The Mai Tai is, in many ways, the Old-Fashioned of the tiki world—a timeless template whose simplicity is the secret to its success. But that has not stopped ambitious bartenders from stretching the formula to its limits, splitting each component until the five-ingredient drink becomes something far more complicated.
Even at the time of its invention in 1944, the Mai Tai’s popularity was such that the supply of the called-for rum—Wray & Nephew 17-year—quickly dwindled, requiring Trader Vic himself to reformulate several times. At its core, however, the Mai Tai has always been a simple showcase for rum. As Martin Cate explains in senior editor Chloe Frechette’s recently released Easy Tiki, “All the other ingredients are in small, supporting roles.” His faithful version of the classic calls for a full-bodied, “unapologetic” rum to shine alongside Curaçao, lime juice and orgeat.
Keeping the structure of the drink largely intact, Anthony Schmidt, head bartender at San Diego’s False Idol, demonstrates the flexibility of the formula. “The drink can be a fun lesson on building recipes,” he says. “An infinite number of liqueurs can be swapped for the Curaçao, leading to very different results.” This is precisely the approach he takes in his Mai Sha Roa Na, which sees banana liqueur take the place of orange Curaçao, while store-bought macadamia nut syrup stands in for the more common almond-based orgeat.
Taking Schmidt’s riff a step further, Jeremy Oertel’s Bitter Mai Tai plays with the base of the drink. Inspired by another contemporary version that uses Angostura in place of rum, Oertel, who created the drink at Brooklyn’s Dram, ups the bitter quotient in his recipe by dialing back the rum and adding an ounce and a half of Campari for a bitter-leaning, pink-hued riff. Dan Sabo, director of food and beverage at Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles, meanwhile, ditches rum altogether in his Kentucky Mai Tai. As the name suggests, bourbon takes its place, but that’s not the only update Sabo makes to the original. Mezcal, peach liqueur and Cynar make an appearance alongside the expected lemon and orgeat, all to show that there is, in fact, more than one way to Mai Tai.