Recipe: The Mai Tai

Declaring a particular cocktail my favorite is a little like declaring one of the kids my favorite — I could do it, but I wouldn't want them to hear. Cocktails can be such sensitive creatures.

It used to be that I drank mostly vodka. I'd mix it with a little lemonade or fruit juice and call it done. So the only "real" drink I favored was the gin and tonic. And the G&T is still one of the best around, a perfect balance of crisp, refreshing flavors. Plus, it helps ward off malaria. (You can never be too careful)

But ever since I've started my exploration of the constellation of rums, I've discovered a whole new world of drinks. And at the epicenter of that world is the king of all rum drinks: the Mai Tai.

The origins of the Mai Tai are as shrouded in mist as the lead singer of an 80s New Wave band in a music video. According to popular lore, the Mai Tai was invented in 1944 by Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron at his faux-Polynesian restaurant in Oakland, California. Allegedly, Vic set out to create the best drink possible, and when he served it to a pair of friends visiting from Tahiti, they pronounced it "mai tai" ("the best").

Although there are credible stories that date the true provenance of the Mai Tai to 1933, attributing its creation to Trader Vic's longtime rival Don the Beachcomber (aka Donn Beach, aka Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt), at a certain point it becomes more academic than anything else. All we barflies really want to know is: how does it taste?

In a word: delicious.

(If you do want to investigate further the origins of the Mai Tai, and all other tropical drinks of significance, I strongly recommend you peruse the works of Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, the world's foremost authority on Tiki drinks. His book Beachbum Berry Remixed is particularly invaluable.)

The Mai Tai is not the syrupy, sticky sweet, red, blue, or purple, pinneapple-infused, grenadine-tinged monstrosity that is usually served by the hapless bartenders of too many bars across the world.

The Mai Tai is actually a fairly simple drink, composed of only five ingedients. When Trader Vic first mixed it, he was really trying to showcase the rum, a rather old and impressive bottle from Jamaica. And a well-made Mai Tai should still focus on rum, with the other flavors serving as compliments.

 

Trader Vic's Original Mai Tai Recipe

2 ounces 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum
1/2 ounce French Garnier Orgeat
1/2 ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao
1/4 ounce Rock Candy Syrup (a rich simple syrup with a hint of vanilla)
juice from one fresh lime

 

Although that particular rum is no longer available (allegedly there are only four bottles extant in the world today and the last time one sold, it was for $50k), Trader Vic eventually modified his Mai Tai to take advantage of a blend of two different aged rums that gave his signature drink the robust flavor he was looking for. With a few slight variations, that's the same recipe I use.

 

Mai Tai

Shake with lots of crushed ice:

1 ounce aged gold rum1
1 ounce gold/dark Jamaican rum2
1/2 ounce Orange Curacao3
1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
1/2 ounce simple syrup (1:1 sugar dissolved in water)
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

Pour unstrained into a double old fashioned glass and top with more crushed ice, if necessary. Garnish with one of the squeezed lime halves and a sprig of fresh mint. (The garnish is supposed to look like an island floating in the sea with a palm tree.)

1Trader Vic preferred to use a rhum agricole from Martinique, but I usually substitute a demerara rum, such as El Dorado. You can use any gold rum, but try to get a decent aged rum. Rhum Barbancourt is another favorite of mine.

2The go-to rum here is Appleton. I recommend either the V/X or Extra (12 Year). You can also use the cheaper Appleton Special Gold. In a pinch, Coruba or Myer's will work. (Do not use spiced/flavored rum!)

3I use Senior Curacao of Curacao or Marie Brizard. Bols works, too. You can substitute Triple Sec, but it's going to change the flavor of the drink. If you do, cut back on the sugar.

 

Most recipes call for a little less simple syrup than I use — although it should be noted that Trader Vic's Rock Candy Syrup was made with 2:1 sugar/water, so it was approximately half again as sweet as the 1:1 stuff I use. I find that I like that little extra sweetness. I don't care for drinks that are overly tart, so I decided to up the sugar a little rather than decrease the lime. (I'm still trying to stick as closely as possible to Vic's original recipe.)

Orgeat, a sweet, almond syrup with just a hint of orange flower water, is a key ingredient of this recipe, as it was in so much of the repertoire of Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber. It adds an undercurrent of flavor to the drink that makes it taste both richer and more exotic. (If you can't find orgeat, you can substitute regular almond syrup — the kind that is used by coffeehouses, for example — but it will taste a little different.)

If you find that the Mai Tai is to your liking, I recommend that you play around with the combination of rums to find a pairing that best suits your palate. (Or, do like I do and pick a different pair of rums to suit your mood, or even at random.) As long as you don't use a flavored or spiced rum, anything should work in this drink. 

The selection of rums will, of course, be limited to what you have on hand. And if you're like most people, that won't be much. (But please invest in something other than that bottle of Bacardi you've been nipping at for the past five years.) The rum(s) you choose will change how good the final product tastes. But no matter what, it's likely to turn out "mai tai."

5 thoughts on “Recipe: The Mai Tai

  1. Personally I don’t like it that sweet and would probably omit the SS, or reduce to a few drops. This is a drink I think you really need to taste due to the variability of the lime juice.

  2. Agreed — the lime can really vary, so I often will start with just 1/4 oz of simple and see how it tastes. But I usually find that I like the little bit extra sweetness. It also will vary depending on how sweet your orgeat is.

  3. Great post. At The Rum Project, when we were reviewing (and reliving) this history and traditions of rum, the story of Donn the Beachcomber and Vic Bergeron’s competition over the origin of the “Mai Tai” is delicious reading. I’m gonna go with Don.
    But in either case, both were fanatical about the choice of rum. Both eschewed the use of what most readers would call “mixing rums” (another myth), much preferring a precise choice of just the right rum – almost always a fine and expensive sipping rum. Paraphrasing Vic: “The finer the rum, the better the drink”.
    At The Project, Sue Sea and I had just that experience at the beach in our Fort Lauderdale Paradise. Back then our cooler always held a few Guinness Stouts and a couple of cans of coconut water, and a flask of rum, usually Flor de Cana 4 Year gold.
    For some reason this day the flask had a few shots of Mount Gay Extra Old, so we shrugged and poured it into the can of coconut juice (alcohol is forbidden on the beach).
    It was heavenly.
    The difference between the FdC 4yr, normally considered a fine mixing gold, and the MGXO was like night and day. Vic would have been proud.
    The point: there is no such thing as a fine mixing rum; rather, there are just fine rums.

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