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The Mai Tai (You’re Doing It All Wrong!)

Well, not you personally, probably. Maybe. Have you? Fess up!

Have you ever served someone a pink Mai Tai? Or thought you could just mix rum and pineapple juice? Or gotten some kind of blended slush? Or worse still, come across a bartender who thinks that a Mai Tai is “aah, just some rum and a buncha juices?” I’ve been unfortunate enough to have all of the above (that quote is a direct one, and in a tiki-themed restaurant no less), more times than I care to count. The most recent one was in a local restaurant and bar which supposedly prided itself on authentic cocktails. They listed the Mai Tai on their menu as “The Original Trader Vic Mai Tai,” listed all the correct ingredients even … and then proceeded to dump a jigger of fake Rose’s grenadine into the mixing glass at the very end. *facepalm*

(I returned it — gently, politely and even apologetically — but the bartender instantly hated me anyway. Sigh. To be fair, I was assured later that none of the other bartenders in the joint would have done that, and nobody liked the one who happened to serve me.)

The Mai Tai is one of the greatest tropical cocktails, and one of the most sadly abused. It was created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron in his Oakland bar in 1944 and, as the story goes, first served to a friend who was visiting from Tahiti. Supposedly the friend exclaimed in Tahitian, “Mai ta’i roa ae!, variously translated as “The best!” or “Out of this world!” and hence the name.

If you’re not a cocktail geek, or if you haven’t been frequenting the right bars, it’s entirely likely that you’ve never even had a truly authentic Mai Tai, although I’ll bet you’ve had a lot of rum ‘n juice. A lot of folks don’t realize that the only juice in a proper Mai Tai is lime — no pineapple, no orange, no grapefruit. The orange flavor comes from curaçao, the sweetness from rich simple syrup (or “rock candy syrup,” made 2:1 sugar to water) and orgeat, a French-style almond syrup with hints of orange blossoms and roses. No grenadine. No red, no pink.

When you taste one, it’ll be like dawn breaking. You’re going to love the interplay of flavors, the sweetness and tartness in perfect balance, and the blend of fruit and nut and the tiniest hint of flowers make it taste truly exotic. You won’t get that from “rum and a buncha juices.”

If you haven’t done so yet, as of today you are now going to carry the torch for a real Mai Tai, and you’ll be taught by the best.

Now, we must admit that the really authentic Mai Tai will cost you more than you’d likely care to spend. Vic used a 17-year-old Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum for his initial Mai Tai which hasn’t been made in over 50 years, and remaining sealed bottles of it have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. However, if you’re idly rich or a Lotto winner keen on squandering your fortune on drink, there is an original, authentic Mai Tai to be had. Go to The Bar at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast in the north of Ireland. There bartender Sean Muldoon will make you a Mai Tai with one of their precious bottles of Wray and Nephew 17-year — I think they only have one left — and serve it to you as Vic served it to his Tahitian friend, for the low, low price of £750. That’s about $1,129.42 at today’s exchange rate. If you have one, please let me know how much you enjoyed it.

For the rest of us, a good aged rum will do, preferably a blend of two.

Let’s watch Martin Cate, owner of the fabulous Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, show you how it’s done. This is from Chow.com‘s series, “You’re Doing It Wrong!” (Sorry about the commercial.) Martin likes Appleton Estate 12-year from Jamaica and El Dorado 12-year from Guyana, which is a great combo. I like to mix Jamaican rum (that Appleton being one of my very favorites) with a Martinican rhum agricole like Saint James Hors d’Age or Clément VSOP. Whichever you choose, make sure they’re dark and aged, and use one ounce of each.

Take it away, Martin!

The Mai Tai
(Original version by Trader Vic Bergeron, 1944, and therefore the ONLY acceptable version!)

2 ounces aged rum (preferably a blend of two)
3/4 fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce orange Curaçao
1/4 ounce rich simple syrup
1/4 ounce orgeat

Combine in a mixing glass with crushed ice and shake until the metal portion is frosty. Pour the whole thing into a double Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with half of a spent lime shell, face down, and a healthy sprig of mint (spank the mint before garnishing to release oils and aroma).

Remember Martin’s rules — no mixes! (That’s a general rule that if you read this site or any other cocktail-related sites you should know by now.) No juices other than lime. No grenadine. No flavored rums. Make rich simple syrup — it only takes a few minutes. Buy Trader Tiki’s orgeat! It’s ready-made, authentic and delicious!

And raise your glass to Trader Vic. Mai ta’i roa ae!


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