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Mai Tai

The Mai Tai is one of the most important and enduring drinks in the continuum of the American cocktail--it is an indelible piece of the ever-changing mosaic called "Americana." That it instantly conjures images of tropical sunsets, surfboards, and other props fitting for the mis en scene of Beach Blanket Bingo is the reason it has assumed the role of Chief Ambassador to Vacationland. Although the Mai Tai was not the first Tiki drink created, it is without a doubt the most famous of them.

Often such popularity leads to enhancement, if not perfection. However this never seems to be the case in the world of the cocktail. It seems that cocktails, like musicians, become watered down versions of their former selves when they attain a certain level of fame. The modern Mai Tai, it appears, has become the cocktail version of the rapper Ice Cube--it bares resemblance to the original back-in-the-day version only in name and not much else, to the chagrin of the old school fans. So while many of you have undoubtedly consumed a Mai Tai in your lives, few if any of you have had an actual one.

It may pain you but nonetheless you deserve to know that many of you have been victims of wholesale misrepresentation. To give you an idea as to the level of misrepresentation you've been subjected to, imagine if you've been told that you're going to enjoy a meal prepared by Guy Savoy, but in fact (and without you're knowledge) it's prepared by Guy Fieri instead. Naturally you're reaction would be something along the lines of "I don't see what's so special about this meal," or "tastes like something a douchebag would make." Well, this is essentially what's been happening with the Mai Tai. They are being made by douchebags and sold to you as a Mai Tai, but in fact you're getting something that bares scant resemblance.

Some of the variations have been for good reason, as many of the ingredients called for in the original Mai Tai recipe are either defunct or difficult to come by. For example, a bottle of 17-yr old J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum, which is what the original recipe called for, will cost you upward of $50,000 since it's no longer in production. But such things neither explain nor excuse the mutations and shortcuts that have amassed over the years, as one good rum can simply be substituted for another. The real reason is a mix of laziness and the desire to accommodate popular demand, as speed and facility win out in an attempt to churn out drinks as quickly as possible, until a point is reached when neither the bartender nor the patron remember what the real thing tastes like.

So what is a real Mai Tai? I'll get to that in a bit (there's some complication involved in the answer) but first it's easier to explain what isn't a real Mai Tai. If you've had one with orange juice in it, or pineapple juice in it, or any juice in it other than a lime, then it wasn't a real Mai Tai. If it had grenadine in it, it wasn't a real Mai Tai. A real one, Mai friends, is quite simple, and when it is well made it is a reminder of all that is good in the world. As usual the necessary instructions follow further below, but first the slightly complicated and controversial story of the real Mai Tai.

At the heart of the Mai Tai's story is a dispute about who deserves credit for its creation. Tiki-bar tycoon "Trader Vic" Bergeron claims he created the drink in 1944 while hosting friends from Tahiti at his Oakland restaurant. According to his story, he presented this new creation to his Tahitian pals, and upon tasting it one of them exclaimed "Maita'i roa ae!" which is apparently a Tahitian expression meaning "very good, out of this world!" Thus the newborn was given the name Mai Tai.

This story is chiefly disputed by another titan of the Tiki world, the man who's credited with starting the Tiki trend that swept the country during the 1950s and 60s, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt aka "Don the Beachcomber." According to Mr. Beachcomber, Trader Vic's Mai Tai is just a rip-off of a drink he created in 1933 called the "Q.B. Cooler."

donthebeachcomber

Unfortunately for Mr. Beachcomber, history has sided with Trader Vic on this issue, as the consensus among the cocktail cognoscente is that the Mai Tai is Trader Vic's creation. Although my own research ultimately led me to conclude the same, Mr. Beachcomber's argument is not without merit.

Trader Vic was surely influenced by Don because he admitted so himself, stating that a visit to Don's restaurant in 1937 inspired him to convert his own place, Hinky Dink's, into a Tiki joint and to change the name to Trader Vic's. It's possible that on this influential visit he tasted the Q.B. Cooler and was inspired to replicate it. The task of replicating Don's Q.B. Cooler would have been difficult to accomplish, however, since Don's recipes were kept secret at that time. So for Vic to have copied Don, it would have been based on taste alone, as he wouldn't have been privy to Don's recipe.

This seems plausible because the two drinks are similar in flavor profile--similar, but not even close to being identical. The Q.B. Cooler recipe was eventually made known to the world, and its dissimilarity to the Mai Tai recipe couldn't be more obvious. While the Mai Tai is a simple drink based on rum, lime juice, orange curacao, and orgeat (a french almond flavored syrup pronounced "or-zawt"), the Q.B. Cooler is a complex concoction based on a recipe that reads like a grocery list: lime juice, orange juice, passionfruit, sugar, two types of rum, Cointreau, falernum (Caribbean originated syrup similar in flavor to orgeat), bitters, and pastis.

