Ah, the Mai Tai. No other drink is more associated with Tiki culture and tropical cocktails. Smooth like summer waves and bright like a Tahitian sunset, the Mai Tai is something worth savouring. Not just a delivery system for rum and tiny umbrellas, the Mai Tai is all that and more – but what is it and where does it come from?
The Mai Tai is a cocktail with two stories of its origin. The most famous of the two is that it was created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron in Oakland, California in 1944 for two friends who were visiting the state from Tahiti. To his delight, their response to the drink was to exclaim “Maita’i roa ae!”, which roughly translates to “Out of this world! The best!” With that, Bergeron claimed, the Mai Tai was born.
Or was it?
However, this is where the history of the Mai Tai becomes contentious. Bergeron’s rival, Don the Beachcomber, claimed to have invented the Mai Tai a full 11 years earlier at his bar in Hollywood.
Now then, which story is true? In all likelihood, both (at least in part). However, what can’t be argued is that, while Don the Beachcomber might have claim to the first Mai Tai, Trader Vic is the one who made the drink famous.
So, while both of Tiki culture’s principal bartenders lay claim to the Mai Tai, and while their recipes differ significantly, it’s not such a bad thing. Fortunately for bartenders and bar patrons everywhere, both Vic and Don’s Mai Tais are delicious in their own rights.
While Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is citrusy and rich, Don the Beachcomber’s is more spice-forward and herbaceous. And, make no mistake, both are boozy enough to have you waking up on the beach the next morning wondering what happened. Keep in mind though, there are countless variations on the Mai Tai. Some of them are great while others… are maybe best left forgotten.
The Modern Mai Tai
Don’t fret, though. There’s hope yet for the mighty Mai Tai. In recent years, a new crop of Tiki bartenders have donned their Hawaiian shirts and set themselves to the task of making drinks like the Mai Tai as they were always meant to be. From fresh juices and house-made orgeat to artisan-made Tiki mugs and flaming garnishes, young bartenders are taking these cocktails seriously. Just not too seriously.
Winter can be tough. A look outside at all that snow can make it impossible to think of warmer climates. So, to help get you there, we’ve included both Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber’s original recipes, right. Why not shake one up the next time the winter blues take hold? Kick back, relax and be whisked away to the tropics.
Trader Vic’s Mai Tai #1
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint and spent lime shell.
2 oz Jamaican Rum such as Appleton Estate 12-year-old
Juice of one lime (roughly 3/4 oz)
1/2 oz Pierre Ferrand Orange Dry Curaao
1/4 oz demerara syrup
1/2 oz orgeat Syrup
Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish as with Trader Vic’s Mai Tai #1.
2 oz water
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
1 oz simple syrup
1 oz dark rum such as Cruzan Blackstrap
1-1/2 oz golden rum such as Appleton Estate VX
1/2 oz Cointreau or triple Sec
1/4 oz Falernum liqueur/syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Pernod or other anise-flavored pastis
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