Episode #076 – Mai Tai Cocktail and Variations

If you ask a lot of people who invented the Mai Tai, you’ll typically get one answer: Vic Bergeron, more well known as Trader Vic. The drink debuted in the 1940’s, as Vic was helping Tiki take off. A little history, straight from Trader Vic’s own website:

“In 1944 after success with several exotic drinks, a bit of serendipity happened that would not only place Trader Vic at the forefront of cocktail mixology but would also earn him a place in history. That day in Oakland, The Trader pulled down a bottle of 17-year-old Jamaican Rum, added a squeeze of lime, a dash of rock candy syrup, a splash of orange curacao, some French Orgeat and poured the concoction over cracked ice. He handed to a friend visiting from Tahiti who immediately exclaimed, “It’s Mai Tai Roa Ae!” (Tahitian for “Out of this world- The Best”), and the first Mai Tai was born- Paradise in a Glass.”

So, as such, here’s what we’ll claim (with only moderate merit) is closest to the original Mai Tai recipe:

Original Mai Tai Cocktail

  • 2 oz 80-proof J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice.
  • Juice from half a fresh lime.
  • 1 oz orange curacao
  • ¼ oz rock candy syrup.
  • ½ oz orgeat syrup

Add all ingredients into a shaker and give them a vigorous shake, and then pour, unstrained, into an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Note that this isn’t a grandly sweet drink—it’s actually quite reserved and fruity. (Of note: Conspicuously missing is pineapple. Pineapple wasn’t really associated with the original recipe, but it does add quite a bit, so garnishing with pineapple, or adding ½ oz of fresh-fresh-fresh pineapple (read: not the can) will do it some good.

But, as Eater.Com points out, there’s some dispute. Donn “Don the Beachcomber” Beach, another legend in Tiki, says that Vic was inspired by his Q.B. Cooler, a punch he was serving in the 1930’s. That recipe, as pointed out by Chemistry of the Cocktail, is quite a bit more complicated, but you can see the relationship:

Q.B.* Cooler

(*“Q.B.” stands for Quiet Birdmen, a group of pilots from the 1920’s)

  • 1 oz orange juice
  • ½ oz lime juice
  • ½ oz honey syrup
  • ¼ oz falernum
  • 1 oz soda water
  • 1 oz gold Jamaican rum
  • 1 oz light Puerto Rican rum
  • ½ oz Demerara rum
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • ¼ tsp ginger syrup

Combine all ingredients with a handful of crushed ice. Blend for 5 seconds, then pour unstrained into a double old fashioned glass with more crushed ice. To be perfectly authentic, garnish the drink with several mint sprigs.

I mean, really, we’re talking about rum, “complex” sweetness (rock candy & orgeat in Vic’s Mai Tai, honey, and falernum in Don’s Q.B. Cooler), lime, and mint. In a way, these are both more complex than, say, a Daiquiri, with the main difference being the layers of sweetness, but then they are also constructed differently (shaking vs. blending). So let’s put to rest the battle and explore a few variations on these delicious drinks. (I mean, if Tiki is supposed to take you to the beach, I certainly don’t want to get into an argument at the beach!)

Bitter Mai Tai Cocktail

  • 1 ½ oz. Campari
  • ¾ oz. Jamaican rum
  • ½ oz. orange Curaçao
  • 1 oz. fresh lime juice
  • ¾ oz. orgeat

Shake and garnish with mint.

Artichoke Hold

  • 3/4 ounce Jamaican rum (preferably Smith & Cross)
  • 3/4 ounce Cynar
  • 1/2 ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 3/4 ounce lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce orgeat
  • Shake and garnish with mint.

Speaking Easy Original – The Scotch Pirate

(based on the pairing of Scotch and dark rum in a Modern Cocktail)

  • 1 oz blended Scotch (Cutty Sark Prohibition)
  • 1 oz dark rum (like Myers’s)
  • ¼ oz grapefruit juice
  • ¼ oz pineapple juice
  • 1 oz orange curaçao
  • ½ oz orgeat syrup

Mai Tai (adapted from Smuggler’s Cove)

  • 2 oz. blended aged rum
  • ½ oz. Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao
  • ¼ oz. orgeat syrup
  • ¼ oz. rich simple syrup (2:1 turbinado sugar to water)
  • ¾ oz. fresh lime juice

Mai Tai (adapted from PDT Cocktail Book)

  • 1 oz. Banks 5 Island Rum
  • 1 oz. Rhum Clément VSOP
  • 1 oz. fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz. orange curaçao
  • ½ oz. Orgeat
  • Mint sprig for garnish

Combined in a shaker, with pebble or crushed ice, shaken hard and poured (without straining) into a rocks glass. Garnished with a mint sprig.

Powder Monkey

(Speaking Easy original inspired by many Mai Tai recipes)

  • 1 ¼ oz. Plantation Fancy Stiggin’s Pineapple Rum
  • ¾ oz. Cotton & Reed Spiced Rum
  • ¾ oz. Pierre Ferrand Orange Curacao
  • 1 oz. pineapple juice
  • ½ oz. fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz. grenadine
  • ¼ oz. orgeat
  • Angostura bitter float

Combined in a shaker, with pebble or crushed ice, shaken hard and poured (without straining) into a rocks glass. Garnished with a mint sprig.