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Want to know what a world-class cocktail tastes like? From the first-ever Diageo World Class U.S. Ambassador Richard Gomez, the Two Cities Skirmish is what he calls a an updated version of the Mai Tai with tequila and gin. Impress all your friends with some world-class mixology — we won't tell that you got it from a master bartender.
- 1/2 Ounce Don Julio Añejo tequila
- 1/2 Ounce Tanqueray No. TEN gin
- 1/8 Ounce triple sec
- 3/8 Ounces fresh lime juice
- 3/8 Ounces BG Reynolds Orgeat
- mint, for garnish
Mapping the Mai Tai
Few classic cocktails come without their historic trials. The Martini has been shaken, stirred and thrown, and struggles with an ongoing gin-vodka identity crisis. The Old-Fashioned has tussled with oranges and cherries and gets mistaken for a brandy drink whenever it crosses the Wisconsin state line. The Daiquiri’s run-ins with various members of the fruit family are legion. But the Mai Tai, its fun-loving reputation notwithstanding, can match them woe for woe.
It is, as Martin Cate observed in Smuggler’s Cove, “the most bastardized drink of all time.” With the revival of tiki culture during the last decade, the king of tropical drinks has recently returned to form. It is “in a good place,” as Paul McGee, an owner of the tropical Chicago bar Lost Lake, observed during a 2019 PUNCH blind tasting of the drink.
It took a long time to get there, and this may be the first comfortable spot the Mai Tai has enjoyed in half a century. During that fraught interval from the 1950s to the ’00s, the simple (by tiki standards, at least) mixture—just a half-dozen components, including two rums, orgeat, simple syrup, lime juice and Curaçao—has had to fend off pretender ingredients of every sort, including any juice you can think of, every rum in the book, falernum, Pernod, bitters, grenadine and, God save us, gin.
Most cocktail historians maintain that the Mai Tai was born in 1944 at Trader Vic’s in Oakland, where Victor Bergeron, aka Trader Vic himself, invented the world’s best-known tiki drink on the spur of the moment for two friends visiting from Tahiti. But the drink was not an instantaneous hit. Little was written about it until the mid-1950s, according to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, tiki author and historian. When it did eventually catch on, the true recipe was difficult to parse from the countless imitators. “Since the recipe was a Trader Vic trade secret,” said Berry, referencing the extreme furtiveness that accompanied proprietary tiki recipes at the time, “bars could just throw whatever they wanted into the glass and say it’s a Mai Tai. Back then, there were no cocktail geeks with iPhone recipe apps to argue with them.”
But when Bergeron took the drink to Hawaii, the trouble really began. In 1953, he taught the genuine article to bartenders at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, but that recipe did not hold for long. In order to satisfy increasing tourist demand for the drink, hotels throughout the islands cut corners. Cheap rum and pre-mixes (“Mai Tai mix” was heavily advertised and easily bought beginning in the 1960s, in Hawaii and elsewhere) came into play and most recipes substituted softer and more place-appropriate pineapple juice for the original spec of tart lime juice.
“On the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Mai Tai, the state of the most popular tropical cocktail in the Pacific is shaky,” wrote journalist Rick Carroll, reporting from Hawaii for the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1994. “Some taste like gasoline, others like cough syrup. They burn the throat, produce terrible headaches and generally give Hawaii a bad name. They should be served with a surgeon general’s warning.”
There was at least one bartender who tried to turn the Mai Tai tide in Hawaii. In 1986, an ex–New York bartender named Danny DePamphillis had been hired at Moana Hotel’s Beach Bar and was appalled by the variety of Mai Tais he encountered. “Everybody had a different Mai Tai recipe,” he told Carroll. In an attempt to restore order, DePamphillis tracked down Vic’s original recipe and began to serve it. It didn’t last long, however patrons preferred the faux Mai Tai, which, according to DePamphillis, contained cheap rums and orange concentrate.
