Mixing it up with towering talents of tiki cocktails at The Hukilau

When most people think of “tiki drinks,” what unfortunately comes to mind is neon-colored, overly sweet drinks festooned with outlandish garnishes. These drinks are far removed from their origins as fresh, well-balanced, complex cocktails as originally conceived by Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic Bergeron and others. Along with the drinks, it seems like everything connected to the mid-20th-century phenomenon commonly called “tiki” has strayed far from its original roots.

Tiki Tower Takeover cocktails

Tiki Tower Takeover cocktails

Every summer, an ever-growing crowd of like-minded folks gathers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to celebrate and revive the original tiki phenomenon. For a week, everyone is transported back to a time of Hawaiian shirts, leis, exotic music and tropical cocktails. This festival of vintage culture, called The Hukilau, is more than a decade old and revolves around the Polynesian-themed Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. The Mai-Kai opened to the public in 1956, and this temple to the tiki culture phenomenon has remained largely unchanged ever since.

After a visit to the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, the organizers of The Hukilau were able to see firsthand the exploding interest in cocktails, especially tiki drinks, evidenced by the fact that New Orleans has three newly opened cocktail bars that specialize in tiki drinks. Drawing on this evidence, the 2015 Hukilau placed an extra emphasis on cocktails. And boy, did it succeed!

Clockwise, from upper left: Brian Miller, Martin Cate, Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, Paul McGee. Photos by Chris Kridler for the Straw Hat Barmen

Clockwise, from upper left: Brian Miller, Martin Cate, Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, Paul McGee. Photos by Chris Kridler for the Straw Hat Barmen

Four of the leading personalities in the cocktail world who specialize in tiki drinks were on hand to show their stuff. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, Paul McGee and Brian Miller have all been associated with bars that have been named among the best in the world. To help coordinate all of this effort, The Hukilau was lucky enough to have Dean Hurst add his expert leadership. Dean is the Director of Spirits at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, which has the largest wine list in the world, as well as its sister restaurant Haven and the Epicurean Hotel.

The Straw Hat Barmen were lucky enough to be called upon to help out with some of the heavy lifting required behind the scenes to pull the whole event off. And there was certainly quite a bit of work to be done. The Hukilau kicked off with an event titled “Tiki Tower Takeover.” The revolving room at the top of the Pier 66 resort became the scenic, private playground for tiki drink lovers as the four celebrity bartenders personally made drinks concocted for The Hukilau.

2015hukilau23.jpgJust like ducks, though, there was quite the scene of controlled chaos just beneath the surface. Among various other ingredients, this two-hour event required 700 ounces of freshly squeezed lime juice. And garnishes – hundreds of lime wheels! The kitchen was a flurry of knives, measuring cups, 5-gallon buckets and folks trying to keep all of their fingers as they squeezed limes with the commercial-grade “lime squeezers of death,” as they became affectionately known.

And that was just one event! (See our Hukilau 2015 gallery.) The weekend featured other events of various sizes that also required cocktails – everything from welcoming drinks to various seminars to a “Three-Hour Tour” featuring Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island.” The Straw Hat Barmen were privileged to be able to work with Dean Hurst to come up with three specialty drinks for the Three-Hour Tour.

maryannprofWorking with the fact that the first episode of “Gilligan’s Island” was called “Two on a Raft,” we developed a simple riff on the daiquiri using the sponsor’s Blue Chair vanilla and coconut rums. Dean Hurst created a drink named for a Tampa exotica band, The Stolen Idols, and we tweaked that recipe with the Blue Chair spiced coconut rum and riffed on another classic tiki drink name to come up with The Professor’s Downfall, because we all know whom he really liked!

The final drink referred to the unsuccessful attempt to sink an underwater reef consisting of Easter Island-themed Moai head statues earlier in the week. It was to be called the Rapa Nui Reef and it was going to be located off of nearby Deerfield Beach. Unfortunately, the barge flipped over during the sinking process, spilling the heads to the floor, with the barge coming down after them. You have to laugh to keep from crying, so we tweaked the classic Mai Tai recipe to come up with what we called the Rapa Nui Faceplant. All three cocktails went over quite well, with even Dawn Wells spotted with a full tiki mug or two.

The Straw Hat Barmen at The Mai-Kai

The Straw Hat Barmen at The Mai-Kai

The highlight of The Hukilau for The Straw Hat Barmen always seems to be helping out Jeff “Beachbum” Berry with his seminars on some aspect of tiki history. The author of two definitive books on the origins and history of tiki drinks, Jeff is also a gifted and charismatic speaker, never shying away from using a harpoon for a pointer if necessary! This year, he teamed up with Brian Miller, who helped found the legendary Death + Co. in New York City and now puts on “Tiki Mondays with Miller” at various locations in the city. He also won Emeril Lagasse’s tiki drink competition at the recent South Beach Food and Wine Festival. The topic was “Barons, Brigands and Beachcombers,” and it traced the history of pirates and other ne’er-do-wells throughout Caribbean history. We were assisted by a gang of ne’er-do-wells in the kitchen as well, with folks from Jeff’s bar, Latitude 29 in New Orleans, and The Happiest Hour in New York City helping out.

The Hukilau always ends up with a festive night at the Mai-Kai, with great food, cocktails, a floor show that includes lots of fire and great music throughout the restaurant. The Straw Hat Barmen learned so much at this year’s event and got some great new recipes. We can’t wait to try them out on everyone in the near future.

For now, here’s a recipe for the Rapa Nui Faceplant.

– George Jenkins

The Rapa Nui Faceplant was one of the drinks served on the Three-Hour Tour at The Hukilau.

The Rapa Nui Faceplant was one of the drinks served on the Three-Hour Tour at The Hukilau.


Rapa Nui Faceplant

1.5 ounces Barbancourt 4 Year Old Rum
.5 ounces Appleton Estate Signature Blend Rum
.5 ounces fresh lime juice
.25 ounces orgeat syrup
.5 ounces Rhum Clement Creole Shrubb (or homemade orange peel shrub)

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Add ice and short shake. Strain into a glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with orange peel and fresh grated cinnamon; mint optional.

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