In the decades following its creation in 1944, the Mai Tai’s ability to cement its status as a tropical classic was challenged by countless bastardizations, containing everything from absinthe to gin. Fast-forward more than half a century later, and the Mai Tai has once again spawned a new school of imitators. This time, however, rather than muddying the reputation of the drink, these considered recipes only serve to further entrench Trader Vic’s Mai Tai as an enduring icon of the tiki genre.
Of course, even the classic construction has been obsessed over by tropical-leaning bartenders who have experimented with every conceivable combination of rum, orange liqueur and syrups in pursuit of the perfect iteration. Among the best is the recipe from Garret Richard, current head bartender at Brooklyn’s Sunken Harbor Club. The secret to his blind tasting–winning recipe, which calls for two types of rum and two orange liqueurs, is a spent lime hull and saline, both of which add extra brightness and pop.
Other recipes opt to swap in a different base spirit, syrup or liqueur to tilt the axis of the drink without losing its tropical grounding. Such is the case with Fanny Chu’s Rum to the Jungle, which relies on “oat-geat” in place of orgeat, alongside a blend of two rums and Giffard’s Banane du Brésil, which Chu has dubbed the “Jungle Batch.” Anthony Schmidt’s Mai Sha Roa Na, meanwhile, leans on banana liqueur in place of orange liqueur for a tropical-plus spin, while Dan Sabo’s Kentucky Mai Tai swaps the expected rum base for, as the name suggests, bourbon — with an extra kick from mezcal.
Others, still, recast the tiki icon through an aperitivo lens. Take, for instance, Jeremy Oertel’s Bitter Mai Tai. Created at the now-shuttered Dram in Brooklyn, the drink dials back the rum base to accommodate a heavy pour of Campari, yielding a drink that feels equally at home in the piazza or by the pool. Martin Cate’s Mai Tai Spritz, meanwhile, takes the requisite Mai Tai ingredients, pulls back the rum, and adds a Champagne topper for a drink that truly captures the best of both worlds.