Things weren’t any better in other parts of the world, either. In 1977, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a recipe that read more like a catch-all fruit salad than a Mai Tai: “Cut up pineapple, glazed cherries, papaw, grapefruit, orange, sliced peaches, bananas. Add orange juice, grapefruit juice and pineapple juice, then gin to suit.” Around the same time, the Los Angeles Times printed a formula for a “Mai Tai Punch” that called for “pineapple-grapefruit juice,” orange juice, almond extract and corn syrup. This mixture was anchored by a “fruit ice ring” made of a frozen hoop of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and maraschino cherries. A 1968 cocktail guide published by Time-Life thought the drink required apricot brandy. A 1980 British book, meanwhile, called for orange juice and orange slices, and omitted orgeat.
In Search of the Ultimate Mai Tai
We asked 10 of America's best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Mai Tai—then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.
The Mai Tai didn’t right itself until around 2010, when the serious bartending approaches of the cocktail renaissance finally reached the tiki canon of cocktails. Berry began to see correct Mai Tais—that is, formulas that hewed closely to the Trader Vic original and featured Jamaican rums, orgeat and fresh lime juice—at U.K. cocktail pioneers like The Merchant Hotel bar in Belfast and Trailer Happiness in London, and European bars like Door 74 in Amsterdam and Nu Lounge in Bologna. (According to Berry, in the aughts, tiki in Europe wasn’t seen as old-fashioned and hokey like it was in the States, allowing for the continent to lead the charge in its revival.)
By the early 2000s, American bars followed suit. Cate, drawing on Berry’s scholarship, began serving genuine Mai Tais in the Bay Area, first at Forbidden Island in Alameda, then at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco.
“When we opened Forbidden Island back in 2006, there was a decision to be made,” remembers Cate. “I wanted to offer a more purist Mai Tai, but we still had a lot of consumer expectations about what Mai Tais had become—frozen and pink when you landed in Honolulu,” he recalls. “So we offered both. We called them the Classic Mai Tai and the Island Mai Tai. And yes, we would get the occasional Classic Mai Tai sent back because it wasn’t red or didn’t have a float.”
By the time Cate opened Smuggler’s Cove in 2009, he was making his own orgeat, and eventually used a rum he consulted on, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of 100 percent pot-still Jamaican rum and molasses-based rum from Martinique, that was meant to mimic what Trader Vic used in the early 1950s.
By the mid-2010s, there was an entire tiki bartender army across the United States—Brian Miller, Paul McGee, Garret Richard, Shannon Mustipher, Jelani Johnson—ready to fight for the Mai Tai cause. McGee—who, during early stints in the hospitality business in the ’90s and ’00s, remembers serving Mai Tais made with everything from Crème de Noyaux to amaretto—closely followed the Trader Vic original recipe when he opened the tiki bars Three Dots and a Dash (2013) and Lost Lake (2015), both in Chicago. These considered takes, which lean on a wealth of cocktail knowledge and, of course, rums that were simply unavailable in the preceding decades, have helped restore the Mai Tai to its proper perch as the king of tropical cocktails, a drink once again worthy of contemplation.
Still, some bartenders continue to stray from the straight and narrow. Berry had a Mai Tai just last year made with orgeat derived from avocado pits. “It tasted just as good as that sounds,” he said.
In Search of the Ultimate Mai Tai
After years in the wilderness, when the drink ranked at best as a has-been—a faint memory of a more carefree, fun-filled drinking era—and at worst as a liquid punch line, the Mai Tai has finally come home.
The Top Three
Garret Richard's Mai Tai
Martin Cate's Mai Tai
Jelani Johnson's Mai Tai
“I think it’s in a good place,” said Paul McGee, co-owner of Chicago’s Lost Lake and a judge in a recent PUNCH blind tasting of 10 different Mai Tais culled from bartenders across the United States.
Jelani Johnson, most recently of Clover Club, and a tiki torchbearer of note, agreed. “I think it’s timeless,” he said. Austin Hartman, owner of the tropical bar Paradise Lounge in Ridgewood, Queens, where the tasting was held, appended that: “A timeless, but unsung, hero.”
The drink certainly wasn’t unsung that day. The three tiki titans, joined in the judging by me and PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette, spent two hours delving into the finer points of the cocktail. So, what makes for a good Mai Tai? Turns out, a good many things.
“It’s supposed to be dry, but it should have body,” explained Johnson. “It should showcase the rum. It should have a good backbone of almond-y, syrupy fat, and it should be refreshing.”
