Why is it that cocktail enthusiasts will forgive a shaken Manhattan before they do a Mai Tai made with orange juice and garnished with a cocktail umbrella? Because there’s no cocktail more misinterpreted than the Mai Tai. This iconic cocktail of the tiki movement demands respect, even if it was also the official cocktail of Richard Nixon’s presidency. And yet over the decades, its mix of rums, orgeat (almond syrup), lime juice, rich demerara simple syrup, and orange curaçao has somehow devolved into a mess of syrups and juices, seemingly open to whatever interpretation the bartender feels like.
Below, everything you need to know about the Mai Tai’s history, tips and techniques, recipes — and even some (acceptable) variations.
The History of the Mai Tai
The Mai Tai started as a rum cocktail so popular it supposedly depleted world rum supplies in the 1940s and '50s. In 1944, when the cocktail was invented by Victor J. Bergeron — better known as Trader Vic — it wasn’t a sugar bomb. It was a simple drink created to showcase the pungent flavor of a 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum: Bergeron highlighted the golden, medium-bodied rum with just a touch of lime, orgeat, orange curaçao, and simple syrup. According to legend, after shaking the concoction with ice and presenting the cocktail to some of his visiting Tahitian friends, they ended up liking it so much one of them exclaimed, "Maita’i roa a’e," which translates to "out of this world! The best!" Bergeron christened his new cocktail "Mai Tai," as in "the best."
However, as with most cocktail origin stories, there’s some disagreement about whether Bergeron’s account is true. Donn "Don the Beachcomber" Beach claims Trader Vic’s recipe was actually inspired by his own punch, the Q.B. Cooler, which he invented in 1933. According to Beach, Bergeron was a fan of Beachcomber's restaurant back when "Trader Vic" was just his nickname and not his restaurant. Bergeron loved the flavor profile of the punch, so he appropriated it for his Mai Tai recipe.
Bergeron refutes this claim in his book, Trader Vic's Bartender’s Guide, writing, "anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker." To his credit, the Q.B. Cooler contains twice the ingredients of his Mai Tai, adding ginger syrup, honey mix, club soda, and orange juice to the mix.
After the Great Depression, Americans’ attraction to Polynesian culture fueled the spread of the tiki trend, as well as the proliferation of Bergeron’s Trader Vic’s chain of Polynesian-themed restaurants, which spanned from Seattle to Havana, Cuba. A couple of years after the cocktail’s invention, the world ran out of the 17-year-old rum Bergeron used in his recipe, so he subbed it with a 15-year-old Wray and Nephew. But once supplies of that started to dwindle in the mid-1950s, Bergeron created a blend of Jamaican rum and aged molasses-based Martinique rum to emulate the Wray and Nephew and ensure the longevity of his recipe.
In 1953, the Mai Tai made its fated trip to Hawaii. Shipping company Matson Steamship Lines — which has since been credited with making the Hawaiian islands a popular tourist destination — hired Bergeron to oversee the cocktail menus for the bars at their Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider Hotels. Pineapple and orange juices didn’t infiltrate the Mai Tai until 1954, when Bergeron used them to sweeten his recipe for a more tourist-friendly cocktail at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.
And, unfortunately, that recipe usurped the original in people’s hearts — and on cocktail menus. The Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai became the symbol of tropical paradise, and no Hawaiian vacation is complete without sipping on a Mai Tai by the beach. The cocktail even has a prominent role in Elvis Presley’s 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii. In the early ‘70s, the cocktail even found an unlikely fan in former President Richard Nixon, who frequented Trader Vic’s at the Statler-Hilton, which was located a couple of blocks from the White House. He even celebrated Valentine’s Day there with his wife Pat Nixon in 1973.
The sweet Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai smoothly adapted to the 1980’s dark days of cocktails, when store-bought juices and syrups took the place of fresh ingredients. Canned pineapple and orange juices were mixed with two rums, which were generically labeled as "dark rum" and "light rum" in the recipes used by bars and restaurants. The nuances of the original Wray and Nephew were long forgotten. And just like with the daiquiri and margarita, there were even instant Mai Tai mixes, including one from Trader Vic’s.
Now, thanks to the cocktail revival, the original Mai Tai recipe is enjoying a comeback. "All of us making exotic cocktails today are trying to restore their credibility, and a bad knock-off doesn’t help matters — it’s why exotic cocktails died in the first place," explains barman Martin Cate of San Francisco rum den Smuggler’s Cove. Bartenders and rum enthusiasts took up the mantle to resurrect Trader Vic’s original recipe, even down to the garnish: If the cocktail isn’t garnished with a sprig of mint and an unspent lime shell, which symbolize a palm tree and an island, then it’s wrong.
In 2007, the Bar at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, achieved notoriety and a 2008 Guinness World Record for selling the most expensive cocktail: a $1,475 Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, featuring the original 17-year-old Wray and Nephew rum. It sold out in less than a year.
