Being a cocktail historian and enthusiast, I am intrigued by the mystery surrounding the classic "Mai Tai" tropical cocktail. So after some digging and researching, I decided to share with all of you the myths and facts related to this truly one-of-a-kind elixir that has been around for a long time and enjoyed at every corner of the globe. Here is my attempt to clarify the facts.
Depending on which historical account you look up, two pioneering tiki bartenders take credit for the Mai Tai. Don the Beachcomber, who opened America’s first tiki bar in 1934 in Los Angeles, and Victor J. Bergeron, founder of Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian themed chain of restaurants. According to Don’s wife, it appeared on the scene in 1933 and created by Don at his bar appearing as the “Mai Tai Swizzle”. In another story, Bergeron mixed one for Tahitian friends in 1944 at his restaurant in Oakland, California. “Carrie took one sip and said, ‘Mai tai roa ae.’ In Tahitian, that means, ‘out of this world, the best.’ Well, that was that. I named the drink “Mai Tai.”
To add further confusion, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is much different than Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Swizzle. It’s more similar to Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler cocktail that came on the scene in 1937, the very same year Bergeron visited Don the Beachcomber’s establishment. Is Trader Vic’s Mai Tai a copy? Or did they miraculously come up with very similar concoctions independent of one another?
More intrigue surrounds how it should be made. The version sipped poolside during your tropical vacation is not remotely close to the original recipes (except the rum). Matt Robold, author of the rum and tiki blog called “Rumdood”, describes it as “the most butchered beverage of all-time.” It’s not anyone’s fault, says Robold. The Mai Tai’s origins has been overly muddled and debated plenty over time. According to the book Hawaii Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine by our famous Don, co-authored by his wife, the Mai Tai Swizzle, calls for bitters, grapefruit juice, Pernod, and Falernum, a Caribbean liqueur made of cloves, limes, and almonds along with the rums. Bergeron’s Mai Tai is made with rum, fresh lime, orange curacao, simple syrup, orgeat (almond) syrup, and a mint sprig.
Most tiki historians and aficionados, such as Beach Bum Berry, give homage to Trader Vic’s version because of its originality, flavor, and taste. He goes on to say, “It doesn’t matter which came first, but rather, which one tastes best, and I vote for Vic’s.”
If you want to get adventurous this summer and try a Mai Tai poolside, on your tropical vacation, or at your Polynesian-themed party, you be the judge. Against popular belief, there never was any orange juice, pineapple juice, or grenadine in the classic Mai Tai cocktails, but in my version, you will find a little fresh o.j and amaretto with different garnishments. If you want the cocktail with these above ingredients, you must ask for a “Royal Hawaiian”, which dates to the 1920s in Hawaii. See both recipes below along with my modern twist on it. Beware – no matter what drink you choose, it is fully loaded and will get you hammered.
Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Swizzle
(Photo courtesy of Beach Bum Berry)
- 1 oz Banks 5 Cuban Rum (any modern Cuban rum, like Havana Club)
- 1.5 oz Myers Original Dark Rum
- 1 oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
- ¾ oz Fresh Lime Juice
- ½ oz Cointreau
- ¼ oz Falernum
- 6 drops of Pernod
- 1 dash of Angostura bitters
Prep – Shake over crushed ice. Pour contents, including ice, into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with four mint sprigs.
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.
RYS Modern Mai Tai
(Photo courtesy of Hawaii Magazine)
- 1 oz Dark Rum
- 1 oz Amber/Gold Rum
- ½ oz Orange Curacao or Triple Sec
- ½ oz Amaretto
- ¾ oz Fresh Lime Juice
- 1 oz Freshly-squeezed Orange Juice
- ¼ oz Orgeat Syrup/Almond Extract (optional)
- ¼ oz Pure Cane Syrup (2:1 sugar to water)
- Float more dark rum on top for a layered look
Prep - Shake over crushed ice. Pour contents, including ice, into a tiki glass or tulip glass. Sink used lime shell (pulp removed/half a lime turned inside out) into drink. Add an edible flower and/or perisol (optional).