Take a figurative trip to a Pacific tropical island with this quintessential Tiki drink.
The Mai Tai showcases the rums used; its name derives from a Tahitian phrase meaning “the best”.
By Bill Lau
Originally posted August 10, 2014; updated February 9, 2015
The Mai Tai cocktail is another of those classic drinks (like the Margarita) whose exact origins are disputed. Did Trader Vic Bergeron invent it, or Donn the Beachcomber? Or was it someone else? There’s an interesting review of the drink’s history in Jeff Berry‘s excellent book Beachbum Berry Remixed – A Gallery of Tiki Drinks (Club Tiki Press, 2010). In any case, it IS safe to say that this version comes to us from Trader Vic from wayyyy back in 1944 (that’s like 70 years ago!), and it’s been the standard and quite popular pretty much ever since. It’s great with Polynesian or Chinese food, at parties, or just because you want to channel some tropical island vibe. And enjoy some rum. Definitely rum.
This version is less sweet than some recipes I’ve seen (I have at least one that calls for double the amount of both syrups, for example), but these drinks aren’t supposed to be cloyingly sweet. They’re supposed to be a perfect blend of quality spirits, fruit juice, and select flavoring ingredients that combine in one harmonious libation. And this recipe really hits the mark for me!
(OK, I can’t resist a little aside here – there are at least 2 factors at work with some of the sweeter versions; 1. As the drink’s popularity soared and other bars and restaurants tried to copy the drink, some of them inevitably fell to using inferior and cheaper ingredients, no doubt cutting back on the amount of liquor to save money as well, resulting in a sweeter cocktail, 2. The general trend in America has unfortunately been in the direction of sweeter everything, which really pisses me off – sweet Chinese dishes that are supposed to be spicy, sweet Thai food that should instead be sour-salty-spicy, and so on. And don’t get me started on iced tea! My wife was once served an iced tea that was so sweet it was like syrup. Eww! It’s like a little kid that just wants to lick the icing off of a cake and leave the rest behind. You’re supposed to outgrow that at some point, aren’t you? Sheesh! End of diatribe.)
So if your lime is especially sour, by all means, adjust the amounts to your own palate. But at least start with these ratios and then adjust to your preference. And please do yourself a favor or two – squeeze your own fresh lime juice (hey, we’re past the “limepocalypse” now, and lime prices have come back out of the stratosphere!) and use decent rums.
My original post called for Cruzan aged (dark) St Croix rum and Appleton Estate V/X rum. And they made an excellent Mai Tai. However, I have since found a wonderful Martinique rum (the type recommended by Jeff Berry) and a dark Jamaican rum I’d not seen before (thanks to The Party Source!) and have settled in on those as my preferred Mai Tai rums. That and I’ve upgraded my triple sec to Cointreau. Pricier, but worth it to me. I’m really going for quality vs. quantity these days, so why not spend a little more and savor the result? Of course, you can certainly substitute other brands depending on what’s available where you live, and your budget. The important thing is the basic style and taste of the rums. I think you’ll appreciate the difference!
1 oz Clément V.S.O.P. Rum (amber) – Rhum Vieux Agricole
1 oz Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum – Black Gold Special Reserve
½ oz Cointreau orange liqueur
¼ oz simple syrup*
¼ oz orgeat (almond flavored) syrup
1 oz fresh lime juice
~1 cup crushed ice
Mix the ingredients together and pour over crushed ice (I like my antique hand-operated ice crusher – gives me a little workout of sorts, and it’s fun to manually smash those cubes up, but there’s nothing wrong with letting the fridge icemaker do the work for you). Alternatively, shake all ingredients with ice cubes and serve. I prefer to use a Tiki mug, myself, although a double old fashioned glass is traditional in many circles and quite acceptable. You just don’t get the kitsch factor that way. Garnish with a chunk of pineapple and maraschino cherry, lime wheel or wedge, or sprig of fresh mint, if desired.
Now kick back, relax, and enjoy. I’m thinking some slack key Hawaiian guitar music would be appropriate, but you may prefer Jimmy Buffet. Or perhaps the Beach Boys or The Ventures. Maybe you don’t want to go retro musically? Whatever works for you, my friend. (Personally, I may try Queens of the Stone Age next time I make a Mai Tai. “The best”, indeed!)
* Simple syrup is made from equal portions of sugar and water. Combine in a saucepan, bring to a boil, remove from heat and cool to room temperature before using. Voila! Any extra should keep covered and refrigerated for several days. You may also be able to find bottled simple syrup if you don’t care to mess with it.