The Original Mai Tai Recipe Deserves Your Attention
The classic Mai Tai is a refreshingly simple summer drink. Here’s how to make it — and some small tweaks to level it up.
The Mai Tai is the most famous Tiki-era cocktail, and the only one that ever truly crossed over into mainstream bar culture. In a history stretching back nearly 80 years, it’s also the tropical cocktail recipe that has been the most corrupted by bartenders trying to guess at a group of ingredients that remained a secret until the 1970’s. Thanks to the skill and sophistication of today’s bartenders who have revived and perfected the Mai Tai in the spirit of the original, however, there’s never been a better time to add the drink to your home bartending repertoire. With a few pro tips, you’ll be on your way to vintage tropical bliss.
The Mai Tai was invented by California barman Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron in 1944. A Tahitian friend of his tasted it and pronounced it “maita’i,” or “very good” in Tahitian, and the name stuck.
“One of the reasons it became so successful was the name,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, “Exotic, short, and easy to say –– a name is sometimes more important than what’s in the glass.”
Berry is a cocktail historian, the author of Sippin’ Safari, and owner of the New Orleans bar, Latitude 29. The Mai Tai, he explains, was a fairly obscure drink until the Matson cruise ship lines hired Bergeron to create a cocktail menu for their service to Hawaii, and for the Waikiki hotel, The Royal Hawaiian, that the cruise line also owned. The idea was that Vic would “tropicalize” their drink menu and people would drink the same thing on the ship and in their hotel.
“That’s where it went viral and mutated into the drink of Hawaii,” says Berry. “It became more than a cocktail, but a symbol of Hawaii for Americans and the drink served at Luaus.” Because rival hotels didn’t know how to make it and the recipe was a trade secret, they all made up their own versions –– hence the widespread corruption of the original recipe.
The original Mai Tai recipe a simple one at heart: Rum, the orange liqueur Curaçao, the almond-flavored syrup Orgeat, and lime juice. It’s a bracing cocktail where the rum takes center stage, and the flavors of orange, lime, and almond provide necessary harmonies. It’s fruit-forward but sour, refreshing but a bit dry. It’s a lovely drink, especially in summer. And there are many ways to subtly tweak the traditional Mai Tai recipe’s simple ratio to achieve Mai Tai mastery. We spoke to some of the best tropical cocktail bartenders in the country to gather their pro tips on how to make a seriously great Mai Tai worthy of being called ‘a vacation in a glass.’
1. Use Good Rum, and More Than One
“If you wouldn’t drink it on its own you shouldn’t put it in your Mai Tai,” says Kevin Beary, beverage director of the Chicago-based tropical bars Three Dots and a Dash and The Bamboo Room at Three Dots and a Dash. Beary likes to mix funky aged Jamaican rum with grassy rhum agricole for depth of flavor, and even uses Brazilian Cachaça in a recipe below for an additional dimension.
“It’s ok to experiment and use what you like,” says Jeff Berry, who points out that rum at the time of the Mai Tai’s invention was bottled at a higher proof than it is today. So, in order to keep the balance of the drink as it was intended you should use higher proof rum or add more rum to the recipe. “It’s not supposed to be that sweet of a drink,” he says. “Vic crafted the drink for super rich, aged, delicious rum and every other ingredient is meant to enhance the taste of the rum, not to mask it.”
“Use 2 ¼ ounces of rum because original spec called for 2 oz of higher proof,” offers Garret Richard, co-author of Tropical Standard and chief cocktail officer of the Sunken Harbor Club in Brooklyn. “This helps dry drink out and make it less sweet.” Richard uses a rum blend for his Mai Tai to achieve a complexity and proof strength similar to the 17-year-old Jamaican rum in Vic’s original, including 1 ½ of Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, which is a blend of Jamaican with molasses rum from Martinique. To this he adds ½ ounce of Coruba rum from Jamaica for “heavier tones, body and depth –– that gives us much more of the gunpowdery older flavor profile.” Finally, Richard adds ¼ ounce of La Favorite VSOP from Martinique for an additional layer of flavor.
2. Add A Touch Of Salt
“Behind the bar we do this with saline solution because bartenders’ hands are wet,” says Richard. “Salt does two things: it makes the almond orgeat better –– think salted almonds versus unsalted almonds –– and it’s also going to lower the bitterness of the fresh lime and allow your palate to taste the combination of sweet and sour much cleaner.”
3. Use Great Orgeat
Jeff Berry describes Orgeat as the key to transforming the Mai Tai from essentially a rum margarita into something else entirely. He takes this ingredient so seriously that me bottles his own Latitude 29 formula Orgeat.
“Make your own Orgeat,” suggests Kevin Beary, for the culinarily ambitious home bartender. It’s made with blanched almonds, sugar, orange flower water, and brandy, and is relatively easy to make at home. Alternatively, a quality pre-made option would be Giffard, Small Hand Foods, or Sonoma Syrup Co. No. 13. Whether you make it from scratch or buy a good version such as these, don’t skimp on Orgeat because it’s critical to the unique flavor of a Mai Tai.
4. Consider the Curaçao
Typically, the second sweetener is orange Curaçao, but Richard uses a blend of orange liqueurs for his Mai Tai. “I like the heaviness of Grand Marnier to create bass notes, and Clement Creole Shrubb as the treble notes,” he says.
