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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