Fortunately, for those looking for an affordable way to taste history, a new restaurant in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, Here’s Looking at You, has an "Almost-Original Mai Tai" on its menu. To mimic the flavors of the version made with Wray and Nephew, barman Allan Katz is using a 17-year-old, 99-proof blend of Jamaican rum, Smooth Ambler Jamaican Revelation rum. The cocktail is $26, but Katz says, "it’s an elevation of all the things that we loved about that drink."
Martin Cate’s Tips for a Perfect Mai Tai
Who better to get Mai Tai tips from than San Francisco barman and rum aficionado Martin Cate? Not only did he just release a new book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, but his seven-year-old bar of the same name won Tales of the Cocktail's 2016 Spirited Award for "Best American Cocktail Bar."
RECIPE: THE MAI TAI
courtesy of Martin Cate
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce orange curaçao (Pierre Ferrand preferred)
1/4 ounce orgeat
1/4 ounce rich demerara simple syrup (with a 2:1 ratio of water to sugar) — use real, full-flavored sugar in this drink
2 ounces aged pot still or blended rum
Combine all ingredients with 12 ounces of crushed ice and some cubes in a shaker. Shake until chilled and pour — ice and all — into a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with a spent lime shell and mint sprig. Some notes:
1) Fresh lime juice is critical. When squeezing, don’t press too hard — extract the juice, not the bitter pith.
2) The Mai Tai does not have pineapple juice in it. Or orange juice. Or any other juice besides lime. There is a recipe. It was handed down to us by Trader Vic. It’s not something "tropical" that you just toss together.
3) Historically, there is no "dark rum" float. It’s not in the original recipe. At the San Francisco Trader Vic’s in the 1970s, there was an old regular who liked his with a float of a 151 Demerara rum. The staff called it "Old Way," not because it was an old recipe, but literally because the patron was old!
4) Trader Vic’s does not use umbrellas. The Trader didn’t like them, and they were never in his Mai Tais.
5) The Mai Tai is simply garnished with half of a spent lime shell and a fresh mint sprig, designed to look like a small island and palm tree on the surface of your drink: fragrant, attractive, and simple. Vic’s today also uses a pineapple and cherry pick, but it’s not traditional.
6) This cocktail was born with 100-percent pot-still Jamaican rum that was aged a minimum of 17 years. Rich in both body and oak flavors, there’s no exact substitute today, but look for either 100-percent pot-still or blended pot and column molasses-based rums. Much as the margarita is the perfect delivery vehicle for a wide range of tequilas, the Mai Tai is an elegantly simple delivery vehicle designed to accent and showcase great rum. Whether you blend rums, or even use rhum agricole in your mix, what counts is flavor and body. Just make it with bold, unapologetic rum(s). Suggested brands: Appleton Estate Reserve Blend, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve.
7) The drink is not blended. It’s shaken until it’s fresh and frosty, then served with the same ice you shook with. That’s tradition in exotic cocktails, and you should embrace it. Do not shake with the lime half in the shaker — it extracts too many oils and bitterness into the drink, and the peel should not be sunk. It’s meant to be rested on top.
8) Crushed, freshly made ice is key. Not puffy pellet ice. Crushing good, cold, hard cubes just prior to service creates the mouthfeel, correct dilution, and chilling that the Trader desired.
9) Serve in a wide mouth double rocks to really enjoy the bright fresh aromas. Feel that frosty glass in your hands. Drink in deeply and let the relaxation of the islands at twilight wash over you.
Because the Mai Tai has become the most bastardized cocktail in the world, according to Cate, bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts generally dismiss any variations of it. "The goal should be to celebrate its actual recipe, and not repeat the devolved things it became," Cate says. Instead of trying to dress up the Mai Tai with flavored spirits and juices, he suggests making the orgeat with different nuts, like macadamia nut orgeat or hazelnut orgeat, for a subtle twist. Or swap out the rums with other spirits, as Trader Vic himself enjoyed doing. Cate’s two favorites are the Honi Honi with bourbon, and the Pinky Gonzalez with tequila. Or try his Sparkling Mai Tai recipe, which celebrates the cocktail’s original flavors:
RECIPE: MARTIN CATE’S SPARKLING MAI TAI
1⁄4 ounce fresh lime juice
1⁄4 ounce orgeat
1⁄2 ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
1⁄4 ounce black blended overproof rum (e.g. Hamilton Guyana 151)
1⁄2 ounce blended aged rum (e.g. Denizen Merchant’s Reserve)
4 ounces chilled sparkling wine
Lime twist and mint leaf
Pour all the ingredients except the sparking wine into a mixing glass. Stir with cracked or cubed ice. Strain into a chilled champagne flute or coupe and top with sparkling wine, then garnish with lime twist and mint leaf.
Caroline Pardilla, aka Caroline on Crack, was one of the first cocktail bloggers in L.A. She now writes about booze for Los Angeles Magazine, Liquor.com, as well as Eater LA. Kim Sielbeck is an art director, illustrator, and textile designer based in Brooklyn.
Editor: Erin DeJesus