According to Caroline Pardilla, a writer for Eater, the Mai Tai is the most misinterpreted cocktail—and it demands some respect. In her article You Deserve a Mai Tai — A Real One, That Is, the author explains the history of the Mai Tai and its significance in the tiki movement. Read on for an interesting history lesson, then learn how to make a real Mai Tai—one that does not contain a trace of orange or pineapple juice.
Why is it that cocktail enthusiasts will forgive a shaken Manhattan before they do a Mai Tai made with orange juice and garnished with a cocktail umbrella? Because there’s no cocktail more misinterpreted than the Mai Tai. This iconic cocktail of the tiki movement demands respect, even if it was also the official cocktail of Richard Nixon’s presidency. And yet over the decades, its mix of rums, orgeat (almond syrup), lime juice, rich demerara simple syrup, and orange curaçao has somehow devolved into a mess of syrups and juices, seemingly open to whatever interpretation the bartender feels like.
Below, everything you need to know about the Mai Tai’s history, tips and techniques, recipes — and even some (acceptable) variations.
The History of the Mai Tai
The Mai Tai started as a rum cocktail so popular it supposedly depleted world rum supplies in the 1940s and '50s. In 1944, when the cocktail was invented by Victor J. Bergeron — better known as Trader Vic — it wasn’t a sugar bomb. It was a simple drink created to showcase the pungent flavor of a 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum: Bergeron highlighted the golden, medium-bodied rum with just a touch of lime, orgeat, orange curaçao, and simple syrup. According to legend, after shaking the concoction with ice and presenting the cocktail to some of his visiting Tahitian friends, they ended up liking it so much one of them exclaimed, "Maita’i roa a’e," which translates to "out of this world! The best!" Bergeron christened his new cocktail "Mai Tai," as in "the best."
“Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”
However, as with most cocktail origin stories, there’s some disagreement about whether Bergeron’s account is true. Donn "Don the Beachcomber" Beach claims Trader Vic’s recipe was actually inspired by his own punch, the Q.B. Cooler, which he invented in 1933. According to Beach, Bergeron was a fan of Beachcomber's restaurant back when "Trader Vic" was just his nickname and not his restaurant. Bergeron loved the flavor profile of the punch, so he appropriated it for his Mai Tai recipe.
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