Tales from Behind the Bar | Mai Tai

By Peter Vestinos |

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America's fascination with Tiki and the Tiki Cocktail lasted from the 30's well into the 70's and every few years or so someone says Tiki is back and a few soon-to-be-doomed bars open up, mugs in the shapes of skulls and pineapples are stocked and someone goes into the basement to dust off the Mai Tai recipe. Except for maybe the Old Fashioned, I cannot think of another drink which was created long ago and which is still commonly called for, but the modern recipe is a pale comparison to the original. My guess would be that 99% of bartenders don't know how to make a proper Mai Tai. Order a Mai Tai today and who knows what you will get in there – bottled lemon sour, pineapple and orange juice, grenadine, even Amaretto or 151. If you're lucky you may get two types of rum.
Fortunately these days we have a new breed of historians – the cocktail historians – who have delved into recipe books, collected old menus and done extensive research into our imbibing history. So let's clear up some Mai Tai misconceptions:
The Tiki craze, along with the wonderful and colorful cocktails that it generated, came out of Los Angeles just a few years after prohibition was repealed. It was started by a man named Ernest Gantt who would later become Don the Beachcomber. Working with an impressive number of rums, many we may never see again, Don the Beachcomber became a master of blending different styles of rums into complex and elaborate cocktails. (The loss of the fantastic variety of rums from all over the Caribbean and South America is something we should lament more than the loss of any cocktail recipe). Quickly catching on to the budding Tiki revolution a man named Vic Bergeron – later better know as Trader Vic – started his own Tiki bar up the coast in Oakland. Now here is where things get funny. Both men invented a cocktail named the Mai Tai. And both are very different.
Don the Beachcomber's recipe, which follows below, was a blend of medium and dark rums with Pernod and Cointreau as modifying spirits and incorporated spice (Falernum and Bitters) as well as good acidity (grapefruit and lime juice). It's a well-structured, balanced and complex cocktail. To tell you the truth, I think it is a much better cocktail than Trader Vic's.

Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai

  • 1 1/2 oz Dark Rum (Meyer's)
  • 1 oz Medium bodied rum (Appletons)
  • 3/4 oz fresh lime juice
  • 1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
  • 1/4 oz Falernum (a sweet syrup with flavors of almonds, cloves and limes)
  • 1/2 oz Cointreau
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash Pernod
  • 1 cup cracked ice

Shake with the cracked ice and pour all contents (including ice) into a rocks glass.

Now in this corner we have Trader Vic. Since Trader Vic spent a great deal of time promoting his claim as the inventor of the Mai Tai we might as well just go straight to the source:

I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn't meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. 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 Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, "Mai Tai - Roa Ae". In Tahitian this means "Out of This World - The Best". Well, that was that. I named the drink "Mai Tai".

And although he may have been the second to create a drink with the name The Mai Tai cocktail, the Trader's version took off and still lives on in the many Trader Vic's restaurants across the world. I should also mention, as stocks of good rums diminished Trader Vic made great efforts to find other rums and use them in combination to replicate the flavor of the long extinct J. Wray Nephew.
Again: two men, two cocktails, one name, both recipes on the verge of extinction. I prefer Don's version but most bar guests have come to know the Trader's version.
Just a note, on this week's show I prepared a Trader Vic's Mai Tai using creme de noyaux rather than orgeat. Both have an almond flavor but orgeat can more readily be found in coffee houses rather than behind a bar these days. Either will work, but note that the Noyaux will give the cocktail a reddish hue.