5. Use Crushed Ice — And Shake It Right
Trader Vic used crushed ice in his original drink. Beary specifies that not just any crushed ice will do: “Get your ice right — crushed but not wet,” he says.
“For me, a big tip is how you shake it,” says Richard, who explains that you have to be trained well to shake a cocktail with crushed ice without over-diluting it. “The method I’ve found to get around that is to shake with cubed ice first and then add crushed ice after,” he says, recommending this ‘Hybrid Shake’ method for home bartenders in his book, Tropical Standard. Richard recommends this same method if you’re using pebble ice. Why? Well, by shaking it with bigger ice cubes, you’re less likely to dilute the drink. And by pouring it over crushed or pebble ice, the dilution will work in favor of the drink’s balance rather than against it as you continue to drink it.
6. Get Your Lime Juice Right
“Lime juice must be freshly pressed there is no substitute,” says Kevin Beary. For further reading check out our article dedicated to fresh citrus, but don’t even think about bottled lime juice in this cocktail.
Richard shares a trick of cutting the ends off the lime so that the hand-press juicer has a flat surface to push against and you get more extraction. Then, he strains the juice through a tea strainer to remove the pulp and give it what he calls, “a more direct acidity,” as it’s more well-rounded than it is with the pulp.
7. Don’t Forget the Garnish
Trader Vic’s preferred method was to garnish with a lime shell that looked like an island. This was great presentation, per Richard, but doesn’t infuse lime oil throughout the drink. What Richard does instead is that before he shakes the drink he cuts a wedge of lime, squeezes out the juice, then puts it in the bottom of the glass and swirls it around “like a glass of wine” and then leaves it in there to add the lime oil essence. He then garnishes his Mai Tai with mint, an orchid, and a lime twist wrapped around the straw. “Fresh mint and a short straw are key for garnish,” says Kevin Beary.
8. It Should Never Be Pink
“Twenty years ago, people expected Mai Tais to be red, and have pineapple and grenadine in them,” says Jeff Berry, describing the corrupted version of the drink made by bartenders trying to blindly (or more cheaply) approximate the original. “But people are so savvy today about their cocktails,” he says, pointing out that the drink should be deep amber in color when done right.
Beary puts it even more starkly. “If someone tells you your Mai tai should be pink, they don’t deserve one.”
3 Mai Tai Recipes To Make
1. The Original Mai Tai: The 1944 Trader Vic Mai Tai
Courtesy of the Bamboo Room at Three Dots and a Dash
At Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, Beary recently created a vintage 1944 Mai Tai using vintage 15-year-old Wray & Nephew and 1940’s vintage curaçao. These rare concoctions (shown above) sell for $800 each, and there will be fewer than a dozen offered. For those who can’t swing that, Beary has another excellent take on the original 1944 recipe with available ingredients.
- 1 oz. aged Jamaican rum
- 1 oz. 100-proof blanc rhum agricole
- ½ oz. dry curaçao
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice
- 1 oz. Almond Orgeat Jamaican overproof float (optional)
- Bouquet of mint, for garnish
- Build the cocktail in a double rocks glass; add crushed ice until the drink fills the glass. Swizzle the cocktail until its homogeneous (becomes opaque).
- Garnish with a bouquet of mint.
- Add a float of funky Jamaican overproof (optional; it's not considered traditional but adds an extra flare).
2. The Modern Mai Tai: The 2044 Mai Tai
Courtesy of Three Dots and a Dash
This is Three Dots and a Dash’s interpretation of the future of Mai Tais. It’s made with three funky and unaged styles of rum and uses Yellow Chartreuse rather than the Mai Tai’s traditional orange curaçao, which gives it an herbaceous quality.
- 2 oz rum blend*
- .5 oz Yellow Chartreuse
- 1 oz lime juice
- 1 oz Orgeat
1. Build in mixing tin. Whip shake with 16 oz crushed ice. Pour unstrained into Mai Tai glass.
*2044 Mai Tai Rum Blend (composed of the ’Three Wise Men’)
3. The Resort Mai Tai: The Halekulani Mai Tai
Courtesy of the Home Without a Key Bar
The Waikiki Beach luxury hotel Halekulani is next door to the Royal Hawaiian where the Mai Tai had its grand debut in 1953. It’s oceanfront restaurant, House Without a Key, is renowned for its Mai Tai. The Halekulani Mai Tai uses three types of rum, Bacardi Gold Rum, Bacardi Select and Lemon Hart 151.
- 1/3 Ounce Orgeat Syrup
- 1/3 Ounce Orange Curacao
- 1/3 Ounce Rock Candy Syrup
- 1 1/4 Ounce Fresh Lime Juice
- 3/4 Ounce Bacardi Gold Rum
- 3/4 Ounce Bacardi Select
- 1/2 Ounce Lemon Hart 151 Rum (float)
- Vanda orchid (garnish)
- Pour Orgeat syrup, orange curacao, rock candy syrup, lime juice, Bacardi Gold and Bacardi Select into glass.
- Pack with crushed ice.
- Float 1/2-ounce Lemon Hart 151 Rum.
- Garnish with lime wheel, sugar cane stick, mint leaf, and Vanda orchid.