“You can have more fun with a flower behind your ear, a Mai Tai in your hand, and good friends.” – Trader Vic
Ah, the poor, misunderstood, misinterpreted, mistreated Mai Tai. It’s enough to break a rum lover’s heart. How is it that one of the most flavorful, layered and storied cocktails of the modern era has been so abused by so many? Belly up to almost any ol’ bar in any ol’ town and order a Mai Tai and what will you get? A cloyingly sweet neon coral-and-pink concoction made from orange juice and grenadine and garnished by a luau of fruit with a red-dye cherry on top. It’s the chicken equivalent of ordering a dish of rich, delicate coq au vin and getting a box of fried nuggets with BBQ dip. Where’s the nuance? Where’s the history? (Where’s the box of Kleenex?)
In the proper hands, the Mai Tai is a celebration of rum; it is a refined citrus-tart, slightly sweet flavor-fest with aromatic nutty-smokey notes to be savored and praised. Sip it and your tongue will discern each layer as the icy liquid encounters various taste buds and pleasure zones. So how did the recipe go so astray?
Let’s start by investigating how Mai Tai history began.
Shaking Things Up
The Mai Tai was born in 1944. World War II rumbled on under President Roosevelt, Casablanca was Oscar’s “Best Picture” and Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star” filled the airwaves. Youngsters were dancing the Lindy Hop and starting stamp collections, and most dinner tables featured both a Jell-O mold salad and a meatloaf. And at a beloved Polynesian bar in Oakland, California, an industrious restaurateur named Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. was creating cocktail history.
But let’s back up for just a moment: Ten years earlier, Bergeron had visited Havana and discovered the singular charms of rum and rum drinks. He brought his new obsession back to Oakland and experimented like a mad scientist with all sorts of rum-drenched cocktails (mojitos, daiquiris, etc.) mixing, pouring, adding. Meanwhile in Hollywood, Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) was single-handedly bringing Tiki Culture from the South Seas to a hip LA crowd. When Vic visited Beach a few years later, he fell in love with all things Tiki and the seeds were planted for his own empire.
Upon his return from Hollywood to Oakland, Vic was so inspired by the Beachcomber vibe, he transformed his current establishment (formerly a rustic good-old-bar called “Hinky Dinks”) into a Tiki-lit Polynesian pupu palace and renamed it “Trader Vic’s” after his own nickname. Though folks loved to believe this moniker had sprung from some sort of swashbuckling island hi-jinx, it was actually given to him by his wife who had long watched him barter for supplies and services with food and drink to avoid paying cash. And even though Trader Vic did, indeed have a wooden leg, it was not because of a shark attack as he’d let people believe but was the result of childhood polio. To stoke the tales of his eccentricities, Vic was fond of plunging a knife into this leg in front of the patrons — and then howl with laughter at their reactions.
Mai Mai Mai . . .
So on a fateful night in 1944, Vic was eager to create an original cocktail that would fit right in with his new French Polynesian menu and become his establishment’s signature drink.
“I thought about all the really successful drinks—martinis, Manhattans, daiquiris, all basically simple drinks,” Bergeron wrote, reflecting on his Mai Tai cocktail history. “I took down a bottle of 17-year old rum. It was J. Wray & Nephew rum from Jamaica—surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends.”
He was expecting friends Eastham and Carrie Guild to arrive that evening from Tahiti and found it the perfect opportunity. To the rum he added some almond-based, rose-scented French orgeat syrup, a splash of Orange Curacao liqueur, a little rock candy syrup and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. When his friends arrived at the bar, so happy to be far from their war-torn South Pacific, Vic shook up his concoction with some crushed ice, poured it into a double old-fashioned glass and floated half a lime shell in it cut side down. Noticing that this resembled a tiny island, he added a jaunty fresh mint sprig palm tree and slid the glass to Carrie. She took a healthy swig and shouted “Maitai roa ae!” which loosely translates to, “Out of this world!” and the name stuck.
Though the drink was an early and swift success, Vic notoriously refused to share his exact recipe. Bartenders everywhere had to guess the ingredients and create their own less-than-stellar imitations. “That’s why we have so many bad Mai Tais with pineapple juice and other hideous additions,” says Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum.
Something to Clink About
Tiki bars and culture continued to flourish in the post-war years. When Vic brought his Mai Tai to Hawaii in 1953, its true heyday began. The tiki drink was more than ready for its close up in the 1961 Elvis Presley film, Blue Hawaii where the King belts out “Rock a Hula” to a party filled with hip folks sipping Mai Tais. In 1973, President Richard Nixon brought his wife Pat to the Trader Vic’s in DC for Valentine’s Day Mai Tais.
The Mai Tai stayed so popular for so long, it depleted the world’s supply of J. Wray & Nephew Rum to near extinction. In fact, the lore of Vic’s true-original Mai Tai is so seductive, rare remaining bottles of that special golden rum have been known to fetch as much as $50,000 at auction. The Holy Grail for rum aficionados. To this day, the Mai Tai remains a cocktail staple, and though bartenders will forever add their own twist or use any number of fruit juices, purists insist on Vic’s precise original recipe. It is both refreshing and complex. Try it. You’ll be honoring history — and your taste buds will thank you.
Trader Vic’s Recipe for the Original Mai Tai:
1 oz. Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum (or other light rum)
1 oz. Appleton Estate Extra Dark Jamaican rum (or other dark rum)
The juice of one fresh lime (reserve half the lime shell)
1/2 oz. Orange Curacao liqueur
1/4 oz. Orgeat (a distinctive nutty-rose scented syrup)
1/4 oz. Simple Syrup
Fresh Mint Sprig
1 cup Crushed Ice
Pour all ingredients into a shaker except the mint. Shake vigorously and pour entire contents into a double old-fashioned glass. Float the lime shell cut side down (the island) and the fresh mint sprig (the palm tree). Out of this world!
What’s your favorite tiki drink recipe? We’d love to see you relaxing with a cocktail in hand soon at Koloa Landing Resort. Aloha . . .
— Erica Karlin, Koloa Landing Resort