-Kai’s tropical drink menu. And, as usual, it has a fascinating back-story.

Zula # 1 (left) and Zula #2, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Zula #1 (left) and Zula #2, February 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The cocktail’s flavors are just as exotic as its origins, which both took us years to figure out. The pineapple-forward taste is unlike any other you’ll find at The Mai-Kai.

But there’s another secret about Zula #1 that not many guests may be aware of: It shares its name (and flavor profile) with a secret off-menu sister drink, the smaller and sweeter Zula #2. But it wasn’t always that mysterious.

If you look back at older menus, you’ll find both drinks. On The Mai-Kai’s original 1956-57 cocktail menu, there’s “Zula No. 1” in a tall glass and “Zula No. 2” in a stemmed coupe similar to other lost classics such as Liquid Gold.

Long-stemmed glassware was extremely popular in the 1950s. You’ll find a dozen cocktails on early menus using the elegant coupe glass, which faded from use at The Mai-Kai but made a big comeback at craft cocktail bars in the early 21st century.

The Mai-Kai's original cocktail menu, circa 1957
The Mai-Kai’s original cocktail menu, circa 1957.

By 1979, when the menu had been arranged in its now-familiar “mild,” “medium” and “strong” groupings, the names had changed slightly to Zula #1 (strong) and Zula #2 (mild), but the coupe glass endured. We’ve seen menus from the ’80s that still feature Zula #2. But by the 1990s it was gone, never to be seen on a menu again.

What many didn’t realize as the years went by, however, is that you could still order the milder Zula. By the time I started bellying up to the bar in the 2000s, it was a distant memory. I finally discovered it while researching the history of Zula #1 for this cocktail guide.

If you order it today, it will be served in a short, flared rocks glass also used for the Shark Bite, Oh So Deadly and Mai-Kai Special.

Zula Hula
Is this the source of the name “Zula”? While doing research for Hulaween 2016, we discovered a vintage Betty Boop clip from 1937 called “Zula Hula.” Click on the image to watch.

I give credit to Tiki Central friends for helping track down the drink’s origins. As we know now, a majority of the vintage cocktails served at South Florida’s Polynesian palace (32 at last count) can be traced back to drinks created by tropical drink godfather Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber).

Most are relatively easy to figure out. Some (Rum Julep, 151 Swizzle) have the exact same name, while others are obvious tweaks (Cobra’s Fang to Cobra’s Kiss, Don’s Pearl to Hidden Pearl).

However, nothing in Beach’s vast repertoire seemed to resemble the Zula. Or so we thought. It was actually right there under our nose since 2007 in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari: Penang Afrididi. Don’t ask us how the names relate, but the flavor profile is indeed remarkably similar. The clincher: There are two versions of Don the Beachcomber’s original, known as Penang Afrididi #1 and Penang Afrididi #2.

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Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Demerara rum, secret mix revive classic Bora Bora

The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai's founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated July 2018
See below: Our Bora Bora review | Ancestor recipe | Tribute recipe 3.0
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai's founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956.  (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Bora Bora in The Molokai bar in October 2016, shortly after receiving an upgrade with the inclusion of a long-dormant secret mix originally created by The Mai-Kai’s founding mixologist, Mariano Licudine, circa 1956. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

What a difference and new rum and secret syrup can make. Relegated to the bottom end of our ratings and nearly forgotten, The Mai-Kai’s Bora Bora made a comeback in 2012 thanks to the return of the rich and flavorful Demerara rum to The Mai-Kai, which gives this cocktail a much-needed boost.

The little-known Bora Bora has always been a potent concoction. I used to recommended it to folks who like a strong Mai Tai (classic, Trader Vic style) due to its intense combination of sour juices and Martinique rum. But with the smoky and tasty Demerara rum from Guyana replacing the earthy and sometimes harsh agricole rum, this drink took on a whole new life.

It immediately jumped up five spots in our ratings (rising from 2 1/2 to 3 stars) and inspired the first two tribute recipes below. After further study, we moved it up another five spots to the top of the 3-star rankings. Click here for more on the return of Demerara rum to The Mai-Kai.

Then, in the late summer of 2016, it was among a handful of drinks to get a boost from the return of a mysterious secret ingredient that dates back to the early days of The Mai-Kai. Now featuring Mariano’s Mix #7, Bora Bora takes on a whole new life with a bold yet sweet and approachable anise flavor vying for your attention. As a result, we boosted our rating from 3 to 3 1/2 stars, moving it into the Top 25. [See the rankings] Check out the third version of the tribute recipe below.

July 2018 update: The Bora Bora was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, “How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai.” In the sold-out event, students learned tips and techniques for turning their home bars into a Tiki cocktail paradise by exploring the key elements of Mai-Kai cocktails.
The Bora Bora was one of three cocktails featured at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in June in Hurricane Hayward's Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class, "How to Mix Like The Mai-Kai
(Atomic Grog photos from The Hukilau’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina on June 8, 2018)
After discussing the syrups, Hayward revealed documents that show how The Mai-Kai faithfully follows Don the Beachcomber’s early secret recipes, including one that features both Mariano’s Mix #7 and the even more obscure “#4”. The class then received sample drinks featuring the Bora Bora tribute recipe, batched by Hayward with expert assistance from Lucky Munro, proprietor of Lucky’s Cane & Grog in Pittsburgh.
See photos from the class: Facebook | Flickr

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