From this perspective it seems conceivable that Trader Vic was attempting to copy the Q.B. Cooler, but in the process wound up creating a drink similar in taste yet completely new--a drink that took the cocktail world by tropical storm in the 1950s, and eventually gained widespread recognition as the king of Tiki drinks. Viewing the evidence in a light
most favorable to Don the Beachcomber (as a lawyer would say), this is still the most plausible conclusion. It's also a reasonable conclusion because it convincingly settles the matter by recognizing Trader Vic as the creator of the drink people refer to when they order a Mai Tai, but also recognizes the influence of Don the Beachcomber on this drink in particular, and the wider Tiki world in general.

Perhaps the best way though is to judge for yourselves. Below are the recipes for Don's Q.B. Cooler and the original Mai Tai as created by Trader Vic. In addition, I've provided my own recipe for a Mai Tai, adapted with ingredients commonly available today while trying to maintain as much fidelity to the original as possible.

Q.B. Cooler
2 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz light Puerto Rican rum
½ oz Cointreau
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz fresh orange juice
¼ oz Falernum
¼ oz passion fruit syrup
1/8 tsp Pernod (about a dash)
dash or two of Angostura
lots of ice
mint sprig and/or fruit for garnish

Tools: shaker, strainer

Glass: double old-fashioned or tiki mug

Place everything in shaker and shake for a few seconds. Strain into a glass filled with crushed ice and garnish with the mint and/or fruit.

Mai Tai (original formula)
2 ounces 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum
½ ounce French Garnier Orgeat
½ ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao
¼ ounce Rock Candy Syrup (rock candy based syrup with a light vanilla essence)
juice from one fresh lime
lots of ice
mint sprig and empty lime shell for garnish

Tools: shaker, strainer

Glass: double old-fashioned

Place everything in cocktail shaker and shake well. Strain into a glass filled with crushed ice, garnish with the lime shell inside the drink, and float a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.

Mai Tai (adapted)
1 oz Appleton Estate V/X Jamaican rum (substitute other quality amber rum)
1 oz El Dorado 15 yr rum (substitute other Demerara rum)
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz Grand Marnier (can substitute good quality orange curacao though I prefer GM)
1/2 oz orgeat syrup (you can make your own like I did with this recipe here)
lots of ice
mint sprig and empty lime shell for garnish

Tools: shaker, strainer

Glass: double old-fashioned

Fill the glass with crushed ice. Place everything in a cocktail shaker along with cracked ice and shake briefly yet energetically. Strain into the glass and drop in the lime shell. Roll the mint sprig between your fingers a couple times to release some of its aroma and place it in the glass. Serve with a straw.

Since some of the ingredients of a Mai Tai are either defunct or hard to find, it's natural to make substitutions as long as they stay within reason. In fact, the Mai Tai lends itself quite well to substitutions without ruining the integrity of the original flavor profile. And it's fun swapping out different rums to find the tastiest combinations. Some like to combine a light and a dark, or a rhum agricole and a Jamaican. I personally enjoy a combination of Jamaican amber and aged Demerara rum, which is also consistent with Trader Vic approved adjustments of the Mai Tai recipe that came later as a result of shortages of the 17 yr old J. Wray & Nephew brand.

Looks like you guys have lots of mixing ahead of you, so I better leave you to it--plus I'm late for my date with the sunset. Cheers!

*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!

Paystyle was born in Tehran and grew up in Los Angeles (aka Tehrangeles) before moving to Brooklyn with his wife and co-pilot Vanessa Bahmani who provides the stunning photography of Pay's cocktail concoctions. Return every Wednesday for his weekly Happy Hour column.
Column: Happy Hour
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13 comments

  • That's quite an interesting story, though I also find it very hard to believe. For one, it's not just hearsay, but actually double hearsay since Beach's widow is reporting on what Bishop reported on what Vic said to Beach!

    Also, doesn't it just sound like the perfect confession from Vic? It's so unlikely Vic would've ever said anything like that, as it contradicts everything he did throughout his life to protect his name and legacy, which includes writing editorials responding to rival claims.

    One point I'd disagree with is about the two men being bitter enemies. My understanding is—and of course I may be wrong—that the two men were fierce yet amicable adversaries.

    Nonetheless, the cocktail world would be so different without each of them.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing this fascinating story.

