Mai Tai: The Butchered Beverage

by Matt Robold on January 7, 2009

The Mai Tai is probably one of the better-known rum cocktails – right up there with the mojito and the daiquiri.  It’s practically the King of Tiki or Tropical drinks.  Anyone that’s ever been on a vacation to a tropical island or locale has probably ordered one at some point.  And the sad fact of the matter is that the odds are that – while they were certainly brought a drink – it was almost certainly NOT a mai tai.

Depending on who you believe, the original mai tai was invented by either Vic Bergeron (aka “Trader Vic”) or Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka “Don The Beachcomber”) in the 1940′s.  While the debate on who created the mai tai first may never end, most bartenders who make a real mai tai will follow Vic’s recipe.

Of course, therein lies the rub.  Most people follow neither recipe.  Most mai tais I’ve seen made these days are cloyingly sweet, fruit juice-laden concoctions with sub-par rum, cheap grenadine, and gallons of pineapple juice.  With the exception of rum, none of this has any place in a mai tai.

Vic’s original mai tai recipe was as simple as it was splendid.  While most people think of tiki drinks as being complicated messes of syrups, fruit juices, and muddled ingredients, the mai tai is actually quite simple.

Mai Tai

2 oz Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old Rum
.5 oz orgeat
.5 oz orange curacao
.25 oz simple syrup
Juice of one lime (approx. .75 oz lime juice)

Mix all ingredients and shake with ice.  Strain into a glass over crushed ice. Garnish with lime shell and a sprig of mint.

I’ll grant you that orgeat is not the most frequently used – or even stocked – drink ingredient on the planet, but if you’re going to be making mai tais, you should have it. And regardless of your available stock of orgeat or hyper-ultra-premium rums, where does one find pineapple or orange juice in this recipe?  Where’s the call for grenadine?  I’ve tasted the W&N17, and I can assure you, it tastes nothing like pineapple or orange juice.


Of course, the cost of the rum called for in the original recipe is a tad prohibitive (a bottle of W&N17 can cost you about $52,000 on the open market).  This doesn’t excuse the butchering of this classic drink in so many restaurants, bars, and home kitchens around the world.

The scarcity of the rum in question has led to a number of theories as to the best practices for substituting something more readily available (and about three fewer digits on the price).  In the 1950′s the Trader Vic’s restaurant chain modified their recipe to include 1 oz of aged Jamaican rum and 1 oz of aged rhum agricole from Martinique.  Other bars and bartenders have sworn by an aged Jamaican/aged white rum blend.  By the time the 1990′s had rolled around, Vic’s was using their house-branded Mai Tai Rum.*

After a recent visit to Luau in Beverly Hills, where I had what I would say is probably the best mai tai I’ve ever had (a tip of the hat to bar-menu designer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for that), I found myself staring at the 110+ rums on my shelf wondering which two (or even THREE) would be the absolute best combo for the absolute best mai tai.  This, my friends, is my mission.  I will be spending the next few weeks trying any and every rum combination that I think might have merit.  Jamaican and white?  Check.  Demerara and agricole?  Why not?  Captain and Bacardi O?  OK, well maybe not every possible combination.

As I travel down this path, I’m open to suggestion and guidance.  Have you tried to a mai tai combination that was particularly good or bad?  Anything interesting I should or shouldn’t try?

Update: Be sure to check out the results of my search!

*Note: Thanks to Martin Cate from Forbidden Island for setting me straight on the history of the rums used by Vic’s.

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{ 27 comments }

SeanMike January 7, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Try the Ed Hamilton version as per John Wabeck: all three Neisson rhum agricoles.

Tiare January 7, 2009 at 4:36 pm

yes, Ed just told me about these Neissons in Mai Tais, saying they make wonderful Mai Tais, you should try it out Dood. I only have Neisson Eleve Sous Bois left here to try out for myself.

T

Tiare January 7, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Forgot to say, i will concentrate on the demeraras on my own combo mission, but i suggest you try the Pussers and Zaya combo.

Sylvan January 7, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Just don’t put Amaretto in there.

Reese January 7, 2009 at 6:20 pm

You speak the truth good dood. I look forward to hearing the results of your mission.

-R

BonzoGal January 7, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Perhaps we should write a grant proposal for $52,000 to buy the W&N17. After all, this is for the good of The People.

Marshall January 7, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Any thoughts on trying different curacaos? Some Creole Shrubb would taste mighty fine indeed . . .

The Masked MaiTaier January 7, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Dude,

It’s no big deal. Just make sure you use Tropicana Frozen Mai Tai Concentrate! It’s the swankiest!

Dr. Bamboo January 7, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Whatever you do, just don’t forget the chocolate jimmies on top.

Matt Robold January 7, 2009 at 10:58 pm

I will definitely be trying the Ed Hamilton Mai Tai. I’ll have to procure some Neisson bottles for that. Oh darn.

Zaya and Pussers is also on the list. I’m 9 combos in on my search already. I figure I have another 25 or so to go.

Matt Robold January 7, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Oh, and Marshall, I’ve been using Clement Creole Shrubb in all my combos. Just a superior orange liqueur.

Tiare January 8, 2009 at 12:28 am

Dood, Ed will soon gimme the Neisson recipe unless you already have it?

H.C. January 8, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Wow, the recipe is simpler than it seems — though wondering what other things (asides from some crazy coffee concoction) I can use orgeat in.

