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  • Writer's pictureBamboo Sam

Taking on the Mai Tai

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Arguably the first great (and most contentious) drink in all of Tikidom.

Like any story that originated in a bar, there are a lot of opinions and very few facts when it comes to the Mai Tai. Several different people claimed to have invented it over dates that vary from 1933 - 1954. It was invented in Hawaii, or Oakland, or maybe Hollywood?! And if you ask 10 different bartenders what the recipe is, you'll get 12 different versions. So what's the deal?

It all comes back to a couple of indisputable facts about Tiki bars/restaurants during their heyday. First of all, secrecy equaled job security for both restaurateurs and bartenders. Secondly, the real bartenders actually making the drinks were often hidden from patrons (I wasn't kidding about that secrecy thing). The Tiki craze generated a lot of cash for Donn Beach and a lot of imitators trying to cash in on the fad. In order to protect his investment, Donn kept his recipes secret - even from his own bartenders. This kept them from being able to walk into a new bar and offer his drinks after being poached by another restaurant. By making his own syrups and rum blends in bottles with names like "Donn's spice mix #1" a bartender could be taught how to put it together without actually knowing how to recreate the drink without Donn's involvement. The hiding of the bartenders themselves had more to do with showmanship. If you've ever tried to make a Tiki drink you know they can be quite involved. Part of the draw to Don the Beachcomber's was the feeling of escapism to this perfect oasis of Tropicana versus the hustle & bustle of Hollywood just outside the door. That feeling's hard to maintain while watching 3-4 bartenders slamming away in the weeds the whole time. Hiding them in the back of house while putting a single bartender out front maintained the illusion of tranquility. It also had the additional benefit of hiding the drink while it was being constructed. This had the effect of having your drink simply appear in all its glory. Every salesman knows a good reveal goes a long way...

All of this had the added benefit of keeping that construction phase away from the prying eyes of his competitors. Which is why they tried to copy his drinks based on their flavor profile alone. This is one of the things that gives rise to the multiple recipes vary so wildly in ingredients as opposed to just proportions.

So, does that mean I think Donn Beach invented the Mai Tai? Not exactly. I think the theory put forth by Beachbum Berry that the Mai Tai was invented by Trader Vic but was in fact his knock off of a Donn Beach drink called the Quarterback Cooler to be the most defensible. This might lead you to think that I think that Trader Vic's original recipe is the best and that the case is settled. Oh, no. I did warn you that this was a bar story. The problem is even Vic's recipe was ever-changing.

So, if the Mai-Tai was so popular, why on earth would Vic alter the recipe? Because, it was too popular. Vic's original 1944 Mai-Tai was made using J. Wray & Nephew 17-year old Jamaican rum. The popularity of the Mai-Tai caused stores of the 17-year old rum to become unavailable. In the late 40's Vic switched to the J. Wray & Nephew 15-year old. However, by the 1950's (due to the still increasing popularity) they had depleted those stores as well! According to Martin Cate, who worked as a bartender at Trader Vic's (San Francisco), Vic started experimenting with other rums in hopes of blending a rum that would approximate the original 17-year old rum. He landed on a mix of Red Heart & Coruba rums that were mixed with the left over J. Wray & Nephew 15-year in order to stretch it out as long as possible. Eventually, the 15-year ran out and Vic once again blended his own from 15-year and 8-year old Jamaican rums as a replacement. Not finding it perfect, he added a Martinique rum (molasses based not Rhum Agricole!) to the drink in place of the Red Heart & Coruba. So, here we have the (probably) inventor of the Mai-Tai and 4 different recipes within the first decade of production. With the original rum unattainable, and most of the replacements essentially unattainable what's a guy looking for the best Mai-Tai to do? Well, for starters any ideas of recreating the original Mai-Tai should be thrown overboard immediately. Good, now, with that pressure off (feels good, right?!) try a few from various periods until you find your favorite. A couple to get you started are listed below. The general flavor profile seems to move from astringent to sweet as you move sequentially through the multitude of recipes so keep that in mind if you have a preference along those lines. The rum choices will make more of a difference than anything else. After all, switch the rum for tequila, lose the Orgeat, and you're basically drinking a margarita...

Mai Tai (Trader Vic's 2nd Adjusted Formula)

  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice

  • 1/2 ounce Orange Curaçao

  • 1/4 ounce Orgeat syrup

  • 1/4 ounce sugar syrup

  • 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum*

  • 1 ounce amber Martinique rum*

Shake well with plenty of crushed ice. Gated pour into a double old fashioned glass. Garnish by floating the spent lime shell (green side up) and a mint sprig. As Trader Vic said, it should look like a tropical island with a palm tree on it.

*Bamboo Sam's customizations - As I said the Martinique rum should not be the "Rhum Agricole" variety that the island is now famous for but a Jamaican style pot still distilled spirit with a little funk to it. Since that's not easily found it's perfectly acceptable (IMHO) to sub that style spirit from another locale.

Mai Tai (Royal Hawaiian)

  • 1 ounce orange juice

  • 1 ounce unsweetened pineapple juice

  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

  • 1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

  • 1/4 ounce Orange Curaçao

  • 1/4 ounce Orgeat syrup

  • 1/4 ounce sugar syrup

  • 1 ounce Demerara rum*

  • 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum*

  • 1 ounce light Puerto Rican rum*

Shake well with plenty of crushed ice. Gated pour into a double old fashioned glass. I still use the Trader Vic garnish of floating the spent lime shell (green side up) and a mint sprig. However, at the Royal Hawaiian it was garnished with a pineapple finger, sugar cane stick, orchid, and mint sprig.

*Bamboo Sam's customizations - As with all rum recommendations they are subject to change as the rums often do and so does my palate. That being said my current recommendation for the Demerara rum is El Dorado 5 year, I have not settled on a Jamaican, and I normally sub Cruzan (which is Virgin Islands) for Puerto Rican rum.

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