In today’s bar world, there is no such thing as a static recipe. Bartenders are constantly striving to improve their drinks in response to new products, techniques or popular trends. The tried and true formula, it seems, is only good for so long.
“I’ll be the first to admit that, in hindsight, some of my old drinks weren’t that great,” says Paul McGee, co-owner of Chicago’s Lost Lake, recalling syrup-laden Old-Fashioneds and maraschino-heavy Aviations in the early aughts.
“It’s healthy to keep going and not be static,” he says. “The drink you made 10 years ago might not be the best version anymore.” For that reason, he constantly revisits recipes, deconstructing them in order to reevaluate every detail.
When Lost Lake opened in 2015, the oversized palm frond–shaped menu featured a roster of 16 creative tropical cocktails—but no Mai Tai. McGee knew that the drink would be ordered nevertheless, and that he’d need to keep a stellar version of the iconic tropical cocktail in his back pocket. But what would that look like?
“To me, a good Mai Tai is nice, bright and multilayered,” says McGee. “You’re able to taste the rum; the orgeat gives it a little bit of texture and creaminess; the lime is nice and bright.”
Lost Lake’s version, he figured, would also need to be made quickly. “I didn’t know how busy we would be, so I wanted to err on the side of making the drink really good, but not have as many steps [as a traditional shaken version],” he says.
With that in mind, Lost Lake’s first Mai Tai began as a blend of two rums—an ounce each of Martinique rhum agricole (Duquesne Élevé Sous Bois) and Jamaican rum (Appleton Estate Signature Blend)—plus Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, lime, orgeat and demerara syrup.
“We’d put everything in a tin with a cup of crushed ice, and then buzz it with our Hamilton Beach drink mixer for about four seconds,” McGee recalls. “The sequence was buzz, dump, more ice, garnish and go”—a process built for speed.
Yet, that wasn’t the final stop. In 2018, Lost Lake’s Mai Tai got a significant makeover. The revision was driven by several factors: a new rum (more on that below), and an old technique that had recently resurfaced.
But it started with a deep dive into how Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic), who lays claim to creating the Mai Tai in 1944, made his version of the drink.
“We went back into the Trader Vic canon,” says McGee. “He would shake the Mai Tai, not buzz it.” Further, Bergeron advised shaking the drink with a spent lime hull in the mixing tin, a technique now codified as a Regal Shake that was making the rounds in the bartender community around the same time that McGee was revisiting the Lost Lake recipe.
“That really changed the game for me,” says McGee. “You get all those lime oils inside the drink. It’s just a brighter cocktail.”
The next step: turbocharging the rum mix. While McGee stayed within the confines of Trader Vic’s prescribed blend of Martinique and Jamaican rums, he split the Jamaican portion between Smith & Cross, a funky overproof rum, and Plantation Xaymaca, a particularly robust pot-stilled rum. He also switched the Martinique rum component to the 100-proof Neisson Élevé Sous Bois Rhum Agricole; while that still amounted to two ounces of rum, the alcohol level jumped by about 10 percent, McGee estimates. “I liked the bigger punch,” he notes. “You taste more of the rum.”
In particular, the 2018 debut of Xaymaca drove the change in the rum mix, shifting the balance toward a bigger, fruitier profile. “Xaymaca has more of that Jamaican funk in it, the fruity esters that I like,” he says, compared to Appleton’s drier flavor profile. It also balanced out the “big tropical fruit notes—pineapple, overripe banana” of the Smith & Cross. “You’ve got a rum that’s made for cocktails that’s going to shine through.”
The rest of the ingredients—dry Curaçao, orgeat, lime juice, demerara syrup— and their proportions remained the same as the 2015 version, although a lime hull followed the lime juice into the mixing tin. The drink is then shaken with four Kold-Draft ice cubes for about 10 seconds, dumped into the Mai Tai glass, and topped with crushed ice. “That’s the big technique change,” explains McGee.
As for his original concern that a shaken Mai Tai would take too much time: “It’s not really slowing down service, and I thought it made a superior Mai Tai.”
That revamped classic also provided the basis for Lost Lake’s Baller Mai Tai, introduced in 2019 for $40 (compared to the usual $16). The bones of the 2018 version remain in place, though the rum mix morphs into a two-part blend of a rare 1990s vintage rhum agricole from Martinique producer St. James and overproof Velier Hampden 8 Year Jamaican Rum. Housemade macadamia nut orgeat also adds a luxe, creamy touch.
Even after all that workshopping, McGee has every expectation that the formula will evolve yet again.
“We’re not settling,” he says. “I don’t want to say, ‘This is our Mai Tai and it’s never going to change.’”