Perfecting any cocktail comes with its own unique set of challenges, but ask most bartenders and they’ll tell you that mastering a truly iconic drink requires another kind of study entirely.
“It’s true that slight variations on classics can create different drinks, so we try to stay as true to the form as we can,” explains Leo Robitschek, bar director at New York’s The NoMad Bar. “But we do take pretty liberal approaches.”
Such is the case with many of the cocktails available at the bar, which undergo an extensive workshopping process at the beginning of each year. In a series of blind tastings, the top two to three variations of each drink are sampled side-by-side and accompanied by discussion, with some cocktails going through as many as 20 iterations before making it onto the drinks list. From there, a drink is likely to be reexamined and re-workshopped from year to year—as with The NoMad’s Mai Tai, which has been reworked four times since it was put on the menu a decade ago.
“With any classic, you sort of start with its origin,” explains Robitschek, who notes that the tiki staple has not one, but two, distinctly different beginnings springing from both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. Working off of Vic’s orgeat-laced recipe (for which the bar team tested several homemade versions of the almond syrup), the team at The NoMad faced one rather distinct challenge, namely that Vic’s preferred 17-year-old J.Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum no longer exists. After having blended both agricole and Jamaican rums to mimic those flavors, Robitschek still felt that the drink was slightly off balance.
“We just thought that . . . it needed to be beefed up a little bit,” he explains. To give the Mai Tai additional richness and weight, they added a less conventional spirit, a 15-year-old Guyanese rum by El Dorado. “It’s made from demerara sugar, so it’s richer, darker and more molasses-heavy,” says Robitshek, “and it adds some funkiness and some body.”
Lastly, the bar team felt that the drink—despite its ounce of lime juice—needed more bitterness. “We didn’t want to add bitters because they add additional flavors,” explains Robitschek. Instead, the team opted to derive it directly from the lime peel; prior to shaking the cocktail, they squeeze a quarter lime into the tin and drop it straight in, which imparts not only that desired bitterness but a floral note as well.
Garnished with a bouquet of mint and an umbrella, the Mai Tai doesn’t look out of the ordinary. But this particular version of the drink has proven its staying power: It’s been a menu staple for the past three years.