    Paystyle on

  • In Phoebe Beach's book "Hawaii Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine" there is apparently a section written where a journalist named Jim Bishop was seated with both Donn Beach and Trader Vic at a table in 1970, and Vic blurted out: "Donn, I wish you'd never come up with that thing. Jim, this expletive invented the Mai Tai, I didn't!" Since this is written by Beach's widow, it's obviously biased and I doubt both men sat down together, since they were bitter enemies, but I guess it is possible. I do know that Donn Beach was more of a creator, and Vic more of a "borrower", taking many of Beach's drinks as starting point, and reworking them.
    There is no doubt that Vic's Mai Tai is simpler and a better drink in general, and since Vic most likely came up with the name for the drink, his Mai Tai should be regarded as the proper Mai Tai in my opinion.

    Shirow66 on

  • I had a bad experience with the Mai Tai – makes me shiver just thinking about it… :S

    Melissa Good Taste on

  • Wow, what an interesting story. It's funny because when you made the MaiTai the other night it was different than any other MaiTai I've ever had, and I expected it to have orange juice, and tons of other juices. Now I understand I was drinking a version closest to the original.
    Thx

    Vanessa Bahmani on

  • Tiare – Thanks for reading and commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks also for the link to the Jeff Berry preview.

    On a side note regarding the Mai Tai, I was speaking to a friend from Oakland yesterday who said that in Tahiti, Bora Bora, and that general region, the native folks there use the word "Mai Tai" as a general reference to any cocktail, and not necessarily just the Mai Tai drink.

    So I wondered which came first—whether Vic's Mai Tai became so popular that it became synonymous with the word for "drink" or "cocktail" in the Tahitian islands, or if it's the other way around, where this word has always referred to "cocktail" and Vic took it to specifically refer to his. I guess it all depends on one verifying the translation of the term "Mai Tai-roa ae."

    I don't know if you know the answer but that was something I hadn't heard before, which I thought was quite an interesting prospect worth further inquiry.

    Paystyle on

  • This was a good post on the Mai Tai, i`m always interested in reading about this my favorite cocktail.

    I wrote about the Mai Tai too and made a range of rum pairings and came to the conclusion that made with demerara rums it becomes incredibly tasty.

    I now really look forward to the Bums new upcoming book "Beachbum Berry Remixed" where he will uncover the whole controversy of the origin of the Mai Tai as far as i was told.

    A pre-look at the book here: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Beach-Bum-Berry-Remixed-Jeff-Berry/9781593621391-item.html?pticket=kyfdzn45g4cpu1551qicvvyiZk%2fJ0sWSJtsfKVS7SV%2fF9X%2fysfY%3d

    To set the Mai Tai recipe straight wherever i can is one of my life goals.

    cheers!

    Tiare

    http://www.amountainofcrushedice.com

    Tiare on

  • Melissa – that's certainly a shame, although it probably wasn't a real Mai Tai that elicited such a reaction! Such are the consequences of making subpar choices in one's drinking career.

    Paystyle on

  • Mano Thanos – That would be an amazing thing to get that civic declaration for the Mai Tai. Even though they're not in Oakland, do you know if the Forbidden Island folks are backing your effort?

    Keep us posted on the progress!

    Paystyle on

  • The Conga Lounge in Oakland has a campaign to make the mai tai the official cocktail of the city of Oakland. The campaign web site is;
    www.congalounge.com

    Mano Thanos on

  • Your comment about quality makes me want to point out how improved each successive cocktail becomes as one imbibes…with a cooler, they become QUITE improved fairly quickly.

    CoolerFullaMai-Tais:

    In a 28qt cooler, mix 5 quarts Barbadoes rum, 5 quarts light rum, 5 quarts lime juice, 2.5 quarts orange curacao or Triple Sec, 2.5 quarts orgeat syrup. It helps to chill down the ingredients for several hours in the refrigerator before mixing. Do NOT add ice; use a frozen gelpack in the cooler and replace as needed. I generally pour the cocktail directly from the tap onto a muddled sprig of mint and crushed ice. Makes about 160 4-oz servings.

    Ah, sweet days of summer…

    lkb on

  • A cooler full!! Yikes! Never done that before, but I'd imagine that just like in food service, mass preparaton shaves quality a bit when compared to individually shaken drinks. But hey, when you gotta big party, gotta do what you gotta do I suppose-and if you are making it for a bunch I also figure your advice is spot on!

    Or maybe you can make them in cleaned out paint cans and buy a paintmixer (those machines that shake the cans)!

    Paystyle on

  • I'd like to add that when making a cooler full, one should remember to open the cooler and stir occasionally, because in the 5 gallon version the almond syrup will gradually sink to the bottom over time. I'm just saying…

    lkb on

  • Cooler full of Mai Tais, that's just nuts. I'm gonna have to try that sometime for a large party.

    Paystyle on

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