What is a Mai Tai?

The Mai Tai, Three Ways
A Mai Tai is a tiki cocktail that was invented in 1944 by Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic’s. The mai tai can be found on the menus at tiki bars all over the world and the drink name is instantly recognized by just about everybody. The problem with this name recognition is that more people know the name than what is in the drink, so when you order a Mai Tai, you’re never sure what you’re going to get. According to Vic himself, here is how a mai tai is made:

I took down a bottle of 17-year old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew rum, added fresh lime, some Orange Curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle 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 Taihiti, who were there that night. Carrie took on 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”.

The original mai tai recipe described above is a fairly tart, citrusy drink that is very refreshing and not particularly sweet. The lime and rum dominate the flavor profile, while orange curacao and orgeat primarily add body to the back of the drink and soften that bright lime flavor. If I served it as-is to ten people off the street, they would probably tell me that the drink was not a mai tai at all. To many, a mai tai is a very sweet drink that has a lot of pineapple juice in it and a much more overtly tropical flavor profile, such as the one you’ll find in our recipe for Roy’s Island Mai Tai.

While purists will argue that the Trader Vic mai tai is the one true mai tai, we tend to take a much more flexible view of things and say that a mai tai can be both. The “original” mai tai changed a lot over the years, even at Trader Vic bars and restaurants. The drink changed because the available ingredients changed (the supply of that 17 year old rum did not last for all that long), and while Vic tried to keep the flavor of that first drink the same, the drink that we can make today is not going to taste identical to the first one that was poured at Trader Vic’s. And those sweet mai tais can taste pretty delicious, too, if you’re at a bar that is making them with quality, fresh ingredients.

Trader Vic's Mai Tai in a Tiki Mug

It is certainly important to know which type of drink you’re going to get before you order one in a bar, so take a moment to ask the bartender to ensure that you are getting the drink you want. If you’re at a great tiki bar, they’re probably going to be serving a drink that is close to the original. If you’re lounging on the side of a pool in Hawaii, you’re probably going to get the pineapple version and they might not be able to make the “classic” recipe for you. Enjoy both versions because a good mai tai is always a good thing.

Trader Vic’s Original Mai Tai
1 oz dark Jamaican Rum
1 oz white Martinique Rum
1 oz lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/2 oz Orange Curacao (or Cointreau)
1/4 oz orgeat syrup
1/4 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, fill with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a tall old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a lime and a sprig of mint.

Serves 1.

Surf Room Mai Tai

This mai tai recipe is from the Surf Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, and I found it in Beachbum Berry’s Intoxica. The drink is similar to the Trader Vic’s drink, but it adds in fresh orange and pineapple juices for a more tropical overall flavor. It also uses both lemon and lime, however we prefer to make it with lime alone (and a little extra simple syrup) and included our twist in the recipe below. Since the Surf Room is said to have been serving these since the 1940s, this could very well be one of the first mai tais with a pineapple twist. It’s a bit sweeter than the “original” mai tai and goes down very easily, so it’s not hard to see how this version of the drink caught on.

Surf Room Mai Tai
1 oz Demerara Rum
1 oz dark Jamaican Rum
1 oz white Puerto Rican Rum
1/4 oz Orange Curacao
1 oz orange juice, freshly squeezed
1 oz pineapple juice, freshly squeezed
3/4 oz lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 oz orgeat syrup
1/2 oz sugar syrup

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, fill with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a large hurricane glass filled with crushed ice and garnish with mint, a lime wedge and an orchid, if you have one.

Serves 1-2

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  1. Pingback: Roy’s Island Mai Tai | Modern Tiki

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