The Mai Tai


As many would tell you, the Mai Tai is an excellent drink.  With a wide variety of different styles, this cocktail has an interesting history, having gone through many variations created by random bartenders attempting to emulate the flavor of this secret and proprietary drink, of which the original stands on its’ own.

Despite all the debate over the Mai Tai, and the knockoffs, within Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010), the final word has been laid concerning a recipe of the Mai Tai, and its’ ingredients.  Born of two types of rum, lime juice, orgeat, and curacao, the Mai Tai is truly befitting of its’ name, meaning “the best” in Tahitian (Berry 65).  As a drink, it exemplifies the idea of Tiki drinks alongside the ever popular Zombie.  Furthermore you can produce a wide range of flavors just by varying the type of rum(s) used.  Unfortunately, many variations were created, most of which featured unnecessary juices, since this cocktail was proprietary to Trader Vic and the recipe went unpublished for an extensive period.

 As a cocktail, there was contention about whether it was created by Harry Owens, Trader Vic, or Donn Beach; the most general consensus, especially after the court case in 1970, is that Trader Vic created the beverage in 1944 (Ibid 64).  After creating a wonderful drink, many other bartenders throughout the world would try to emulate it, and not knowingly would create fabrications using various amounts of rums, juices and cordials, never actually recreating the true recipe (Ibid 65).  Vic’s recipe was revealed in 1972 in his Bartender’s Guide, and is the staple recipe currently.  Despite the fact that there is a consensus concerning the cocktail’s origin, the claim that Donn Beach made the drink, which Phoebe Beach calls the Mai Tai Swizzle, as a beverage created in 1933 is legitimate.  Beach did make a drink called the Mai Tai, but it is hardly the same thing as Vic’s Mai Tai, and it is more similar to the knock off cocktails with that respect.  Interestingly though,Vic’s Mai Tai has its’ roots in one of Donn’s drinks, specifically that of the QB Cooler (Ibid 67).  The QB Cooler is a beverage which captures a similar flavor profile, and predates the Mai Tai; as such, it is quite possible that the cocktail was an offshoot, a variation, a play upon Donn’s drink. 

While I would normally try a cocktail with a bunch of different spirits to see what I prefer, Matt Robold has done my work for me (and most other people).   His conclusion for a decent price point crossed with flavor Mai Tai after trying a bunch: Appleton 12 year and Clement VSOP (Robold).   And I’m inclined to agree.  Albeit, I have to admit I did not follow his recipe exactly, rather using a syncretism between his and the recipe given by Berry in his book.  Furthermore, while the recipe calls for a curacao, and Robold uses Creole Shrubb, not having that readily available, I used some Gran Gala (or one could use Grand Marnier).  Gala, which has a musky aroma, has some of the same smells as Creole Shrubb (at least to me), giving off aromas of spice and a similar characteristic muskiness.  The other thing which I varied was the use of syrup; I changed out the simple syrup (originally the drink called for Rock Candy syrup) for demerara syrup which was a mighty fine addition to the drink, adding a nice depth of flavor (Curtis 229).

If you were making this drink historically accurate, you would need to use two ounces of 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum, which is not able to be found without paying a ridiculous amount of money.  Stories say that the 17 year old went off the market thanks to huge demand created by Trader Vic’s introduction of the Mai Tai.  Of course, you can always wait until they start producing the stuff again (further the cause by signing the petition).

Orgeat syrup is an ingredient that is quite often found in Tiki drinks, but also in something such as the Japanese cocktail.  An almond flavor sweetener, orgeat is comprised from sugar, an aromatic water such as rose or orange flower water, and almonds (Ibid 228).  Making your own orgeat, instead of buying it, produces a customizable flavor, and a really nice touch to any cocktails.  In order to produce orgeat, you need to produce almond milk, which is made of water infused with the oils in ground almonds, later filtered, so you have a thick cloudy liquid.  Adding in sugar and some flavors produces a cordial, and that cordial is what is known as orgeat (O’Neil). 

Ice, as I have discussed before, is rather important in a cocktail.  As Eric Alperin of the Varnish puts it, ice is to a bartender as fire is to a chef.  As such, when using crushed ice, its important to not over dilute the cocktail, by using a drier ice; this can be achieved by smashing the ice with a muddler while in a Lewis bag; the bag absorbs excess moisture.  After filling the glass, make sure to top the drink with more crushed ice so that it exceeds the height of the glass.  This is mainly for aesthetic reasons, but helps to retain a cold temperature longer. 

Speaking of aesthetics, garnish is rather important on any cocktail, but especially with Tiki drinks.  Speaking to Jason Schiffer of 320 Main in Seal Beach, I remember him pointing out that he uses color in Tiki drinks to create a break in the mundane brown that dominates many of the cocktails.  As such, using mint, or the spent shell of a lime, alongside of cherries (the bright red maraschino ones work well for color here, compared to a house-made brandied cherry or a marasca cherry), or other zests, pieces of bright fruit, et cetera.  For a Mai Tai, mint should be sufficient when combined with the lime shell in the glass. 

As with any mint, you want to slap the mint in order to express the aromatics, but not bruise it.  However, having watched Steve Olson and Andrew Seymour of aka Winegeek, another method for expressing the aromatics is to take the long stalk of mint and snap it against the hand or glass, expressing the aromatics, and then trimming the mint to use as a garnish. 

The Mai Tai:

1 ounce dark Jamaican rum (Appleton 12 year)
1 ounce amber Martinique rum (Clement VSOP)
3/4 to 1 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
1/4 ounce rock candy syrup
1/2 ounce Curacao

Combine ingredients with crushed ice in a shaker tin; toss in one spent shell of lime.  Shake to chill, and then pour into a double old fashioned glass, or Mai Tai glass; garnish with a sprig of mint and top with more crushed ice.


Berry, Jeff.  2010.  Beachbum Berry Remixed: A Gallery of Tiki Drinks.  San Jose: SLG Publishing.

Curtis, Wayne.  2006.  And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.  New York: Three Rivers Press.

O’Neil, Darcy.  2006.  “Orgeat Syrup.”  Art of Drink.  Originally published February 12, 2006. (accessed July 1, 2010).

Robold, Matt.  2009.  “A Month of Mai Tais.”  Originally published January 26, 2009. (accessed July 1, 2010).