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The Mai Tai at the Halekulani's House Without a Key
The Mai Tai at the Halekulani's House Without a Key
Noelle Chun

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Mai Tais in Honolulu

Its history, varieties, and where to drink the tropical cocktail.

Ah, the Mai Tai—a sweet, stiff drink most commonly associated with warm sea breezes, white sandy beaches, palm trees and the Hawaiian Islands. Yet, over the last few decades, bartenders the world over have served up various iterations of the classic tiki drink, built from combinations of rums, lime, orange liqueur and the almond syrup known as orgeat.

But for all of its bright, tropical tang and vibrant, sunset hue, the original Mai Tai was not born in Hawaii, but on the cooler shores of California.

The cocktail's exact birthplace is hotly debated among historians. Some attribute the drink to Victor Bergeron, founder of California's Trader Vic's, the Polynesian-themed restaurant that helped spawn the tiki crazy in the 1930s and 40s. And it was Trader Vic's which designed the now famous Mai Tai mix many of us know today. Bergeron says he created the cocktail in 1944 at the original Oakland location of his restaurant and tiki bar. As the story goes, he one day served the concoction to some friends from Tahiti, and they cried out, "Mai Tai roa ae!" Out of this world! The best!

Meanwhile, others believe Bergeron’s Mai Tai was actually influenced by tiki forefather Donn Beach, who opened the Polynesian-themed Donn The Beachcomber in Hollywood, California in 1934. Tiki expert Jeff "Beachbum" Berry attributes the Mai Tai to Bergeron in his book Beachbum Berry Remixed. But he does note that other historians claim Bergeron had earlier imbibed a strikingly similar drink called the Q.B. Cooler at Don the Beachcomber. This allegedly inspired Bergeron to make his own version. Some evidence might even suggest that Don the Beachcomber served a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle as early as 1937, says Berry.

In 1953, per Berry, Bergeron introduced his Mai Tai to Hawaii at Honolulu's famous Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Surf Bar. The cocktail grew in popularity across a booming industry of tiki restaurants, especially in Hawaii. A Hawaii classic was born.

As tiki culture thrived, many Mai Tai variations emerged during the 50s and 60s. "The Mai Tai got super popular and because [Bergeron] was secretive about his recipes, the drink got bastardized," says Randy Wong, tiki enthusiast and former bartender at Clio restaurant in Boston. The result was a wide mix of sugary juices with various types of rum, not close at all to the original. "It should really be called ‘the early onset diabetes Mai Tai,’" he jokes.

Today, many craft bartenders embrace a more historical and less sugary definition of a Mai Tai. While the original recipe called for 17-year-old Wray and Nephew rum, the Mai Tai became so popular that supplies dwindled and bartenders started mixing a combination of other rums to substitute. As a result, the classic modern Mai Tai is founded in "the interplay between two specific categories of rum, unaged rum agricole and aged Jamaican rum," says Wong, along with lime, orange curaçao and orgeat.

Regardless of its precise constituents, Hawaii is a welcoming respite to enjoy the famous drink. Below, the five best places to sip a Mai Tai in Honolulu.

House without a Key

House Without a Key at Halekulani
Location: 2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu, HI 96815

The Halekulani's Mai Tai is one of Hawaii's most classic and famous recipes. This stiff version calls for three kinds of Bacardi rum, including a generous pour of potent Bacardi 151 across the top. Bartenders garnish the drink with a purple orchid, a lime wheel, and stick of sugar cane, which is delicious to chew after soaking in lime and rum. One is more than enough to put anyone on island time, with live Hawaiian music and hula dancing from former Miss Hawaiis. The venue, found within the five-star Halekulani Hotel, is set against the ocean within earshot of lapping waves. The open-air lanai (patio) faces westward with dramatic sunsets to the right and the iconic Diamond Head volcanic tuff to the left. Watch paddle boarders, surfers, canoes, and the occasional booze cruise float by in the background.

Image credit: The Halekulani

The Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian

Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian
Location: 2259 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815

After passing through the colonial-style Royal Hawaiian lobby, one will find the property's Mai Tai Bar nestled in back, the bar itself a small hut sitting against the ocean. Grab a bar stool, table, or plush sofa seat underneath a private cabana (which can reserved in advance) and relax to the sounds of the roaring ocean. Built in 1927, The Royal Hawaiian is the very same famous pink hotel where Bergeron brought the Mai Tai. Today, the luxury hotel’s Mai Tai Bar is a worthy place to celebrate the cocktail’s arrival. In fact, it presents four different kinds of Mai Tais, which take some liberties with the original drink. These tiki twists use plenty of tropical ingredients, like pineapple, lychee, ginger, and even black pepper, to imbue sweet and distinct Hawaiian flavors. Their Scratch Mai Tai is one of the hotel’s early original Mai Tai recipes and incorporates fresh squeezed pineapple and orange juice, orange curaçao, Bacardi superior, orgeat, and a float of Whaler’s dark rum.

Image credit: The Royal Hawaiian

SKY Waikiki

SKY Waikiki
Location: 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815

Newly opened in September 2015 with celebrity fanfare, SKY Waikiki is, as its name suggests, a sky-high lounge 19 floors up, with breathtaking views of Honolulu's most quintessential panoramas. Cocktail waitresses click around in matching blue cocktail dresses, and large, suit-clad security men look on from the corners with ear pieces, sun glasses, and crossed arms, giving the lounge a VIP feel. Choose to perch on soft, padded chairs at the air-conditioned bar awash with neon lights. Or, enjoy some trade winds on SKY's large lanai, with its own outside bar. The menu includes a number of dressed up tropical drinks including, yes, a deconstructed Mai Tai. This modern take on the classic combines Pyrat XO Caribbean rum, Giffard’s orgeat, orange curaçao, and Mai Tai foam.

Image credit: SKY Waikiki

Duke's Waikiki
Location: 2335 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 116, Honolulu, HI 96815

Though many visitors go for the steak dinners, this original Duke’s location on the shores of Waikiki also serves up Mai Tais that are tart, sticky and stiff. Their Mai Tai takes the spotlight on the tropical-themed bar menu, and not surprisingly it's one of the most popular drinks. Bartenders build the cocktail with POG juice from local purveyor No Ka Oi (pineapple, passion fruit, orange, and guava juices), gold and dark rum, and orange curaçao. Mai Tais are served in plastic tiki cups (that one can purchase to take home as a souvenir) within the restaurant’s casual dining room, at the dining room’s bar, or at the "barefoot bar," an outside area near the beach.

Image Credit: Facebook

Wailana

Wailana Coffee House
Location: 1860 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96815

The only hours you can’t get Mai Tais at Wailana Coffee House in Waikiki is Tuesdays from midnight to 6 a.m. when the diner is closed. At all other times, whether the cool crack of dawn or the bleary wee hours, one can order house Mai Tais at $4 a pop. They're too sugary, too syrupy, too simple, and all too perfect with open mic karaoke and $13 teriyaki steak at 3 a.m. Locals also hit Wailana on the regular for $8.01 all-you-can-eat pancakes plus two for the price of one heaps of spaghetti.

Image credit: Facebook

Many thanks to tiki expert Humuhumu Trott who provided information for this story.

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