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Mapping the Mai Tai

Tracing the iconic cocktail’s return to form.

Few classic cocktails come without their historic trials. The Martini has been shaken, stirred and thrown, and struggles with an ongoing gin-vodka identity crisis. The Old-Fashioned has tussled with oranges and cherries and gets mistaken for a brandy drink whenever it crosses the Wisconsin state line. The Daiquiri’s run-ins with various members of the fruit family are legion. But the Mai Tai, its fun-loving reputation notwithstanding, can match them woe for woe.

It is, as Martin Cate observed in Smuggler’s Cove, “the most bastardized drink of all time.” With the revival of tiki culture during the last decade, the king of tropical drinks has recently returned to form. It is “in a good place,” as Paul McGee, an owner of the tropical Chicago bar Lost Lake, observed during a 2019 PUNCH blind tasting of the drink.

It took a long time to get there, and this may be the first comfortable spot the Mai Tai has enjoyed in half a century. During that fraught interval from the 1950s to the ’00s, the simple (by tiki standards, at least) mixture—just a half-dozen components, including two rums, orgeat, simple syrup, lime juice and Curaçao—has had to fend off pretender ingredients of every sort, including any juice you can think of, every rum in the book, falernum, Pernod, bitters, grenadine and, God save us, gin.

Most cocktail historians maintain that the Mai Tai was born in 1944 at Trader Vic’s in Oakland, where Victor Bergeron, aka Trader Vic himself, invented the world’s best-known tiki drink on the spur of the moment for two friends visiting from Tahiti. But the drink was not an instantaneous hit. Little was written about it until the mid-1950s, according to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, tiki author and historian. When it did eventually catch on, the true recipe was difficult to parse from the countless imitators. “Since the recipe was a Trader Vic trade secret,” said Berry, referencing the extreme furtiveness that accompanied proprietary tiki recipes at the time, “bars could just throw whatever they wanted into the glass and say it’s a Mai Tai. Back then, there were no cocktail geeks with iPhone recipe apps to argue with them.”

But when Bergeron took the drink to Hawaii, the trouble really began. In 1953, he taught the genuine article to bartenders at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, but that recipe did not hold for long. In order to satisfy increasing tourist demand for the drink, hotels throughout the islands cut corners. Cheap rum and pre-mixes (“Mai Tai mix” was heavily advertised and easily bought beginning in the 1960s, in Hawaii and elsewhere) came into play and most recipes substituted softer and more place-appropriate pineapple juice for the original spec of tart lime juice.

“On the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Mai Tai, the state of the most popular tropical cocktail in the Pacific is shaky,” wrote journalist Rick Carroll, reporting from Hawaii for the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1994. “Some taste like gasoline, others like cough syrup. They burn the throat, produce terrible headaches and generally give Hawaii a bad name. They should be served with a surgeon general’s warning.”

There was at least one bartender who tried to turn the Mai Tai tide in Hawaii. In 1986, an ex–New York bartender named Danny DePamphillis had been hired at Moana Hotel’s Beach Bar and was appalled by the variety of Mai Tais he encountered. “Everybody had a different Mai Tai recipe,” he told Carroll. In an attempt to restore order, DePamphillis tracked down Vic’s original recipe and began to serve it. It didn’t last long, however; patrons preferred the faux Mai Tai, which, according to DePamphillis, contained cheap rums and orange concentrate.

Things weren’t any better in other parts of the world, either. In 1977, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a recipe that read more like a catch-all fruit salad than a Mai Tai: “Cut up pineapple, glazed cherries, papaw, grapefruit, orange, sliced peaches, bananas. Add orange juice, grapefruit juice and pineapple juice, then gin to suit.” Around the same time, the Los Angeles Times printed a formula for a “Mai Tai Punch” that called for “pineapple-grapefruit juice,” orange juice, almond extract and corn syrup. This mixture was anchored by a “fruit ice ring” made of a frozen hoop of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and maraschino cherries. A 1968 cocktail guide published by Time-Life thought the drink required apricot brandy. A 1980 British book, meanwhile, called for orange juice and orange slices, and omitted orgeat.

The Mai Tai didn’t right itself until around 2010, when the serious bartending approaches of the cocktail renaissance finally reached the tiki canon of cocktails. Berry began to see correct Mai Tais—that is, formulas that hewed closely to the Trader Vic original and featured Jamaican rums, orgeat and fresh lime juice—at U.K. cocktail pioneers like The Merchant Hotel bar in Belfast and Trailer Happiness in London, and European bars like Door 74 in Amsterdam and Nu Lounge in Bologna. (According to Berry, in the aughts, tiki in Europe wasn’t seen as old-fashioned and hokey like it was in the States, allowing for the continent to lead the charge in its revival.)

By the early 2000s, American bars followed suit. Cate, drawing on Berry’s scholarship, began serving genuine Mai Tais in the Bay Area, first at Forbidden Island in Alameda, then at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco.

“When we opened Forbidden Island back in 2006, there was a decision to be made,” remembers Cate. “I wanted to offer a more purist Mai Tai, but we still had a lot of consumer expectations about what Mai Tais had become—frozen and pink when you landed in Honolulu,” he recalls. “So we offered both. We called them the Classic Mai Tai and the Island Mai Tai.  And yes, we would get the occasional Classic Mai Tai sent back because it wasn’t red or didn’t have a float.”

By the time Cate opened Smuggler’s Cove in 2009, he was making his own orgeat, and eventually used a rum he consulted on, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of 100 percent pot-still Jamaican rum and molasses-based rum from Martinique, that was meant to mimic what Trader Vic used in the early 1950s.

By the mid-2010s, there was an entire tiki bartender army across the United States—Brian Miller, Paul McGee, Garret Richard, Shannon Mustipher, Jelani Johnson—ready to fight for the Mai Tai cause. McGee—who, during early stints in the hospitality business in the ’90s and ’00s, remembers serving Mai Tais made with everything from Crème de Noyaux to amaretto—closely followed the Trader Vic original recipe when he opened the tiki bars Three Dots and a Dash (2013) and Lost Lake (2015), both in Chicago. These considered takes, which lean on a wealth of cocktail knowledge and, of course, rums that were simply unavailable in the preceding decades, have helped restore the Mai Tai to its proper perch as the king of tropical cocktails, a drink once again worthy of contemplation.

Still, some bartenders continue to stray from the straight and narrow. Berry had a Mai Tai just last year made with orgeat derived from avocado pits. “It tasted just as good as that sounds,” he said.

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Tagged: Mai Tai, Tiki