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The Mai Tai at San Francisco's Tonga Room

Welcome to a Cocktail Week-themed edition of Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy cocktails.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

A tiki bar staple, the Mai Tai is known for its fruity flavors and boozy kick. At the legendary Tonga Room in San Francisco, it's also become something of a signature. Bar manager JP Cote explains the enduring appeal of the cocktail: "It feels like the tropics." He explains the drink — made with two kinds of rum, Curacao, orgeat, and fruit juice — has an "alcoholic roundness" and a balanced flavor. The Tonga Room Mai Tai is aiming to connect with the history of the Mai Tai, and Cote's calls their recipe an adaptation of the original Trader Vic's drink.

Although the Mai Tai had long been a best-seller at the Tonga Room menu, Cote overhauled the recipe back in July. He swapped out Bacardi rums for Appleton Estate and Denizen and instead of canned fruit juices opted for fresh. And the changes haven't just improved the beverage; they've improved sales too. Cote estimates they now sell some 3,000 Mai Tais every month. Below, the elements of the Tonga Room Mai Tai:


1. The Rum

Tonga Room's Mai Tai begins with rum: one ounce of Appleton Estate V/X and one ounce of Denizen. Cote says he chose the Appleton because he was looking for a dark Jamaican rum that would be suitable for the Mai Tai; he needed a rum that was straightforward and consistent without being overpowering. He describes the Appleton as full bodied and golden colored, with notes of dry apricot and even a hint of molasses. The Denizen is a white rum made from a blend of rums from Trinidad and Jamaica. It's a bit lighter in color, with a "younger flavor" of green sugar cane. After extensive testing, Cote found that these two rums blended together were what the drink called for.

2. The Curacao

Cote says one secret of the Tonga Room Mai Tai is that he uses half an ounce of Senior Curacao of Curacao Original Orange Liqueur. While orange curacao is a fairly standard Mai Tai ingredient, several bars will make Mai Tais with Cointreau or Cointreau and Curacao. Cote finds that the orange flavors in the liqueur (from dried citrus peels) and its herbal flavors pair well with the rums.


3. The Orgeat

Another "secret" of the Tonga Room Mai Tai is the half ounce of Small Hand Foods Orgeat. The sweet, almond-derived syrup is a signature component of Mai Tais, and Cote chose Small Hands Foods for its high quality. He explains that the Small Hands Orgeat is made from California almonds, apricot kernels, cane sugar, flower water, and biodynamic California brandy. The syrup adds floral notes to the cocktail and Cote adds that orgeat syrup is a "big player" in tiki culture.

4. The Fruit Juice

While Tonga Room used to use canned pineapple juice and Rose's Lime Juice, Cote now prepares the Mai Tais only with ¾ ounce of fresh lime juice. He explains that juicing has been "outsourced" to the Voila Juice Company based in Oakland, CA because the sheer volume of cocktails sold daily would make juicing a full time job. The lime adds acidity to the drink, which he balances with an equal amount of simple syrup.

5. The Assembly

Cote builds the drink in a cocktail shaker, beginning with the rums, then adding the curacao, orgeat, simple syrup, and then the lime juice. He prefers adding the lime juice last because he will use the same jigger as he used for the simple syrup, letting the lime juice pick up any sugar left behind. He shakes the drink for six to eight seconds with cubed ice to cool it down, noting that shaking is necessary to prevent the ingredients from layering because of their different weights. The drink is then poured over crushed ice in a signature ceramic coconut mug. The Mai Tai is finished with a garnish of pineapple and mint representing an island and a palm tree, respectively. As Cote says, "It's supposed to be kitschy."


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