Few mixed drinks have been argued over as much as the relatively simple Mai Tai.
To begin with, there’s a great deal of controversy over what the Mai Tai is, with two major competing camps of origin of the drink and at least eleven basic versions extant across the ethernet.
That’s an impressive amount of discussion about a basic drink of the tiki culture and a standard cocktail wherever rum is consumed.
Trader Vic (Victor L. Bergeron, founder), the famous chain of restaurants that embodied the tiki craze at its ultimate, and still surviving today, claims the origin of the Mai Tai in 1944, when Bergeron purportedly invented the drink on the spot for some visiting friends from Tahiti. As the story goes the Tahitian guests loved it and one shouted “Maita’i”, the Tahitian word for good, and the name got recorded as Mai Tai.
Nowadays, Trader Vic restaurants feature the drink as one of their core cocktails, labeled as the “1944 Mai Tai.”
Don, of “Don the Beachcomber” restaurant fame in Southern California, one of the most famous of tiki bars, also claims origin of the drink, going back to 1933 when Don said he invented it at his place.
Trouble is the two versions use very different ingredients and taste very different as well. Not two versions of the same drink: two different drinks entirely.
For many people, even some extremely sophisticated cocktailiers, the Mai Tai is a guilty pleasure. And the drink is making a significant comeback with the resurgence of both tiki bar culture and rum spirits in general.
Suffice it to say the Mai Tai is securely in the pantheon of rum drinks, along with the Fogcutter, Planter’s Punch, and the Bahama Mama.
Here are the two best known recipes from Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber:
Trader Vic’s Original 1944 Mai Tai:
The Original Formula – 1944
- 2 ounces of 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice.
- Add juice from one fresh lime.
- 1/2 ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao.
- 1/4 ounce Trader Vic’s Rock Candy Syrup.
- 1/2 ounce French Garnier Orgeat Syrup
- Shake vigorously.
- Add a sprig of fresh mint
Since some of the brand names in the Original 1944 may not be easily available, and even Trader Vic now uses their trademarked Mai Tai mix in the restaurant recipe, here’s an alternative version entitled “The Old Way”.
“Old Way” Mai Tai Formula – 1997
- 1 ounce Fine Jamaican Rum (15 or 8 year old)
- 1 ounce Martinique Rum (St. James)
- 1/2 ounce Orange Curacao
- 1/2 ounce Orgeat Syrup
- Juice from one fresh lime (about 3/4 ounce)
- Mix and serve as in the Original Formula
(For rum, we would suggest Appleton Estate Jamaica (owned by Wray & Nephew), JM Martinique Rhum, and B.J. Reynold’s Orgeat Syrup to get as close as possible to the “original old way”).
Note the distinguishing feature of this Mai Tai—this version of the Mai Tai, we should say—is that outside of the lime juice, there is no fruit juice, only rum, curacao liqueur and orgeat syrup.
In contrast, here is the version from Don the Beachcomber. It is much more complex, with many more ingredients, and the essential orgeat syrup in the Trader Vic version is exchanged for Falernum syrup, which gives an entirely different taste. Also note the intriguing addition of the licorice flavor of Pernod or pastis in the Beachcomber version!
Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai
§ 2 oz (or 1/4 cup) water
§ 3/4 oz or 1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
§ 1 oz or 2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice
§ 1 oz or 2 tablespoons sugar syrup
§ 1 oz or 2 tablespoons dark rum
§ 1-1/2 oz or 3 tablespoons golden rum
§ 1/2 oz or 1 tablespoon Cointreau or triple Sec
§ 1/4 oz or 1/2 tablespoon Falernum syrup
§ 2 dashes or scant 1/2 teaspoon Angostura bitters
§ 1 dash or scant 1/4 teaspoon Pernod or other anisette-flavored pastis
Shake all the ingredients in a shaker with ice and strain into a tall highball glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with fruits and serve with a straw.
It doesn’t by any means stop there. Other versions—or in some cases, outright mutations—of the Mai Tai feature pineapple juice, orange juice, grenadine (pomegranate syrup), Amaretto almond-flavored liqueur, and (gasp) raspberry vodka!
Whatever your favored derivation, and whatever your favorite recipe, simple or complex, the Mai Tai is still very much around as one of the classic cocktails in one form or another. So go out and have one or stay home and make one; then you can join in the never-ending debate about who created it and what it should be made of.
But please be careful! Remember the Mai Tai is by nature one of the more potent drinks out there. To put it simply, there’s a lot of rum in there. It’s a beguiling drink, and easy to over-indulge in its pleasures. It’s important to exercise moderation where the Mai Tai is concerned. And if you can’t exercise moderation, then call a cab or have a designated driver ready to be on the safe side.