Anyone else feel like an escape right now?
I have written about Tiki here and there in this column. Cocktails from Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs have been featured occasionally, and my colleague Patrick did a profile on The Reef—all well-deserved, but Tiki hasn’t come up substantially in two years now. So, I have been remiss in my responsibilities—this is a Tiki town, and I have left the subject woefully under-represented!
Partly, that is out of respect. Tiki is its own subculture that goes beyond cocktails—it has its own clothing, music and lifestyle. Exotica, floral-print shirts, shorts, goatees and classic cars are things I am not into personally, but Tiki people also spend their free time looking into lost and ancient cocktails, and I can certainly get into that!
Now that I’ve made it clear that I am not a Tiki authority, I feel like there is one Tiki drink that every bartender should know how to make—the timeless mai tai.
First of all, let’s get the controversy and some misunderstandings out of the way: A mai tai does not have pineapple juice in it. It can have grapefruit juice in it, but then you’re drinking the Don the Beachcomber recipe, and not the Trader Vic’s recipe. (More on that in a bit.) It should never have a color that isn’t light brown to dark yellow; it should never have a cherry, or, heaven forbid, freaking “cherry juice”!
I confess that when I first started making mai tais, what I was really making was some sort of poor-man’s scorpion. Who knows what manner of dusty, spiral-bound, written “circa the year I was born” cocktail book I got that recipe from, but it was probably from my dad’s old bar—and drinking mai tais at the many, mostly gone and sorely missed “Polynesian” lounges around the Boston area was no help whatsoever. I’m pretty sure they had the same book I had. Much like the daiquiri, the mai tai has taken a beating in the course of the drink “Dark Ages.”
Truth be told, the mai tai is a sort of gussied-up daiquiri. Trader Vic—so the much-told story goes—around 1944 wanted to create a drink that would become a new classic. He had some 17-year-old Jamaican rum (the storied and now-$50,000-a-bottle Wray and Nephew 17) lying around and wanted to use it. He added fresh lime to some shaved ice, along with the rum, a little double-simple syrup, some curaćao and finally orgeat; he then gave it a shake. The resulting cocktail was so amazing it reportedly had a Tahitian house guest exclaim, “Mai tai-roa aé!” (“The best, out of this world!”). A legend was born. Funnily, I heard (and repeated) this story long before I ever knew how to make a Trader Vic’s mai tai.
Here’s where it gets juicy: A fellow with the pseudonym “Don Beach” had a place in Hollywood called Don the Beachcomber, and he accused Trader Vic (also a pseudonym, by the way) of taking “inspiration” from a rum punch he had on the menu. It was well-established that Vic had borrowed heavily from Beach’s business model and aesthetic; the two chains were busy becoming the basis for what we now call “Tiki.” According to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (what is it with these guys and the nicknames?), Don had a cocktail on his menu called the “Mai Tai Swizzle” between 1933 and 1937, so there is that.It is also totally possible that Vic made up his drink on his own; who really knows?
Either way, Beach threw his hat in the ring and marketed his own mai tai recipe, and premixed versions of “the Original Mai Tai” to compete with Vic in the marketplace, prompting a lawsuit. Vic won the suit, and most bartenders (including this one) concede that whatever happened, Vic’s recipe is the better one.
Here it is, from the man himself, by way of Difford’s Guide:
- One lime
- 1/2 ounce of orange curaćao
- 1/4 ounce of rock candy syrup
- 1/4 ounce of orgeat
- 2 ounces of Trader Vic Mai Tai rum; or 1 ounce of dark Jamaica rum and 1 ounce of Martinique rum
Cut lime in half; squeeze over shaved ice in a mai tai (double old-fashioned) glass; save one spent shell. Add remaining ingredients and enough shaved ice to fill glass. Hand shake; decorate with spent lime half, fresh mint and a fruit stick.
I would go with 3/4 of an ounce of lime, as size and juiciness vary. Rock candy syrup is an old-timey way of saying a syrup with two parts sugar to one part water. Good luck finding the Trader Vic Mai Tai rum, but the dark Jamaica and Martinique work great. Mix as above, using the best orgeat you can buy (or make); there are really good craft versions available now, for the first time in modern history.
Oh, and the Don Beach version? It’s good, too, but if the Trader Vic version is a tricked-out daiquiri, this one is more of a Hemingway daiquiri. From Don the Beachcomber, 1933, via Post Prohibition:
- 1 ounce of gold rum
- 1 1/2 ounces of Meyer’s Plantation rum
- 3/4 ounce of lime juice
- 1 ounce of grapefruit juice
- 1/2 ounce of Cointreau
- 1/4 ounce of falernum
- 6 drops of Pernod or Herbsaint
- 1 dash of Angostura bitters
Shake well with crushed ice; pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass; garnish with four mint sprigs.
Avoid the clear falernum on the market for this recipe; you’re gonna want something craft-made and spice-forward. Never mind that, though; unless you’re a serious cocktail geek, the Trader Vic recipe is all you really need.
However, if you find yourself at Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs (once it reopens), once the site of an actual Don the Beachcomber location, it’s totally acceptable to push Vic aside for a day. Escape from life the way your grandparents did; either version is pretty “mai tai-roa aé”!
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.