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