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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{ 27 comments }

Craig Hermann January 26, 2009 at 6:46 pm

I’m lately fond of 2:1:1 ratio of Demerara:Jamaican:Martinique

1 oz 15 yr El Dorado
.5 oz 12 yr Appleton
.5 oz St. James Hors d’Ages

for the cheap-minded,

1 oz LemonHart 80
.5 oz Coruba
.5 oz St. James Ambre

Matt Robold January 26, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Craig,

I seriously considered doing 3-rum combos…until I realized that that gave me over 300,000 possible combos to try. As fun as a mai tai a day for the next 1000 years sounds, it seemed like it might postpone my publishing of this article.

Shirow66 January 26, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Matt, I’m missing the part where you actually explain how the $300 Mai Tai turned out. It would also be interesting to see your result spread sheet. In your Appleton V/X post I got the impression that the V/X paired with Demerara or Martinique rum was the ultimate combo, so I was a bit surprised it wasn’t even mentioned here.

Chris January 26, 2009 at 9:59 pm

My Mai Tai go-to is usually 1 oz. El Dorado 5 yr & 1 oz. Appleton’s V/X.

Always a crowd (& more importantly ME) pleaser, but I suppose I’ll have to try the Appleon’s 12yr & Clement VSOP now…poor me.

Great project ‘Dood!

Torben January 26, 2009 at 10:08 pm

I love the Mai Tai with a Jamaican Rum from the Hampden Distillery, especcially with an overproof rum. Cadenhead’s does a fantastic 13 years old Hampden Estate Rum, and so does the new Renegade series or bottlings by Murray McDavid. Very heavy bodied rums, wonderful…

Matt Robold January 26, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Hi Shirow,

That’s a good point. The $300 Mai Tai was exquisite. You can’t see it in the screenshot of the spreadsheet, but I gave it a 1 billion out of five. I couldn’t, in good conscience, call it my favorite though simply because reproducing it is heinously expensive.

As for Appleton Estate V/X, while it works wonderfully in Mai Tai’s, it isn’t the best. That’s no knock against it though…and I still make mai tais with it all the time.

I’ve considered posting my entire list…but I want to get through it a bit more first. This project started out as a 1 month idea, but I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m going to need to keep working and keep posting.

FreeBeer January 27, 2009 at 6:11 am

You talked me into it. I will put down my bottle of rye long enough to finally try a Mai Tai.

Matt Robold January 27, 2009 at 7:06 am

FreeBeer:

You’ve taken the first step on a long journey.

Rick January 28, 2009 at 3:57 am

Matt,

I love the top photo. Especially the Clement bottle empty and lying on its side :)

Capn Jimbo January 29, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Matt, congrats on your award! Now insofar as this thread the combinations you’ve tested have eliminated almost all my suggestions using some pretty well known rums.

But I have an All-American Combo that I double-dood dare ya to try. Prichard’s Fine Rum and Charbay Tropical Island Cane Rum.

I dare ya!

scomorkh February 1, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Great post! :) The ultimate Mai Tai search is great idea :) I research 1-rum Mai Tai last year! It was very nice – winners are Angostura 1919 and Eldorado 15 and 21 y.o. My favorite 2-rum Mai Tai is Havana Club 7 y.o. + Angostura 1919. But your post give me inspiration for research :)

dopealope February 2, 2009 at 2:44 am

rumdood,

Very enjoyable article and an inspiration to revisit mai-tai’s. This afternoon it was a batch using Appleton VX and Myer’s Legend, Creole Shrub, lime juice, orgeat, and Depaz Cane Syrup (in place of simple syrup). Really tasty, and makes me look forward to the next batch.

Thanks.

Mike S. February 4, 2009 at 9:38 pm

This is just brilliant. I’ve long been a fan of the Bum’s Appleton 12 + Saint James Hors d’Age combo, but you convinced me to try the Appleton 12 + Clement VSOP one as well — in fact, yesterday I went out and bought a bottle of Clement VSOP for this express purpose!

Also re the use of Clement Creole Shrubb in place of the orange curacao, another great idea and I cannot for the life of me figure out why I didn’t think of it. Oh, well — this is why I read booze blogs.

As for the “Tears of Joy”, well, that one may have to wait a bit….

