After years in the wilderness, when the drink ranked at best as a has-been—a faint memory of a more carefree, fun-filled drinking era—and at worst as a liquid punch line, the Mai Tai has finally come home.
Jelani Johnson, most recently of Clover Club, and a tiki torchbearer of note, agreed. “I think it’s timeless,” he said. Austin Hartman, owner of the tropical bar Paradise Lounge in Ridgewood, Queens, where the tasting was held, appended that: “A timeless, but unsung, hero.”
The drink certainly wasn’t unsung that day. The three tiki titans, joined in the judging by me and PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette, spent two hours delving into the finer points of the cocktail. So, what makes for a good Mai Tai? Turns out, a good many things.
“It’s supposed to be dry, but it should have body,” explained Johnson. “It should showcase the rum. It should have a good backbone of almond-y, syrupy fat, and it should be refreshing.”
“Rum. Weight. Dryness,” agreed Hartman, distilling Johnson’s assessment down to CliffsNotes size.
The twin garnishes of mint and lime, too, were important. “Your nose should be buried in that mint,” said McGee, while pointing out that the herb is strictly there for the nose’s benefit. “There’s no mint in the drink. It’s exclusively aromatic.”
A classic Mai Tai is often topped by the spent hull of a lime that has just surrendered its juices to the drink. Many bartenders shake the drink with the lime shell, believing it adds a little something extra flavor-wise. McGee called the first time he shook with the lime shell “revelatory. It added to the drink.”
A bed of crushed ice was important to most of the judges, who believed that the drink needed to stay cold, and that dilution led to a desirable evolution of the flavors. (Frechette and I, living our lives on the other side of the bar, respectfully disagreed. We preferred to enjoy the drink while it was fresh, cold and potent.)
Unexpectedly, given the Mai Tai’s status as a long-standing classic, and all the adjustable parts in the drink—two rums, orgeat, simple syrup, lime juice, Curaçao and mint—the panelists did not think the cocktail lent itself to variations and modern spins. The submitted recipes reflected this stance. Where past “ultimate” tastings staged by PUNCH have typically included a few curveball entries and outright losers, the ten Mai Tais largely hewed to the classical model.
“It’s a hard drink to riff on because it’s so solid,” said Johnson. “The only thing you can riff on is the choice of orgeat and choice of rums.”
Of course, choosing those rums—one Jamaican, one Martinique, according to Trader Vic’s original 1944 recipe—is critical. (Though the battle over authorship of the drink is long and tangled, no one on the panel disputed Victor Bergeron’s claim of ownership. “It has his stamp all over it,” declared McGee.) Following Vic’s original formula, however, is not an option, as he used 17-year-old Wray & Nephew as his Jamaican rum, a potion no longer available.
“For me it all comes down to the rum,” said Johnson, “because you’re trying to create this rum that none of us have ever had.” Hartman opined that neither of the two rums in the recipe should dominate, but that the drink should represent “a beautiful marriage of the two rums.”
Not surprisingly, the ten competing recipes called for many different bottlings, the most common ask being various expressions of Appleton Estate.
All were acceptable expressions of the drink, and most were downright pleasing. Still, when the ninth of the ten selections arrived, it was greeted with a unanimous chorus of “oohs,” “aahs” and “yums.” The contest was over.
This was the Mai Tai of bartender Garret Richard. It had richness, flavor to burn and personality. You could taste each and every one of the ingredients, and also, the panel suspected, a little something else. They weren’t wrong. Richard added five drops of saline to a mix that including one ounce of lime juice, ¾ ounce Latitude 29 orgeat (specifically made for the New Orleans bar Latitude 29), ¼ ounce Grand Marnier, ½ ounce Clément Créole Shrubb (a blend of agricole rhums, Créole spices and bitter orange peels), ¾ ounce Coruba Jamaican rum, 1 ½ ounces of Denizen Merchant’s Reserve and the aforementioned spent lime wedge.
Denizen also had a starring role in the drink that came in at number two—the recipe from Martin Cate of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove. In fact, Cate consulted on the production of Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of eight-year-old Jamaican pot-still rum and molasses-based rhum grande arôme from Martinique, with the aim of creating a spirit faithful to Trader Vic’s formula. Joining two ounces of the rum in the drink were ½ ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, ½ ounce of Smuggler’s Cove’s own orgeat, ¼ ounce of the bar’s “Mai Tai rich simple syrup” and ¾ ounce lime juice. It was deemed a benchmark Mai Tai, though less dry than numbers one and three.
Third place went to one of the judges, Jelani Johnson, who offered a combination of 1 ½ ounces of Appleton Estate 12 Year Rum, ½ ounce Rhum JM Blanc 100, ¼ ounce Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve Jamaican rum; 1 ounce lime juice, ½ ounce Clément Créole Orange Shrubb, ¼ ounce of the Brooklyn-made Orgeat Works T’Orgeat, ¼ ounce Orgeat Works Latitude 29 orgeat and a teaspoon of 2:1 rich cane-sugar syrup. The judges found a fruity abundance of mint, lime and orange in the glass and a long finish.
All three winning drinks answered the panel’s collective Mai Tai needs, leaving the judges in a blissed-out reverie in which they kept sipping at the winning drinks long after the contest was over. Even Tom Roughton, the bartender who prepared all the cocktails, joined in on the lovefest.
“It’s like sour rum nut candy,” he said, helping himself to another sip.