Mention a Mai Tai and most likely, visions of white sandy beaches, ukulele tunes, and flower leis come to mind.
Yes, this rum-based sipper is Hawaii’s unofficial signature cocktail. However, its birthplace, albeit hotly debated, lies far from the Aloha State.
Depending on which historical account you believe, two tiki-pioneering barkeeps lay claim to the Mai Tai: Don the Beachcomber, who opened America’s first tiki bar in 1934 in Los Angeles, and Victor J. Bergeron, founder of Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian themed chain of restaurants. According to Don’s wife, as told to Jeff Berry in the 2009 book Beach Bum Berry Remixed, it appeared on the scene in 1933 and was created by Don at his bar appearing as the Mai Tai Swizzle.
In another account, Bergeron mixed one up for Tahitian friends in 1944 at his restaurant in Oakland, California of all places. “Carrie took one sip and said, ‘Mai tai roa ae,’ Bergeron wrote in his book, Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (Revised). In Tahitian, that means, ‘out of this world, the best.’ Well, that was that. I named the drink “Mai Tai.”
To add further ‘who dun it’ intrigue, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is much different than the Mai Tai Swizzle. It’s closer to the Beachcomber’s Q. B. Cooler cocktail of 1937, the very year Bergeron visited Don the Beachcomber’s bar. Is Trader Vic’s Mai Tai a knockoff? Or did they come up with similar cocktails independently of one another?
More mystery shrouds the Mai Tai, not only around who created it but also how it should be made. For example, the plumeria-garnished version sipped poolside during your tropical vacation is not even remotely close, save the rum, to the original recipes. Matt Robold, the author of the rum and tiki blog Rumdood.com, describes it as “the most butchered beverage.”
It’s not your fault for erroneously imbibing, however. The Mai Tai’s true identity has been muddled, to say the least. According to the book Hawaii Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine by Don the Beachcomber, co-authored by Don’s wife, the Mai Tai Swizzle, in addition to rum, calls for bitters, grapefruit juice, Pernod and Falernum, a Caribbean liqueur of cloves, limes, and almonds. Bergeron’s Mai Tai is made with rum, fresh lime, orange curacao, simple syrup, orgeat (almond) syrup, and a sprig of mint.
However, most tiki aficionados, such as Beach Bum Berry, ultimately lift their headhunter mug to Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, if not for originality, then for taste. “Whether or not it’s the first is debatable but it’s certainly the best,” says Berry.
Ultimately, we’ll let you be the judge. For a summertime Polynesian-themed soiree, we give you the Mai Tai by America’s legendary tiki kings.
SPOILER ALERT: There is neither orange nor pineapple juice in a Mai Tai, nor grenadine for that matter! The cocktail with these ingredients is the Royal Hawaiian, a drink dating back to the 1920s, which does hail from Hawaii.
Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Swizzle
- 1 oz. Rum
- 1 1/2 oz. Dark Rum
- 1 oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice
- 3/4 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
- 1/2 oz. Cointreau
- 1/4 oz. Falernum
- 6 drops Pernod
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
Preparation: Shake over crushed ice. Pour contents, including ice, into a double Old-Fashioned glass. Garnish with four sprigs of mint.
Trader Vic’s Mai Tai
- 1 oz. Extra Dark Rum
- 1 oz. Rum
- 1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
- 1/2 oz. Orange Curaçao
- 1/4 oz. Orgeat
- 1/4 oz. Simple Syrup
Preparation: Shake over crushed ice. Pour contents, including ice, into a double old-fashioned glass. Sink spent lime shell into drink. Garnish with mint.