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.