“Rum. Weight. Dryness,” agreed Hartman, distilling Johnson’s assessment down to CliffsNotes size.
The twin garnishes of mint and lime, too, were important. “Your nose should be buried in that mint,” said McGee, while pointing out that the herb is strictly there for the nose’s benefit. “There’s no mint in the drink. It’s exclusively aromatic.”
A classic Mai Tai is often topped by the spent hull of a lime that has just surrendered its juices to the drink. Many bartenders shake the drink with the lime shell, believing it adds a little something extra flavor-wise. McGee called the first time he shook with the lime shell “revelatory. It added to the drink.”
A bed of crushed ice was important to most of the judges, who believed that the drink needed to stay cold, and that dilution led to a desirable evolution of the flavors. (Frechette and I, living our lives on the other side of the bar, respectfully disagreed. We preferred to enjoy the drink while it was fresh, cold and potent.)
Unexpectedly, given the Mai Tai’s status as a long-standing classic, and all the adjustable parts in the drink—two rums, orgeat, simple syrup, lime juice, Curaçao and mint—the panelists did not think the cocktail lent itself to variations and modern spins. The submitted recipes reflected this stance. Where past “ultimate” tastings staged by PUNCH have typically included a few curveball entries and outright losers, the ten Mai Tais largely hewed to the classical model.
“It’s a hard drink to riff on because it’s so solid,” said Johnson. “The only thing you can riff on is the choice of orgeat and choice of rums.”
Of course, choosing those rums—one Jamaican, one Martinique, according to Trader Vic’s original 1944 recipe—is critical. (Though the battle over authorship of the drink is long and tangled, no one on the panel disputed Victor Bergeron’s claim of ownership. “It has his stamp all over it,” declared McGee.) Following Vic’s original formula, however, is not an option, as he used 17-year-old Wray & Nephew as his Jamaican rum, a potion no longer available.
“For me it all comes down to the rum,” said Johnson, “because you’re trying to create this rum that none of us have ever had.” Hartman opined that neither of the two rums in the recipe should dominate, but that the drink should represent “a beautiful marriage of the two rums.”
Not surprisingly, the ten competing recipes called for many different bottlings, the most common ask being various expressions of Appleton Estate.
All were acceptable expressions of the drink, and most were downright pleasing. Still, when the ninth of the ten selections arrived, it was greeted with a unanimous chorus of “oohs,” “aahs” and “yums.” The contest was over.
This was the Mai Tai of bartender Garret Richard. It had richness, flavor to burn and personality. You could taste each and every one of the ingredients, and also, the panel suspected, a little something else. They weren’t wrong. Richard added five drops of saline to a mix that including one ounce of lime juice, ¾ ounce Latitude 29 orgeat (specifically made for the New Orleans bar Latitude 29), ¼ ounce Grand Marnier, ½ ounce Clément Créole Shrubb (a blend of agricole rhums, Créole spices and bitter orange peels), ¾ ounce Coruba Jamaican rum, 1 ½ ounces of Denizen Merchant’s Reserve and the aforementioned spent lime wedge.
Denizen also had a starring role in the drink that came in at number two—the recipe from Martin Cate of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove. In fact, Cate consulted on the production of Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of eight-year-old Jamaican pot-still rum and molasses-based rhum grande arôme from Martinique, with the aim of creating a spirit faithful to Trader Vic’s formula. Joining two ounces of the rum in the drink were ½ ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, ½ ounce of Smuggler’s Cove’s own orgeat, ¼ ounce of the bar’s “Mai Tai rich simple syrup” and ¾ ounce lime juice. It was deemed a benchmark Mai Tai, though less dry than numbers one and three.
Third place went to one of the judges, Jelani Johnson, who offered a combination of 1 ½ ounces of Appleton Estate 12 Year Rum, ½ ounce Rhum JM Blanc 100, ¼ ounce Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve Jamaican rum 1 ounce lime juice, ½ ounce Clément Créole Orange Shrubb, ¼ ounce of the Brooklyn-made Orgeat Works T’Orgeat, ¼ ounce Orgeat Works Latitude 29 orgeat and a teaspoon of 2:1 rich cane-sugar syrup. The judges found a fruity abundance of mint, lime and orange in the glass and a long finish.