Matt Robold January 8, 2009 at 5:06 pm

H.C., there are a TON of options.

The Japanese Cocktail (cognac, orgeat, bitters), Don’s Caribbean Punch (too many to list), Trader Vic’s Scorpion Bowl…

The other great thing about orgeat is that it can be fun to make. Check out Erik Ellestad’s recipe for the best orgeat I’ve ever had here.

Sylvan January 8, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Quote I came across elsewhere:
“One source said that as the Wray and Nephew 17 started running low Trader Vic would supplement this rum [Red Heart] or Coruba along with a Wray and Nephew 15 in order to make mai tais.”
I’m assuming not very much Coruba, it’s pretty strong flavored. Looking forward to your results.

Max January 9, 2009 at 9:59 pm

I actually have more of a question than a comment. I’ve been making the Bum’s $100 mai tai with Saint James Hors d Age and Appleton’s 12 year; however I’m not sure I’ll be able to find the Hors d Age in the future. Has it been discontinued in the U.S.?

I read your review of the Depaz and saw it in a store recently. Do you think that the Depaz and the Appleton 12 would make a good Mai Tai?

Anyway, best of luck. I’m VERY curious what the results will be!

Matt Robold January 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Hi Max,

I’m not aware of the Hors d’Ages being discontinued in the US, but I’ll confess that I’m not always on top of these matters like I should be.

The Appleton 12/Depaz combo is one that I’ve tried and works very well, although to be honest, I think a better combo is the Appleton Estate 12 and Clement Rhum Agricole VSOP, which is currently the leader for my favorite combo (17 down, about 16 more to go).

Max January 10, 2009 at 12:05 am

Thanks for the advice RumDood! I’ll have to check that combination out. Cheers!

Max January 11, 2009 at 5:57 am

Tried the Appleton 12/Clement VSOP combination in my Mai Tai tonight. It made a DELICIOUS Mai Tai. Thanks for the recommendation!

When I bought the Clement VSOP, I noticed more bottles of the Saint James Hors d’ Ages. So I guess there is no discontinuation (I got nervous after reading some threads on tiki forum–they were from last year, but you never know).

Bottom Line: I thought the Clement VSOP made a better Mai Tai than the Saint James (and it is a little cheaper at the place I buy my booze which is an added bonus) Having said that, I still LOVE the Appleton/Saint James combination. I think both make an out of this world Mai Tai, with the Clement having an edge.

Martin January 11, 2009 at 7:17 pm

FYI, bad news, but Rhum Saint James will no longer be coming to the US. Stock up now. (Or support the brands that are still here) Any you are seeing on your shelves is old stock. My distributor in Nor Cal still has some in the warehouse- it’s not exactly a fast mover, so it will be a little while before it’s all gone.

Chris January 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm

It amazes me how confused the world has become on this drink. Then again look at the martini.

Perplexing as well is the variations on the “true” and “original” recipe claims that exist in every bar book, website, and report out there.

My point, the recipe you posted in definately the most consistent and I am glad to find another who does his research! Great work!!

Chris

Rob V. Burr January 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm

I know I’m a bit late to the party–two weeks?–but I’ve been eyeing that Diplomatico White I have and think I’ll have to join you, d00d, on your Mai Tai quest. Even if in small part.

Matt Robold January 23, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Rob,

All comers and takers welcome! One thing I discovered last night: my demerara/muscavado syrup will DESTROY a mai tai. Too strong and sweet.

rhumboy January 26, 2009 at 5:58 pm

The best mai-tai I’ve ever made uses the same recipe you list above, except for the following substitutions: (1) use homemade “rock candy” syrup (a vanilla-flavored bar syrup) instead of simple syrup; (2) try Cointreau instead of orange curacao; (3) for rum, use 1 oz. Gosling’s Black Seal and 1 oz. Mount Gay.

Frederic March 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I was amused by the BarSmarts recipe I had to memorize last week. A barspoon of orgeat for it is too flavorful to use more? I think Dale had a great influence on dumbing down and sweetening up the recipes…

Matt Robold March 2, 2010 at 12:43 pm

The BarSmarts Mai Tai recipe was one of several that had those of us taking the Advanced course asking if we would be allowed to differ from the recipes in the book to make the REAL recipes.

We were all told that as long as we could defend our reasons for straying from the material, we would be fine.

Luckily I was not forced to say, “Because this is a REAL MAI TAI unlike the abomination in your book.”

Joseph July 8, 2011 at 10:58 am

I only just now found this site and am delighted to know that there are those who believe the real Mai Tai is worth the effort.

I am NOT delighted to report that the Mai Tai Lounge – all that remains of what used to be Trader Vic’s in the Beverly Hilton – makes their Mai Tais with Trader Vics Mai Tai Mix. I’m not certain, but since this semi-tiki-themed sports lounge is still associated with Trader Vic’s, I’m pretty sure the other Trader Vic’s are doing likewise.

The ingredients of Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Mix are as follows: Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Juice Blend (Water, Citric Acid, Orange Juice Concentrate, Malic Acid, Cellulose Gum, Vegetable Gums, Ascorbic Acid, Natural Flavor, Sodium Benzoate [Preservative]), Natural And Artificial Flavor, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate [Preservative], Xanthan Gum, Caramel Coloring.

Now THAT I submit is truly an abomination that far exceeds the inclusion of grenadine or pineapple juice!

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