Ah, the poor Mai Tai. Few drinks have been bastardized by bad bartending more than this Tiki classic. The shame of it is that most people now avoid the Mai Tai altogether because of that tourist trap bar that served them a god-awful blue Mai Tai on 'Hawaii Five-O Night'.
I still remember when I first came across a reputable Mai Tai recipe (thanks Bum) and tried it for myself. I was blown away at how great this cocktail was. When I first started serving Mai Tais to people at my home or at events, people were so averse to trying the drink that I renamed it "The Adonai" (the drink whose name can not be spoken... ask your neighborhood rabbi if that reference doesn't make sense) just to get people to order it.
A well-made Mai Tai easily makes my list of all-time top 10 cocktails. It was the gateway drink that started me down the road into the broader Tiki cocktail scene. And best of all, there is a simple version of the Mai Tai in the 10-Bottle Bar.
I'll take a moment here to give a brief bit of color about the Mai Tai recipe. I could never do the story proper justice - the definitive history can be found in Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's fine book Beachbum Berry Remixed but here goes.
There is a great deal of mystery and intrigue around the Mai Tai recipe and its origins. The Mai Tai was part and parcel of the whole Tiki culture war that was waged across America in the 40s. Two of the major players in the Tiki craze were Donn Beach (and his Don the Beachcomber restaurants) and Vic Bergeron (of Trader Vic's fame). Each had their own flagship Tiki joint, and each tried to assume leadership in the Pacific Island/Tiki craze that swept America after the end of World War II.
Each of these two men had a plausible argument to have invented the Mai Tai - although the general consensus is that Donn Beach's Mai Tai Swizzle was nothing like the eventual Mai Tai and that it had long disappeared from Don the Beachcomber menus well before Vic Bergeron came up with his version that became famous. The recipe itself was shrouded in mystery, largely because there was so much intellectual property tied up in the unique drinks that each bar served and because bartenders were routinely poached from competing Tiki bars.
Trader Vic's Mai Tai (created right here The Ace's backyard in Oakland, CA) fast became Vic Bergeron's calling card, giving birth to the sprawling Trader Vic empire to points as far away as Bahrain. It also was imitated, flattered and outright stolen by every other Tiki Bar from Oakland to Oskaloosa. That leads us back to today's state of affairs for the once-proud king of the Tiki cocktails.
So let's show two versions of this amazing drink. First, the original Vic Bergeron Mai Tai - as triangulated by Tiki historian Beachbum Berry's blood sweat and tears.
Original 1944 Trader Vic Mai Tai
From Beachbum Berry Blog
1 oz. Rhum Clement VSOP Martinique rum
1 oz. Appleton Estate extra dark Jamaican rum
1 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz. orange curacao (NOT blue)
1/4 oz. orgeat
1/4 oz. simple syrup
1 sprig fresh mint
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with about 2 cups of crushed ice. Shake well for at least 10 seconds or until the metal on your shaker is frosty. Pour the entire (unstrained) contents of the shaker into a double old-fashioned glass. Drop a spent half of lime into the glass, then spank a sprig of mint and insert it stem-down into the glass as garnish.
It's no wonder that this drink set the world on fire. The Rhum Clement VSOP is truly a top-shelf rum and it really adds a lovely character to the drink. This drink is complex, sweet but not overly so with a fresh undertone from the lime.
Notes on preparation: Tiki culture draws from a HUGE variety of rums out there. One could easily go broke trying to keep up with and stock all of the different rums called for in Tiki recipes. If you can find the "right" rum - great. If not, don't sweat it. I have also used Rhum JM from Martinique to great effect (or if you can find another rhum agricole from Martinique go for it). I have also used Coruba Dark as a less expensive and more readily available substitute for the Appleton Extra Dark. I really recommend using Combier for the orange curacao but Cointreau will do and I recommend Small Hand Foods' orgeat for this recipe.
And now a really lovely adaptation of the same drink that can be made with ingredients from the 10-Bottle Bar. This version is slightly less complex than the Trader Vic original, but it is a great little crowd pleaser that still conveys the genius of Tiki culture.
Adapted by The Ace Saloon from Vic Bergeron
1 1/2 oz. Appleton Estates V/X rum (or Bacardi 8 if that's your 10-Bottle Bar rum)
1/2 oz. orange curacao
1/2 oz. orgeat
3/4 oz. lime juice
1 sprig fresh mint
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with about lots of ice. Shake well for at least 10 seconds or until the metal on your shaker is frosty. Pour the entire (unstrained) contents of the shaker into a double old-fashioned glass. Drop a spent half of lime into the glass, then spank a sprig of mint and insert it stem-down into the glass as garnish.