All three winning drinks answered the panel’s collective Mai Tai needs, leaving the judges in a blissed-out reverie in which they kept sipping at the winning drinks long after the contest was over. Even Tom Roughton, the bartender who prepared all the cocktails, joined in on the lovefest.
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Must Have Cocktails in Waikiki
Want to know where to go in Waikiki for happy hour? Or are you looking for the best bars for a mai tai? Here are our favorite Hawaiian-style drinks – and where to enjoy them.
Invented in 1957 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the Blue Hawaii was concocted by legendary bartender Harry Yee. Made with vodka, rum, pineapple juice, sweet & sour mix, and blue curacao, this handcrafted masterpiece is inspired by the color of the ocean fronting the resort. The Blue Hawaii has been recreated in thousands of bars all over the world, but there’s no better place to enjoy it than where it originated. Try it while taking in the nightly entertainment at Tropics Bar & Grill.
Created by cocktail connoisseur Trader Vic, the Mai Tai is synonymous with Hawaii. The iconic rum drink is a staple at any Waikiki bar. Where to find the best mai tai is a hot debate. Everyone has their favorites, but one of the best ways to enjoy this cool cocktail is on a sunset cruise. Setting sail on the beautiful waters fronting Waikiki Beach with a mai tai in hand is the perfect way to end your day in paradise.
If laying poolside and soaking in the Hawaiian sun is on your agenda, then head to Hang 10 Bar & Grill at Hilton Waikiki Beach. The daily happy hour from 12-2pm is a great excuse for day drinking. Try the Frozen Mo’o, a tropical spin on the Cuban classic. Bursting with coconut and fresh pressed lime juice, this frozen mojito is blended to a silky perfection.
Li Hing Margarita
Li hing mui, also known as Chinese crack seed, is a popular snack you can find throughout Hawaii. Its powerful sweet and sour flavor will turn your taste buds inside out. Li hing mui powder is often used to flavor a variety of foods and drinks, including the traditional margarita. You’ll find it at Trees Restaurant in the DoubleTree Hotel Alana Waikiki Beach. Stop by for happy hour for post-beach cocktails or gather with friends and sample the sharable menu of local-inspired cuisine, featuring Hawaiian-style hoisin short ribs and craft pizzas.
If you’re not a big drinker, you can still enjoy a fun mixed drink with all of the flavor minus the alcohol. Make your way to the Top of Waikiki, Hawaii’s only revolving restaurant, for a cool mocktail. Try the Hibiscus Tonic, a refreshing mix of local tea, lime and tonic. If not for anything else, you can sit and savor the 360-degree views of the city skyline.
Trader Vic’s Mai Tai
(Cover Photo courtesy of Post Prohibition)
- 1 oz Appleton Estate Extra Dark Rum
- 1 oz Rhum JM Gold (any Rhum product, like Rhum Clement or Rhum Barbancourt)
- 1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
- ½ oz Orange Curacao
- ¼ oz Orgeat Syrup*
- ¼ oz Simple Syrup
Prep – Shake over crushed ice. Pour contents, including ice, into a double old-fashioned glass. Sink used lime shell (pulp removed/half a lime turned inside out) into drink. Garnish with mint.
*How to Make Homemade Orgeat Syrup
Orgeat (pronounced “awr-zhat”) is a sweet almond syrup with a lovely touch of orange and rose flower water. Making homemade is very complicated, but if you are a foodie or like to spend time in the kitchen, then this is for you. Orgeat can be found at specialty shops or shops that sell flavored syrups.
- 7 oz blanched sliced almonds (no skins)
- 18 oz of water
- 2 oz of vodka
- 3 cups of sugar
- teaspoon of rose water
- Orange Bitters
- 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract
- 1/8 teaspoon or less of xanthan gum (very light dusting)
In a bowl cover almonds with water and allow to soak for 20 minutes. Strain and discard water.
Then add the 18 oz of water and the 2 oz of vodka, allowing to soak at least 3 hours or overnight. I add vodka at this point to help extract the oil from the almonds. Plus the vodka will help preserve the syrup. If you are using the orgeat for something other than cocktails, feel free to omit the vodka.
