The Mai Tai is one of the iconic rum drinks to come out of the tiki scene. This classic rum cocktail is too much fun to pass up, especially on those hot days of summer.
This is a drink with a great story and it all began in 1944 at Trader Vic's original location in Oakland, California.
Victor Bergeron, one of the founders of the tiki cocktail culture, was very well known for his amazing rum cocktails.
One day he mixed up a new drink using "...17-year old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew rum, added fresh lime, some Orange Curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat..." with lime and mint and served it to a friend visiting from Tahiti. After that first drink, the Tahitian phrase "Mai Tai - Roa Ae" ("Out of this world - The best!") was exclaimed and Bergeron had a name for his drink.
Over the years, the Mai Tai recipe has changed greatly. The first recipe below is a close adaptation of Bergeron's 'original' recipe sourced from Beachbum Berry, a great resource for tiki cocktail history.
Bergeron and other tiki bartenders were notorious for guarding their recipes against competitors. Over the years, their secrets slowly came out. However, just like every other story in the bar, there's a good possibility that even the so-called original recipes have been tweaked a few times.
Gather the ingredients.
Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with about 2 cups of crushed ice.
Pour everything (do not strain) into an old-fashioned glass.
Garnish with a lime shell sunk into the ice and a sprig of fresh mint.
A Few Tips on Making this Mai Tai Recipe
The '17-year old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew rum' that Bergeron used is no longer produced. Beachbum Berry has two fantastic recommendations for both the light and dark rums: Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique Rum and Appleton Estate Extra Dark Jamaican Rum. If you cannot find those specifically, there are many suitable alternatives.
The lime shell is a unique citrus garnish that can be found in a number of tiki cocktails. It is, quite simply a half of a lime that has been partially hollowed out with a reamer to create a bowl that rests in the drink.
Some tiki drinks will fill the shell with overproof rum and light it on fire as well. It is a fun trick and should be executed with care.
A Slight Variation to the Original Mai Tai
This Mai Tai recipe is very similar to Bergeron's original recipe and is one that I have personally used for years.
To make this drink, shake 1 ounce light rums with 1/2 ounce each fresh lime juice, orange curaçao, and orange syrup with ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass with fresh ice and float 1 ounce dark rum on top. Garnish with a cherry.
A Very Fruity Mai Tai Cocktail Recipe
Over the years, the Mai Tai took on too many different variations to count. Many of these piled layers of tropical fruit on top of rum and ranged in color from a brilliant red to bright blue. It seems that, at one time, every bar in the tropics created their own rum cocktail and simply gave it the Mai Tai name.
This is not to say that any of these new 'Mai Tai's' are bad. In fact, many are quite delicious and just as appealing as the Bahama Mama and Blue Hawaiian. However, they are not the Mai Tai as it was originally intended and this is a point that is important to realize. Many bar arguments have been started by questioning the real Mai Tai.
This last recipe is one of those, shall we say, imposters. It is filled with pineapple and orange juice, adds a bit of grenadine for sweetness, and tops everything off with a dark rum float. It is a great drink.
To make the drink, pour 1 ounce light rum, 1/2 ounce triple sec, 1/4 ounce lime juice, 1 1/2 ounces each pineapple juice and orange juice, and a dash of grenadine into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well, strain into an old-fashioned glass half-filled with ice, the float 1/2 ounce dark rum on top. Garnish with a cherry.