August 30th is National Mai Tai Day. To celebrate and recognize this day, we’re diving deep into the vibrant history of the Mai Tai, a tropical delight that’s as tempting as it is intriguing. So grab your favorite Mai Tai glass and embark on this flavorful journey!
The Birth of a Tropical Classic
The origins of the Mai Tai are steeped in mystery, with two towering figures, Trader Vic (Victor Jules Bergeron) and Donn Beach (Don the Beachcomber), claiming its creation. However, Trader Vic’s version, unveiled at his Oakland, California restaurant in 1944, captured the world’s imagination. In 1970, an article was released quoting Trader Vic of him “setting the record straight.”
Crafting the perfect blend of aged rum, lime juice, orange curaçao liqueur, orgeat syrup (a sweet almond-flavored syrup his mother used in her cooking), and simple syrup, Trader Vic created a drink that transported its drinkers to a tropical paradise.
The Original Formula by Trader Vic Bergeron, 1944
2 ounces of 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice
½ ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao
½ ounce French Garnier Orgeat Syrup
¼ ounce Trader Vic’s Rock Candy Syrup
Add juice from one fresh Lime
The Name That Shook the World
The name “Mai Tai” has an enchanting story behind it. Upon tasting the drink, one of Vic’s friends from Tahiti exclaimed, “Mai Tai – Roa Ae,” which translates to “Out of This World – The Best.” And so, the Mai Tai got its fitting name.
He proclaimed in an interview in 1970 that, “In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks; martinis, manhattans, daiquiris …. All basically simple drinks.
I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium-bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends.
The flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after.
I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night.
Carrie took one sip and said, “Mai Tai – Roa Ae”. In Tahitian this means “Out of This World – The Best.” Well, that was that. I named the drink “Mai Tai.”
A Global Sensation
The Mai Tai’s popularity skyrocketed so much that it supposedly depleted world rum supplies in the 1940s and ’50s. This was particularly true for the aged Wray & Nephew expression, a key ingredient in the original recipe.
The Evolution of an Iconic Recipe
Over the years, the Mai Tai recipe underwent several transformations. Some bars in Hawaii and elsewhere started adding pineapple, mango, and other fruit juices to their versions. While these twists offer their own charm, they stray from the Mai Tai’s authentic essence as Trader Vic envisioned. (Below is an image of a non-traditional Mai Tai.) Since the 17-year-old Wray & Nephew was no longer available, many bars converted to a blend of rums, including a slightly younger Jamaican rum and an Agricole rum.
Cultural Significance and the Tiki Movement
In the early 1950s, Trader Vic brought the Mai Tai to Honolulu while concocting beverages for the Matson Line Hotels. He debuted ten unique drinks at the bar of the Royal Hawaiian. Among these, it was the Mai Tai that truly captivated the patrons. The other nine drinks were overshadowed within a month as the Mai Tai became the most popular.
Beyond its delightful taste and presentation, the Mai Tai played a pivotal role in the mid-century tiki movement. As Americans yearned to escape from everyday life, tiki-themed bars sprang up across the country, offering a slice of paradise within city limits.
Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, with its exotic flavors and captivating allure, became the centerpiece of this cultural phenomenon. It embodied the spirit of adventure, the fascination with the exotic, and the sheer joy of savoring life’s pleasures.
Raise Your Glass to the Legend
As we toast to National Mai Tai Day, let us honor the rich legacy of this timeless cocktail. We hope you’re enjoying one of Trader Vic’s classic Mai Tais. So here’s to the Mai Tai, a cocktail that continues to captivate with its tropical charm and vibrant history. May it continue to transport us to sun-soaked beaches and swaying palm trees, one sip at a time!
UnderTow’s Mai Tai Recipe
1.00 oz Lime Juice
0.75 oz Almond Orgeat
0.50 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
1.00 oz Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
1.00 oz Rhum J.M VSOP Agricole Rhum
Technique: Add all ingredients to a shaker, and add ice. Shake for 12-15 seconds—double strain over fresh ice into a Rocks glass. Garnish with a mint sprig.