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Recreating the Mai-Kai’s Bizarre Black Magic Cocktail

The story behind one of tiki's strangest classics, and the lengths that bartenders have gone to recreate it.

A longstanding bastion of tiki, Florida’s Mai-Kai bar is home to a number of iconic drinks and top-secret recipes, many of them copyrighted originals. Among the most famous—possibly by virtue of its sheer strangeness—is the tropical, coffee-spiked Black Magic, a drink that arrives in a frosty, 30-ounce snifter loaded with ice and garnished with a comparatively dainty wisp of lemon peel.

“The coffee thing is subtle, but it informs every other ingredient in the drink,” says tiki historian and longtime Mai-Kai patron, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “It’s almost like an ‘umami’ kind of thing. [It] just takes the drink up to another level.”

To the uninitiated, coffee might seem like an oddball addition to a tropical drink, but Berry insists that this isn’t so. In fact, it has a long history in tiki cocktails, and was first used by Donn Beach in his Jamoca, a mix of lime juice, coffee syrup, chilled coffee and two rums—a drink Berry discovered in the 1937 notebook of Don the Beachcomber maître d’, Dick Santiago.

A number of other coffee drinks, including various renditions of Donn’s original flaming Coffee Grog and the Mr. Bali Hai, a pineapple-driven cocktail from the namesake San Diego tiki bar, have become classics. But at the Mai-Kai, none have quite cultivated the same intrigue and staying power as the Black Magic, which was the bar’s original coffee cocktail.

“We have quite a few drinks that we copyrighted over the years by name and by recipe because they were so unique,” says Kern Mattei, Jr., the Mai-Kai’s current general manager. “The Black Magic happens to be one of them—and it’s one of our most iconic.”

Likely inspired, at least in part, by the Jamoca, the Black Magic was a created by Mariano Licudine, who had spent years developing it while working as head bartender at Don the Beachcomber’s Chicago location. It wasn’t until he was hired by Bob and Jack Thornton to open the Mai-Kai in 1956 that the peculiar drink would make it onto a menu.

Alongside freshly brewed coffee, the Black Magic builds on a base of fresh juices, plus both dark and black rums. Beyond that, the recipe remains a highly coveted secret, which at-home tiki enthusiasts and professional bartenders alike have spent years trying to replicate. Most variations, which are available on tiki forums and blogs (including Jim “Hurricane” Hayward’s The Atomic Grog), are labeled as “tributes,” and typically call for coffee, a variety of citrus juices, honey syrup, Don’s Mix, allspice dram and a black Jamaican rum known as Kohala Bay.

The choice in rum, admits Mattei, is a correct guess. Over the years, there have been just a handful of Jamaican black rums used at the Mai-Kai, swapped out only when they ceased production or distribution: The bar used Appleton Punch up until the 1970s, at which point it was replaced with Dagger, a line of dark rums once produced by Wray & Nephew. Beginning in the ‘90s, the bar called on Kohala Bay rum, which they purchased in bulk in 1.75-liter plastic bottles.

The problem that plagued bartenders attempting to reverse-engineer the Black Magic in recent years, however, was that Kohala Bay was almost completely unavailable to consumers; per a number of tiki forums, the Mai-Kai, along with a nearby Florida seafood restaurant, bought up most of the stock, and what remained could only be found sparingly at a few local liquor stores (or, in at least one instance, at a South Miami strip club).

As a result, bartenders keen to recreate the Black Magic’s flavor profile first had to find a way to mimic the flavor of Kohala Bay, which they did by blending rums. Among the recommended substitutes offered by The Atomic Grog, and others, is a blend of equal parts Smith & Cross and Guyanese El Dorado 12 Year Old rums; and another made with four parts Coruba and two parts Hamilton Black rums, plus one part 138-proof Plantation O.F.T.D. These, apparently, can make for acceptable substitutions in a Black Magic “tribute.”

But even that is now subject to change. Adding to the ever-growing puzzle, over the past year and a half, the Mai-Kai, too, has been unable to source the much sought-after Kohala Bay; just as its predecessors did years ago, the company ceased distribution to the United States in April, 2016. Consequently, the flavor of the Black Magic, among other drinks at the Mai-Kai, has changed.

“Right now, we’re using the Appleton Signature series, which is a premium rum… We’re not just throwing any kind of crap in there to just push the drink out,” says Mattei. Still, despite the rum’s unique flavor, he explains that it lacks the strong backbone of molasses, something that, when combined with coffee, makes the Black Magic so thoroughly unique.

Weathering the ebb and flow of brand availability in a market is nothing new to the Mai-Kai, or to the cocktail world in general. But in tiki, the extinction of these historic spirits has contributed another level of complexity to a genre that’s already known for having unusually elaborate—and in many cases, downright mysterious—cocktails.

“Jamaican rum has changed drastically from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s to what it is today,” says Berry, adding that “it used to be a much richer, more heavily estered, unfiltered, higher proof, more flavorful spirit.” Case in point: Whereas the Dagger lineup of rums averaged between 90 and 114 proof, today’s Jamaican rums are generally lower in alcohol; Myers’s, for example, is bottled at a modest 80 proof.

This means that blending rums, a long tradition in tiki, has only become more important in the context of modern drink-making. “What tiki bartenders in 2017 need to do is pretty much the same thing Donn Beach was doing in the 1930s,” says Berry, citing the Beachcomber mantra, What one rum can’t give you, three rums can.

But, being keen on tradition, the Mai-Kai is still looking to preserve their recipes without the help of blending (though it’s certainly a step that they’re considering). Right now, they have leads in Jamaica on an attempt to source a new rum, or possibly even a custom blend, for use in the Black Magic, and in other drinks that depend on a good, black Jamaican rum.

Whether that product will be available to those dozens of Black Magic devotees is another question entirely, but it likely won’t hinder their efforts. Echoing a sentiment that tiki bartenders know all too well, Mattei sums it up perfectly: “Having special cocktails means special work sometimes.”

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