The mai tai is an iconic tropical rum cocktail. It's so popular that it's been remade countless times, often with tons of fruit and in a variety of colors. Most of those renditions are completely different than the original recipe (which no one can really agree on, either). Whether you mix up the classic rum cocktail or go the tropical fruit route (or try them all), the mai tai is a great summer drink.
The drink's unusual name is explained by its story, which began in 1944 at Trader Vic's original location in Oakland, California. Victor Bergeron, one of the founders of the tiki cocktail bar scene, was very well known for his amazing rum cocktails, and the mai tai is one of his most famous creations. This recipe is a close adaptation of what is thought to be the original mai tai recipe.
Click Play to See This Mai Tai Cocktail Recipe Come Together
Gather the ingredients.
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. Serve and enjoy.
- The lime shell is a unique citrus garnish used in a few tropical cocktails. It is a lime half that's partially hollowed out with a reamer to create a bowl that floats in the drink. You can use the lime that you squeeze for the cocktail.
- Some drinks fill the shell with overproof rum and light it on fire as well. It is a fun trick and should be executed with care while sober.
- Orgeat is a syrup made of almonds and orange flower water. Almond syrup is a decent substitute, though it doesn't have that floral citrus taste that makes orgeat special.
What Does Mai Tai Mean?
According to the story, Bergeron mixed up a new drink at Trader Vic's for a friend visiting from Tahiti. He used "...17-year-old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew rum, added fresh lime, some orange curaçao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French orgeat..." and garnished it with lime and mint. The Tahitian exclaimed, "Mai Tai - Roa Ae" ("Out of this world - The best!"), giving Bergeron a name for his drink.
What's the Best Rum for a Mai Tai?
The rum that Bergeron used is no longer produced. Beachbum Berry (an excellent source for tiki cocktail history) recommends Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique Rum and Appleton Estate Extra Dark Jamaican Rum. If you cannot find those, there are many suitable alternatives in both styles, and light rum is a popular alternative to rhum agricole.
Why Are There So Many Mai Tai Recipes?
Bergeron and other tiki bartenders were notorious for guarding recipes against competitors. Even though their secrets eventually came out, there's a good possibility that these so-called original recipes have been tweaked a few times. To further complicate matters, countless tropical bars gave an original rum cocktail the mai tai name to increase sales. Many pile layers of tropical fruit on top of rum and range in color from a brilliant red to bright blue. While these newer versions may be delicious, they are not the mai tai as it was originally intended.
- One popular version of the mai tai is very similar to Bergeron's. To make it, shake 1 ounce of light rum with 1/2 ounce each of fresh lime juice, orange curaçao, and orgeat syrup. Strain into an old-fashioned glass with fresh ice and float 1 ounce dark rum on top, garnishing it with a cherry.
- Among the fruitier mai tai recipes, this version is worth mixing up: Shake 1 ounce of light rum, 1/2 ounce of triple sec, 1/4 ounce of lime juice, 1 1/2 ounces each of pineapple juice and orange juice, and a dash of grenadine with ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass half-filled with ice, then float 1/2 ounce dark rum on top. Garnish it with a cherry.
How Strong Is a Mai Tai?
Most mai tai recipes are rather potent drinks, mixing up to about 20 percent ABV (40 proof) when made with 80 proof rums. Though they can get much stronger, some of the fruitiest recipes will be slightly lighter. This can be deceptive because the sweet fruit juice can trick you into drinking more than you might like. When you're drinking on a hot day, that can be dangerous, so be sure to drink plenty of water along with any mai tai.