With a food processor or hand blender, blend the almonds to release their oils.
Strain almonds through cheesecloth and a sieve and collect the water in a separate bowl.
Squeeze the almonds in the cheesecloth to get all the liquid out.
Now take your almond water and sugar and bring to a low boil on the stove until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.
You will notice the almond oil and the water tends to separate, this is where the xanthan gum comes into play. With a whisk or hand blender incorporate the xanthan gum.
Add the almond extract to taste. This will kick up the almond flavor and is not totally necessary, but I think it’s a nice touch. Also, add the rose water and orange bitters. You could use orange flower water here instead of a combination of the orange bitters and rose water. Be careful with orange flower water because it is very strong and if you put too much your syrup will taste like perfume.
Bottle in sterile bottles.
Smuggler's Cove Mai Tai
While some Mai Tai variants call for pineapple juice, this adapted 1944 Trader Vic recipe omits it in favor of the more classic recipe favored by Martin Cate’s award-winning Tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove. Cate, a former Trader Vic’s bartender, brings some interesting perspective to the concept of Mai Tais as a whole, which he details alongside the recipe on page 261 of his book, “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.”
Making the perfect old-school Mai Tai is far from a complicated affair—instead, this drink is all about simplicity (according to Cate, it’s “really just a nutty rum Margarita"). The key to bringing a balanced and robust nuttiness to your Mai Tai is adding quality orgeat into the mix—try making your own at home, or if you’re not up to the task, you can always purchase or order the syrup from a specialty cocktail shop. Taking an equally thoughtful approach to the rest of your drink’s ingredients generally yields a better finished product.
As with many other cocktails, classic or not, using fresh juice is key. To juice your limes at home, see if you can find an original Sunkist hand squeezer, which has long been the preferred Mai Tai juicing tool behind the bar at Trader Vic’s. Cate recommends searching for one of these on eBay—the major difference in using this kind of juicer instead of a modern-style hand juicer is that the lime half is hollowed out while maintaining its shape, whereas the hinge-style hand juicers of today will flip the shell inside-out. The idea here is to render a nice half-shell suitable for garnishing. Lastly, don’t shake the lime shell with the drink as it will impart unwanted bitterness to the mixture.
Cate also advises bartenders to experiment with their rums when it comes to making Mai Tais—in his words, this drink is “the perfect foil for a huge variety of rums.” He also specifies in the book that the Trader Vic’s original recipe called for 100% pot still rum with significant age, so bear that in mind when developing your own interpretation.
Fun fact: Trader Vic never actually served a Mai Tai with a rum float—in fact, this style was added somewhere over the course of the drink’s evolution between 1944 and now. Cate notes that a Mai Tai served with a float of overproof Demerara rum is referred to as the “Old Way,” a moniker stemming from an elderly Trader Vic’s regular who preferred his Mai Tais this way.
Try your hand at making a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai at home, and if you’re interested in picking up the book, you can order a personalized and signed copy from Cate’s website.
Mai Tai Cocktail
A modern classic and arguably the most popular tiki drink on the planet. The Mai Tai cocktail was created by bartender “Trader” Vic Bergeron. In 1970, “Trader Vic” Bergeron wrote the following:
“I originated the Mai Tai and put together a bit of the background of the evolution of this drink…. In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks: martinis, manhattans, daiquiris… All basically simple drinks…. I took down a bottle of 17 year old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica surprisingly golden in colour, medium bodied, but with rich pungent flavour particular to Jamaican blends…. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curaçao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavour. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color…. I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guide, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, “Mai Tai— Roa Ai.” In Tahitian this means “Out of This World — The Best.” Well, that was that. I named the drink “Mai Tai.” … In fairness to myself and to a truly great drink, I hope you will agree when I say, “let’s get the record straight on the Mai Tai.”
The ingredients “Trader Vic” originally used are hard to come by today. So the above recipe is an excellent recipe that’s more accessible.
Share All sharing options for: You Deserve a Mai Tai — a Real One, That Is
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."
The Mai Tai at Smuggler's Cove. Photo: Facebook
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.
Mai Tai variations at NYC’s Maison Premiere. Photo: Solares/Eater
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.