In Search Of… The Mai Tai

My new blog series is called In Search Of… but unlike the old TV show where host Leonard Nimoy explored unsolved mysteries and the paranormal, I’ll take you on a quest for delectable cocktails, tasty alcoholic spirits and great wines that everyone can afford.

Our first pursuit will be In Search Of…The Mai Tai. Don’t you just hate it when there’s something you do a certain way, and you suddenly realize that you’ve been doing wrong all along. The Boozy Lifestyle Mai Tai from my book is based on a recipe I found on made with rum, orange and pineapple juices. We tweaked the ingredients for our own taste, adding triple sec and a splash of Myers’s rum and used the Bacardi Gold we had on hand which combines well with fruit juices. While it’s a tasty concoction, I’ve concluded after reading other recipes along with the history of the cocktail that it’s far from an authentic Mai Tai.

The Mai Tai is one of many Tiki drinks originating from Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s restaurants in the 1930s and ‘40s. Don the Beachcomber bar in Los Angeles, owned by Donn Beach, served complicated cocktails made with many ingredients and garnished with exotic fruit and edible flowers. They were the antithesis of the classic cocktails of the day where a single spirit was enhanced with a sugar cube, bitters, or a splash of vermouth. Beach invented a cocktail in 1933 named the Q.B. Cooler which he later claimed the Mai Tai had copied. Victor Bergeron of Trader Vic’s claims to have created the Mai Tai in 1944 and later won an out-of-court settlement for the naming rights. The drinks and décor of Trader Vic’s may not have been called “Tiki” in the 1940s, but as the style caught on and spread through the 1950s and ‘60s, the Polynesian and Caribbean-influenced elements were retroactively described as Tiki culture.

A general description of the components of Tiki drinks is: one sour, two sweet, three strong, and four weak, meaning one part citrus, two parts sweetener such as orange curacao, three parts spirit, usually rum, and four parts of a dilution such as water or ice. Oftentimes Tiki drinks use multiples of each making them intricate to make, yet satisfyingly tasty in their complexity. The Mai Tai is one of the Tiki movement’s most well-known and frequently ordered cocktails, perhaps because it’s comparatively easy to make, as well as tasting delicious!

According to Victor Bergeron, he wanted to mix a drink that would impress his Tahitian friends. Using a Wray & Nephew 17-Year-Old aged Jamaican rum, he added flavors of orange, almond, and lime. Upon sipping it, his Tahitian friends exclaimed, “maitaʻi”, the Tahitian word for “good”. The intention of Bergeron’s Mai Tai was to let a fine, aged rum shine as the star among a few select supporting ingredients. Trader Vic kept his Mai Tai recipe secret for nearly 30 years, but eventually shared it in his 1974 Bartending Guide Book.

  • 2 ounces 17-year-old J. Wray Jamaican rum
  • ½ ounce Holland deKuyper orange curacao
  • ½ ounce French Garier orgeat
  • ¼ ounce rock candy syrup
  • Juice of one lime

Our first round of Mai Tai drink lab will follow the spirit of this original recipe while substituting with available ingredients and incorporating ideas from Decanter Magazine and the Appleton Estate website. We have a wee bit of Appleton Special to finish off and we’ll use Grand Marnier in place of orange curacao.

Mai Tai Cocktail

Appleton Special & Grand Marnier Version

  • 2 ounces Appleton Estate Special rum
  • ½ ounce Grand Marnier
  • ½ ounce lime juice
  • ½ ounce orgeat syrup

The balance of sweet, tart, and dry flavors is good. Oak flavors from the rum add complexity, a revelation that induced me to buy the Appleton Estate 8-Year Reserve Rum. In one version we tried adding a quarter ounce of simple syrup in place of the rock candy syrup used by Trader Vic but found the added sweetness too cloying.

For the second round of drink lab, we’ll follow the Mai Tai recipe from Easy Tiki: A Modern Revival with 60 Recipes by Chloe Frechette. The recipe calls for homemade orgeat and Demerara syrups with recipes included in the Syrups section at the end of the book. The recipe for orgeat was too complicated for my abilities, so I took the easier route and bought a highly rated orgeat syrup from Small Hand Foods on Amazon rather than making my own. The Demerara syrup recipe on the other hand is one I can handle; just a simple syrup using two parts Demerara sugar to one part water.

Easy Tiki Version with Appleton 8-Year and Cointreau

  • 2 ounces aged rum
  • ½ ounce orange curacao
  • ¾ ounce lime juice
  • ¼ ounce Demerara syrup
  • ¼ ounce orgeat

Shake all ingredients over ice and strain or serve over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass with a lime wedge or mint leaves. Or, slowly add the Demerara syrup at the end to give the cocktail color variation for presentation, then stir before sipping.

Our first round with Appleton Special was good, but the second round with Appleton 8-Year is great! The ingredients blend seamlessly, making it nearly impossible to single out individual components. For the 30 years before Trader Vic’s recipe was published, bartenders were forced to speculate as to its ingredients, and I can understand what a difficult task it must have been. Their guesswork is most likely the reason I found various recipes including pineapple and orange juice.

Appleton Estate 8-Year Reserve Rum on its own has aromas of oak, vanilla and baking spices. It contributes rich flavors of caramel, butterscotch, and honey to the Mai Tai cocktail. The rum’s richness is countered by the citrus notes of lime and orange. The nut and citrus flavors of the orgeat as well as the honey and molasses notes of the Demerara syrup complement the rum and add to the cocktail’s complexity. Use of a pot still in the making Appleton 8-year creates an herbal funkiness that I mostly notice on the cocktail’s finish.

We often take a cocktail recipe and make tweaks for our own taste, but the Easy Tiki Version of the Mai Tai with Appleton 8-Year and Cointreau with its balanced levels of sweetness and fruitiness, and complex layers created by a few choice ingredients in support of a fine aged Jamaican rum needs no improvement. The future may see us trying this recipe with different rums, but for now, why mess with perfection?

Published by J Reilly

Boozy Lifestyle: Elevate The Everyday With Booze As Your Muse by Julia Stacey Reilly is available on Follow J Reilly @boozy_lifestyle on Twitter and Instagram.

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