The Florida Derby

I’m still working without a kitchen, so we’re back to drinks. This one ties into The Mai Kai, Florida’s first (and, actually, the best) “Dinner and Show” experience has excellent food and excellent drinks.

The Mai Kai, takes their drinks as seriously than Trader Vic’s and the Beachcomber. Look on the Mai Kai menu and you’ll see they’ve tagged several of their cocktails with the ® symbol, indicating that they’ve registered the drink with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. According to current Mai Kai manager Kern Mattei, the Mai Kai watched the legal battles between the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s over tropical drinks and decided to play it safe and register their drinks. While this has undoubtedly prevented lawsuits over the years and keeps other Tiki bars from copying the drink, it has also done two other things: It keeps neighboring bars from directly competing with the Mai Kai by offering the same cocktails and it has kept a major bottling company from offering a commercialized, watered-down version of the cocktails in mini-marts across the country.

The Mai Kai serves a bevy of drinks; they take great pride in the entire process of getting a drink to the customer. Customers never see either of the two bars, which have so many ingredients that they look more like kitchens. A “master mixologist” makes their syrups in house and codes them. No one else on staff knows how to mix the syrups. While the Mai Kai codes their mixology in much the same manner as Beachcomber, they limit the coding to instructions like “use Syrup One.” They also admit that while they like the mystique coding mixology fosters, they use the syrup code to make the drinks more consistent, efficient to make, and to help control their inventory.

The cocktail experience at the Mai Kai continues with the girls who bring the drinks. Barmaids don’t work at the Mai Kai; instead the Mai Kai calls their servers “sarong-clad maidens” who, up until recently, had to have dark hair to keep with the theme of the South Seas. The Mai Kai seamstress custom makes each girl’s outfit. These “maidens” don’t mix the drinks. They simply take your order, disappear behind a wall, and reappear with your drinks. Spending time chatting with a maiden at the Molokai bar at the Mai Kai reminds you of talking to a true Geisha. Management chooses girls who have striking physical attributes, so much so that one might think they have pudding or sugar syrup instead of a brain, but they speak intelligently about Florida culture. It seems the Mai Kai has not only endeavored to perfect Florida drinks but also foster an air of Florida culture.

As for those drinks: You can choose from stunning array of drinks, over 40 cocktails in addition to beer, wine, and soft cocktails. They’ve pared that selection down from roughly 60 drinks they served when they opened in 1956. The original Mai Kai bartender, Mariano Liciudini, created the drinks in tandem with then-owner Bob Thornton. The Mai Kai serves up pricey cocktails; a Mai Tai costs roughly $11. However, the drinks outclass the lemon shooters available for less than half that along the beach bars not far away. They serve each drink in a different glass, including a shrunken head shaped mug and a Tiki shaped glass. True Tiki cocktails have some pretty strong alcohol to mixer proportions, and the Molokai bar and the restaurant both serve cocktails that patrons sip, not slam, and mixologists and bartenders don’t shy away from the alcohol content. They still use original recipes for almost all their drinks.

“If you make a good drink with the right ingredients,” Mattei says, “you’ll never have to change the recipe.”

The Derby Daiquiri dates back to 1961, when a Mai Kai bartender created it to enter into a contest to name the official drink of the Florida Derby. In the days predating Floridizing mainstream cocktails, the bartender made a daiquiri with Florida orange juice. The Derby Daiquiri won first place and the honor of “The Official Drink of the Florida Derby.”

The Derby Daiquiri

3 ounces rum

3 ounces fresh squeezed Florida orange juice

1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice

1 ounce sugar syrup (or 1 tsp of sugar)

Combine all ingredients into a blender, add 2 cups ice, and process until smooth. For non-alcoholic, substitute club soda for rum.


Published by


I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.

Leave a Reply