A Month of Mai Tais

by Matt Robold on January 26, 2009

It started with a single drink.  I sat in the dining room of Luau in Beverly Hills as the waitress handed my companion and me our drinks.  I was eager to try mine.  Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry designed the bar menu, and this being our second round of drinks, I was prepared for another excellent experience. I had opted to try something “basic” in the realm of tropical drinks – a Mai Tai.

Here I sit over a month later, slightly overwhelmed over how much that one evening has impacted my activities since.  That Mai Tai was singularly the best Mai Tai I had ever had up to that point.  I gushed about it to my companion for the evening, insisting that she order one as well.  When I talked to other cocktail and spirits writers over the next few weeks, I couldn’t help but mention “Jeff Berry’s Mai Tai at the Luau was amazing!”  I was hooked.  The problem was, I really didn’t want to drive to Beverly Hills every time I wanted a Mai Tai.

I decided that I had to find a way to recreate Jeff’s Mai Tai.  I started researching the drink (yes, I suppose I could have just emailed him and asked what he does, but where’s the fun in that?), and came to the conclusion that the key was the find the right combination of rums.  I cobbled together a list of around 15 combos.  Not too bad.

Then a funny thing happened though…I mentioned my idea to some fellow cocktail bloggers, and suddenly the list started to grow.  Not only did my own list grow, bloggers including Trader Tiki, Kaiser Penguin, and Tiare over at A Mountain of Crushed Ice all wanted in on the act.  Even Doug over at the Pegu Blog got caught in the rising tide of Mai Tai exploration.

My current list of combos stands at 48, and while I’d love to claim that I had tried each and every one already, I can’t do so.  Over the past month, I’ve worked my way through 26 different rum combos.  I’ve finished bottles of orange liqueur and orgeat.  I’ve wiped out entire groves of limes.  One thing I can say definitively: Best Research Project EVER.

My Mai Tai “Mix”

It was important that the main variable be the rums in the mix.  I kept all of the other controllable variables the same.  Obviously limes can vary, and batches of mix can go bad…but I decided those were acceptable variables (and also made sure to retry every combo on other days to see if my opinions changed).  My “mix” for the drinks included orgeat made using Erik Ellestad’s recipe, Clement Creole Shrubb in place of the orange curacao, plain-old homemade simple syrup, and a metric ton of limes.*

My common recipe, for reference purposes:

Mai Tai

1 oz Rum #1
1 oz Rum #2
.5 oz Orgeat
.5 oz Clement Creole Shrubb
.25 oz Simple Syrup
.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.

The most consistent thing I found in my pursuit was that Appleton Estate 12 Year Old is probably THE go-to rum for a Mai Tai.  Of the 26 combos I tried, Appleton Estate 12 Year Old shows up in four of the top five combos, including my absolute favorite.  Below is a sampling of my favorite combos thus far in my research.

Appleton Estate 12 Year Old and St. James Hors d’Ages

The well-known “Hundred Dollar Mai Tai” is well-worth the name.  While the ingredients aren’t inexpensive, they blend together so beautifully in a Mai Tai.  The Appleton provides just enough pot-still flavor to mix with the smokey notes of the St. James to give you what I’ve been told is an excellent approximation of the original Mai Tai palate.  One of my favorites.  A note to any of you looking to make this: stock up on St. James now, as I’ve heard that it will no longer be imported into the US.

Sea Wynde and El Dorado 15

That’s right, I’ve ranked a drink using Sea Wynde as something I recommend.  Hard to believe considering that I’m no big fan of Sea Wynde’s harsh flavors on their own.  The strong pot-still notes however play wonderfully with a rich, deep rum like El Dorado 15.  This might not be the best choice for the faint of heart, but for someone looking for a really bold Mai Tai, this is the drink for you.

Appleton Estate 12 Year Old and Clement VSOP

If I were to crown a combination as “Best Rum Combo In A Mai Tai”, this would be the clear winner.  As soon as I started thsi project, I marked this one down as a “must try.”  The rums provide the perfect combination of flavors and aromas to mix with the orgeat, orange liqueur, and lime.  The phrase “perfectly balanced” comes rushing into your head after “Mmmmmmm…that’s tasty” escapes your lips.

I was so excited by how well this combo worked that I had to email Jeff Berry to tell him that I might have found the only combo that could match his Mai Tai at Luau.  I was tickled to find that the reason for this: this is the combination they use at Luau.

Completely Ridiculous Combo That No One Would Ever Actually Make But I Had To Try

I was so pleased with the Appleton 12/Clement VSOP combo that I had to know if the more expensive offerings would work as well.  I remembered watching an episode of Three Sheets in which Zane Lamprey visited the Appleton Estate and almost gave Joy Spence a heart attack by mixing the precious Appleton Estate 21 Year Old rum.  Drawing inspiriation from my favorite combo, my favorite show about drinking, and the “Hundred Dollar Mai Tai”, I went all out:

$300 Mai Tai

1 oz Appleton Estate 21 Year Old Rum
1 oz Clement XO Rhum Agricole
.5 oz Clement Creole Shrubb
.5 oz Orgeat
.75 oz Lime Juice
1 tsp Simple Syrup

Combine all ingredients in a shaker, shake with ice, strain into a glass filled with crushed ice.  Garnish with sprigs of mint and a wedge of lime, and a hundred dollar bill.

How was this decadant drink?  Well, let me put it this way: On my worksheet I was scoring combos out of a possible 5 points (like my rum reviews).  My value in the score column for this combo was “1,000,000,000.”  Smooth, and refreshing…and utterly ridiculous to try to make at the price-point.  Buying the rums for this mai tai will run you just under $300…and many will argue that you’re spoiling two of the best sipping rums – masterpieces of craftsmanship by the distillers and blenders – by mixing them.  But I tell you I did it in the name of science!  Sweet, delicious science…

The best part about this project?  I’m not done yet.  I’ve yet to try the “Ed Hamilton Mai Tai”, along with at least 20 other possible combinations.  And I’m hoping that that list will continue to grow.  Do you have a favorite rum combination?  Let me know about it!

*Note: “A metric ton” may be a slight exaggeration…slight…

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