The Mighty Mighty Mai Tai

The Tale of a Tropical Transplant


If any drink is emblematic of Tiki culture it’s got to be the Mai Tai. Unfortunately, the forlorn crappy cocktail of many a luau has an ill-deserved reputation. The Mai Tai is not a drink but rather, like most cocktails, it’s a time line of sorts.

The original Mai Tai, a Trader Vic’s signature recipe from 1944, was a Daiquiri of sorts; one hell of a sophisticated Daiquiri, but still a Daiquiri with its blend of rum, lime juice and sweeteners. 

Over the years the Mai Tai has taken a few wrong turns, turning into a fruit-driven punch wannabe. That’s where the bad reputation comes in. Cheap fruit juice, bad rum, and a frilly umbrella does not a Mai Tai make.
The Mai Tai originated in the capable, and quite famous, hands of Vic Bergeron, of Trader Vic’s fame. Back in 1944, as the tides of war turned decisively in the Allies’ favor, a celebratory mood was taking hold across the country. Out in Oakland, California, Vic was hard at work inventing new and intriguing cocktails, which may very well have been motivated by the relative scarcity of those old standbys gin and scotch.

With a bottle of 17-year-old Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum in hand, Vic blended up a subtle, layered concotion that allowed the rich, nutty flavors of the fine aged rum to meld with an edge of sweet/sour fruitiness. As Vic tells the story, the first two drinks were served to friends visiting from Tahiti. Their reaction to this innovative elixir? “Mai tai roa ae!” Tahitian for “Out of this world -- the best!”.

After several years of success in Trader Vic’s California locations, the cocktail made its way to Honolulu, where it was well received. In fact, the Mai Tai became the “it” drink of the Waikiki hotels and the mainland guests they welcomed. It is a classic case of great success leading to a drink’s downfall.

The crowds that flocked to Hawaii, after the dawn of the Jet Age made the islands easily accessible, clamored for more Mai Tais -- sweeter Mai Tais, fruitier Mai Tais -- and the bars kept giving the people what they wanted. The island’s pineapple juice was a natural, and easy, substitution for lime juice that essentially gutted the Mai Tai and made it just another fruity drink. And let’s not mention the crappy well rum that went into the ever cheaper and sweeter drinks passed off as Mai Tais to unsuspecting tourists.

The moral of the story? Try a real Mai Tai before you close the book on this hallowed cocktail -- and when sitting on the beach in Honolulu, enjoy a Duke’s Blonde Ale!

* Since Wray & Nephew are no longer producing their 17 year old Rum a substitue needs to be used. We suggest the Appleton Estate 12 year old Jamaican Rum.

Mentioned in this article


  • I am sure you are accurate, I have read quite a bit regarding the origin and how the original recipe came about. And while I am anxious to try this "purist" version, I must share this with the Tiki crowd out there. One year, in search of the perfect party batch, somewhat authentic, but most importantly flavorful recipe (emphasis on "batch" here). I came up with the following: make ahead two mixtures, the booze mixture and the juice mixture. 1) For the booze mixture use equal parts silver rum and dark rum. I used Bacardi Silver and Gosling's "Black Seal". Add to this ten percent of good triple sec, put into a container and plunge it into the ice chest. 2) The juice mixture contains freshly squeezed fruit in the following proportions: 1 orange, 1 lime and 1 lemon, to which you add a small can of pineapple. So for a big party you may want to get up early and squeeze, say, 6 or 8 each orange, lime and lemons and a 6-pack of pineapple juice. Also pour into a container and plunge into the ice chest. At party time, you fill the glass with ice, garnish of choice, pineapple is nice and pour equal portions of chilled mixtures. Delicious and dangerous!

    Sep 30, 2010 at 10:19 PM

  • Snooth User: sacrifice333
    Hand of Snooth
    133943 320

    Headed to Maui tomorrow AND stoked about an old Tiki jaunt in Vancouver being reinvigorated later this fall along with the rebirth of The Waldorf Hotel.

    Mai Tais here I come!

    Oct 01, 2010 at 12:53 AM

  • Snooth User: nvansicklen
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    211788 552

    Rolf - great tips. Thanks for posting. I am going to test that danger

    Oct 01, 2010 at 8:52 AM

  • I remember being in TRADER VICS in Honolulu with my wife in the late 80's. The Mai Tai we had at Trader Vics is like no other we have had anywhere in the world. Just the right sweetness and rum. And of course Trader Vics in Hawaii is also like no other bar.

    Oct 01, 2010 at 9:05 AM

  • Snooth User: denisstad
    437389 7

    I love the Mai Tai and have spent several years trying to perfect it, always going back as close as possible to the original recipe. I was in Hawaii for several weeks a couple of years ago and did my own informal tasting survey of Mai Tais at various restaurants and bars. Most were too fruity and far from the original. The one standout in my survey, however, was Orchids restaurant bar in the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu. A perfect Mai Tai! One step you forgot, however, was floating an ounce of dark rum (I use Gosling's Black Seal) on the finished drink. One sad note. I was in San Francisco at Trader Vic's three years ago (I think they've since closed) and ordered a Mai Tai with great anticipation. Other than the rum, everything else came out of a bar hose. Vic Bergeron was probably spinning in his grave.

    Oct 01, 2010 at 10:46 AM

  • Snooth User: argylew
    364482 3

    You might try this one:

    2 oz. Ron Zacapa 23-year old rum
    1 oz. fresh lime juice
    1/2 oz. simple syrup
    1/2 oz. orgeat syrup
    4 dashes Angostura bitters

    Shake well and strain over ice.

    Oct 01, 2010 at 3:09 PM

  • Snooth User: argylew
    364482 3

    I called it an O-Mai after the reaction I got.

    Oct 01, 2010 at 3:10 PM

  • Snooth User: Roslan
    514995 2

    what a drives?

    Oct 02, 2010 at 2:42 AM

  • Snooth User: pacheco
    516975 8

    The Mai tai that we drink now is far away from the real one. I work at the Hilton about 20 years ago with a bartender that use to work at the Trader Vics and he use to prepare the real a home made syrup with fruit, sugar and spicies. This mix need to be cooked for few hours and later you add the Jamaican Rum and lime Juice. sorry that i can not give the recipe.

    Oct 26, 2010 at 2:25 PM

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