The Mai Tai

The first cocktail I wrote about on Spirit Forward was the Martini – a pre-prohibition classic that was good enough to stand tall for over a century but whose brilliance has been diluted by too many poor iterations.
The Mai Tai has suffered a similar fate. Once, it was the flagship of classic Tiki cocktails, but is now most likely to be found at a variety of establishments offering a concoction of from-concentrated fruit juices, various colored corn syrups, & bottom shelf rums. The story of the Mai Tai, however, is a great one & it has an even greater taste when made properly.

What is Tiki?

When one hears the words “Tiki”, what do they think of? Back yard barbecues lit by citronella candles on sticks? Pina Coladas from the bar on by the pool on the cruise ship or beach? Maybe your weird uncle who has a few dusty Trader Vics mugs in one of his cabinets?
Like all things in the cocktail world, Tiki is making a comeback. Tiki as it was known died a slow death in the 1970’s & 80’s under a bombardment of “kitsch” & “tacky” from critics. A few brave & adventurous souls, however, have revived the genre of drinks & dove into the history to reveal that Tiki is & always was more than about what was in your glass.
One of these souls is Martin Cate, who wrote Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum & the Cult of Tiki while working to build one of the most famous Tiki bars in the world today, Smuggler’s Cove. He distills a wealth of knowledge about Tiki, its drinks & aesthetic, rum, cocktails, & technique into one hefty volume. In it, he gives a tour of the story of Tiki & the origins of the Mai Tai.

Tiki, or as it is now more formally known, Polynesian Pop, was & is a cultural movement dedicated to exploring & recreating an ideal of what life might be like on an island far off in the Pacific or Caribbean. The Caribbean, one might say, is nowhere near the Polynesian peoples’ islands; no, it’s not, & that doesn’t matter. The aesthetic of Tiki, from the bamboo walls to the palm thatched roofs to the orchids adorning the Easter Island head-shaped-mugs, is an invention of designers, marketers, & most prominently, bar owners. It permeated everything from bars to music to a healthy amount of the architecture sprinkled around the sunny cities of the West Coast from the 1940’s to the 1960’s.
There was one problem – This aesthetic was born out of naivete of the cultures it represented & the many hearts & minds it captivated were drawn in simply on its merits alone, not because of the significance it seemed to conveyed. It was one of the first post-modern movements, & no one knew it. Access to information about the cultures & people it claimed to represent were scarce & traveling to these places was even rarer. It was a cultural fad based on a charming fantasy of exotic escape & swaying palms – & it just so happened to last a few decades.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

A Tale of Two Recipes

So, what does the history behind Tiki bars have to do with the Mai Tai?
Well, it’s important because Tiki, as we know it, didn’t start as something seen on TV or in magazines – It started in a bar.
The bar of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, or Don the Beachcomber, was opened in 1933 in Los Angeles after he spent most the previous 24 years of his life traveling the Caribbean & South Pacific, collecting flotsam to hang on the walls & an appreciation for rum to inform his menu. He designed it be an island escape – from the curb of a Hollywood street, any old bar, but from the inside, an experience of transportation where the outside world ceases to matter.

The magic of Donn Beach (as was the name Ernest adopted) was not only found in his aesthetics; the experiment wouldn’t work if his drinks we’re just as exotic & alluring. A deft craftsman of many drinks, he slung rums, spices, syrups, & juices together in ways that captivated his patrons. Robust in flavor, size, & presentation, his drinks earned him acclaim with critics & guests alike; drinks like the Zombie, Navy Grog, & of course, the Mai Tai.
It is not, however, the Donn Beach Mai Tai that has garnered so much lasting acclaim & piggybacking off of its fame. He had a Mai Tai, but it was the recipe at Trader Vic’s that took the world by storm.
Vic Bergeron was the owner of an unassuming bar called Hinky Dinks in Oakland, CA. A trip down to Don the Beachcomber changed his life. He fell in love with Tiki & changed his bar to Trader Vic’s, changing everything from the decor to the menu. This can be said: if Donn Beach invented Tiki, Trader Vic brought it to the rest of the world.

Photo by Alessio Zaccaria on Unsplash

The Mai Tai: As It Should Be.

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, the supposed focus of this long article, is a far cry from the overly sweet & overly fake tasting concoctions you’ll find at your local chain restaurant – it began its life modestly. Vic was making a drink for some friends from Tahiti: A rum-rather-than-tequila margarita base of lime & curacao, but with orgeat (almond syrup) added. This would make a great cocktail already – tart & sharp but with an added richness. He, however, graced the base of this drink with 17 year old Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum. Extraordinarily old, this pungent, full bodied rum was mellowed by oak for almost 2 decades, & thus, the Mai Tai was born when his guest exclaimed “Maita’i Roe A’e!” or, ‘the best in the world!’

17 year old Wray & Nephew, however, is a relic of the past with few bottles remaining in the world – The character of that rum, however, informs the savvy bartender of the necessary flavor profile. Dry, funky Jamaican rum mellowed by oak, as Martin Cate explains in Smugger’s Cove, is the key to a great Mai Tai, but the drink is a fantastic showcase for any clever blend of rums.

No matter how it’s made, the Mai Tai should be a cascade of full spectrum flavor – like any good Tiki Cocktail. Lime provides bright crisp notes, Curacao & richer-than-just-sugar syrups provide a rich & round center layer, & flavorful rums give it depth, character, & a punch of flavor to cut through to the top of your attention.

The Mai Tai
– 0.75 oz Fresh Lime Juice
– 0.25 oz Mai Tai Syrup*
– 0.25 oz Orgeat Syrup
– 0.5 oz Orange Curacao Liqueur
– 1.5 oz El Dorado 12 yr** (or any old Guyanese Rum, to provide notes of oak & burnt brown sugar)
– 0.5 oz Smith & Cross** (or any Jamaican Rum, pure pot distilled, to bring those signature intense esters – Jamaican funk)

*Mai Tai Syrup – A rich syrup of 1 cup water to 2 cups demerara sugar, with a quarter teaspoon each of vanilla extract & sea salt, heated to mix & bottled. Proportion up or down as needed.
**Rum Choice – The Mai Tai is a wonderful template for any flavorful blend of rums – commercially available or made on the spot. Exploration is encouraged! This is not the job for Bacardi, however. Leave rums with low character on the shelf.

The Mai Tai is, if not the ultimate Tiki cocktail, one of the best & most famous. It offers a full spectrum of flavors to compliment the full spectrum personalities & imaginings of its era – it is quintessential Tiki.

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