Cheers,

Mike

The Concierge April 14, 2009 at 8:33 pm

I find even with bumping up the rum content to 2.5 oz, that there is no need to add simple syrup or rock candy syrup because there is so much sweetness from the Orgeat and Creole Shrubb. I also think the the .75 oz of lime juice supports the 2.5 oz rum without a problem. Does anyone think that my practice materially changes the balance that the drink seeks to achieve?

Jonathan Stout June 11, 2009 at 5:59 am

So, do you have a around $20/bottle suggestion? That’s my general price-point for large-scale mixing, and I was thinking of doing a mai tai on the menu for a large party. I’ll likely be getting the Appleton 12yr + Clement combo for my own drinking, though.

Matt Robold August 6, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Rum 101: Six Summer Cocktails

Lawrence August 23, 2009 at 5:32 am

I use Mount Gay Extra Old, Appleton Estate(any) and/or Gosling Black Seal. Have not tried the Creole Shrubb yet.(its not in Texas as far as I know) but want to try it! I still use rock candy syrup and orgeat…

My Mai Tai

1 oz Mount Gay Extra Old
1 oz Appleton Estate(any)
1 oz Gosling Black Seal(Top off, Optional)
1/2 oz Orange Curacao
1/2 oz Orgeat
1/2 oz Fresh Lime Juice
1/4 oz Rock Candy Syrup

Matt Robold August 25, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Hi Lawrence,

That looks like a pretty tasty mai tai to me! I don’t often do the float of dark rum, but I have – on occasion – floated a bit of El Dorado 15 or Coruba in a lime shell on the top. It’s delish.

Charlton October 20, 2009 at 6:01 pm

I know I’m late to this particular party, but thought I’d share a couple of combos I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve only mixed Mai Tais with two rums, mostly because, as you say, three just yields way too many options. I’ve had good results using Wood’s Old Navy Rum, a 57% demerara, with a few different golds, namely, Gosling’s Gold, Bundaberg, and Brugal Anejo. Of the three, I think my favorite combination is Wood’s/Bundaberg, which surprised me because Bundy is definitely not a favorite. But the two seemed to work together admirably. I suspect this particular combination is a bit unconventional for a Mai Tai, but it sure drinks well.

Matt Robold October 20, 2009 at 11:07 pm

I’ve not had the opportunity to try the Wood’s Old Navy yet. I’ll have to see if I can hunt that down here in the US.

Thanks for the recommendation!

cph November 29, 2009 at 6:30 pm

I know nothing about Creole Shrubb. Is it an acceptable substitute for Orange Curacao in other cocktails like the Pegu and El Presidente?

Matt Robold November 29, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Hi CPH,

Yes, the Creole Shrubb can be a good substitute for curacao in just about any drink. It’s less sweet than regular curacao, so you’ll want to try things out and if the drink isn’t sweet enough, either add sugar or switch back to curacao.

Mistahunter January 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Dood –

Any thoughts on using your falernum recipe in a mai tai?

Jordan April 27, 2010 at 8:51 pm

@Mistahunter

I’m actually running some experiments along those lines right now. I have a batch of homemade falernum that was actually a second pass through the same ingredients, so it ended up with a lot more almond rather than lime flavor. However it’s also really high proof (~120), so I have to be judicious in trying to get almond flavor without overwhelming the drink with booze.

With that said, any chance of getting the full spreadsheet now? I’d be interested to see how many of the combos I can make out of my current stock.

André May 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

Has anyone ever tried substituting the curaçao with Pyrat XO? I thought it might work being that the orange flavours really stand out in that rum.

Thanks!
André
aka Patapouf

Jordan July 3, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Sorry to spam a bit, but I’m pretty excited about the combo that I just tried out: Smith & Cross Jamaican and Mt. Gay Sugarcane Brandy.

The S&C brings strength and funkiness while the Mt. Gay has a flavor reminiscent of a Martinique like St. James Ambre, just in a less aggressive form. Definitely my favorite combo so far, though I’ll have to watch out because this version certainly packs a punch.

Tim February 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I’ve tried many different rums and combinations of rums. Many are very good, but a straight 2 oz. of Appleton Extra is excellent. I’ll try it blended with Clement VSOP though. If I’m trying to save $ I’ll buy 1.75L Appleton VX and blend it with a little Coruba. I haven’t tried Creole Shrubb, but I did run across something at the airport in Amsterdam. DeKuyper Bitter Orange. I brought some home and tried it in a Mai Tai and it was very good.

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