Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months.
Number 10: Wilfred’s Lounge (Napa, CA)
Wilfred’s is one of several new tiki bars that opened in 2021, and is a high-quality destination with a great bar program led by Daniel “Doc” Parks, a fine selection of food, and some well-implemented escapist decor. The Mai Tai features rums from Jamaica and Martinique, but the cocktail is not overpowering with funky flavors that might turn off tiki newbies in Wine Country. It is still quite satisfying, as was the rest of Wilfred’s. Be sure to seek it out.
Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months.
Some of the Mai Tais involve rum substitutions from what the bar would normally serve. This presents the reader with more to consider when visiting these places, but highlights that making spirit substitutions is often what changes a good Mai Tai into a great one. A few of these involved tweaks to the sweet element as well.
For the list, we’ve limited each location to a single entry – otherwise Smuggler’s Cove and Trader Vic’s Emeryville would have dominated the list. So for those places we’ve chosen the best Mai Tai we had there and omitted some other great ones that would have landed further down the list. In both cases, the Mai Tai we chose isn’t the standard issue, but suffice to say that we think their default Mai Tais are pretty great too. Check later in the week to see where the Cove and Vic’s landed.
2021 Top Mai Tais: Honorable Mentions
These Mai Tais all had notable qualities and were enjoyable. If you have the opportunity you should definitely get the Mai Tai!
Here’s the list, more or less in order of preference. Sorry, Kon-Tiki, you just missed the top 10 but you won’t be sad when you see the final list, I assure you.
Tonga Hut Palm Springs “all Coruba and heavy orgeat”
Festivus was the other day and I was thinking that I didn’t really have any grievances to air. The next day I bought this terrible ready-to-drink “craft cocktail” Mai Tai, so let’s call this a late Festivus because I have a lot of problems with this cocktail.
Cans are 8% ABV, so quite a bit less than the Trader Vic’s and Cutwater canned Mai Tais that are in the same market segment. This one isn’t even all rum, since it contains both rum and “neutral spirits.” There is supposedly lime and orange, plus natural flavors and colors.
Does that color look natural?
It’s like Mountain Dew and a Midori Sour had a baby. And it got all the worse genes from each parent.
It is terrible. Like pour out the entire four-pack bad. It definitely would take “feats of strength” to finish one of these.
It doesn’t taste anything like a Mai Tai, and honestly it doesn’t taste like any “craft” cocktail I’ve ever had. Maybe it tastes like cheap Margarita mix and Vodka, so if those are your two favorite cocktail ingredients then maybe Mai Tai Fling will be your thing.
I made some fresh Molasses Syrup to replace the one that was in the back of my fridge for a couple years. I enjoy a few cocktails that use this ingredient, most notably the Pampanito cocktail at Smuggler’s Cove (the recipe is in the book, too). Molasses adds a certain bite to the cocktail that seems appropriate during winter.
I am lazy when it comes to making syrups but this one is pretty easy.
Molasses Syrup: 2 cups Granulated Sugar 2 Tbsp. Mild Molasses 1 cup Hot Water Combine all ingredients and stir until sugar is fully dissolved. Let cool, then bottle.
The Molasses Mai Tai was a riff I tried a couple years ago that I figured would be great, and it turned out better than I expected. This is inspired by the Pampanito, which originally used the same Appleton Reserve 8 rum called for here.
Molasses Mai Tai by Kevin Crossman 1 oz Lime Juice ½ oz Orgeat ¼ oz Molasses Syrup ½ oz Orange Curacao 2 oz Aged Jamaican Rum (Appleton Reserve 8) Combine all ingredients in a shaker with crushed ice. Shake and dump into double rocks glass and garnish with Mint Sprig and reserved Lime shell.
Sunday’s second visit to San Jose’s newest and best tiki bar was another great time. Some Forbidden Island regulars made plans to visit at opening and so we got to experience the bar again with veterans of the tiki bar experience. There were plenty of non-tiki people there, too, so it seems like everyone in San Jose has gotten the memo that Dr. Funk is a big hit.
In addition to the Mai Tai, I tried the original cocktail Sunken Galleon. Ginger isn’t always my favorite flavor, so I asked Ken Wongdejanan about it and he said it was not overpowering. This cocktail featuring Cognac, Jamaican rum, sugar, ginger, and chocolate bitters was quite delightful, and with just a hint of ginger just like I like it. Ken said it took a while to get this cocktail balanced right, so I applaud the effort to develop and lock in such as great tasting drink.
While the bar has been very busy, I have found several bartenders willing to engage in short conversations while mixing or in between orders, often suggesting new cocktails to try. This is a good sign from a hospitality standpoint.
Many of the great bars and restaurants feature a “figurehead” who serves as the master of ceremonies for the venue. Typically this is the owner or the general manager, but at Dr. Funk this role seems to be filled currently by Notch Gonzalez who led the buildout and design. Notch was everywhere on Sunday, talking to basically everyone in the bar and making everyone feel welcome. I don’t know how sustainable this is for the bar (or for Notch himself), but the man deserves a victory lap after helping to launch the bar with such a cool and immersive experience. We also saw some photos of the Dr. Funk logo sign that will hang above the front entrance.
The cocktails and service and vibe at Dr. Funk continue to remain strong, and we can’t wait to return.
We’ve made an update to our list of Top 5 Mai Tais. This is our list of the best standard house Mai Tais, without any tweaks or substitutions.
LONO Hollywood was previously in our number 5 spot, but they haven’t yet reopened after COVID. Plus, we’re so impressed by the Mai Tai at the newly opened Dr. Funk in San Jose that it seems like a perfect time to make a change on the official list. Congrats to Ken Wongdejanan and the entire team from Dr. Funk.
Dr. Funk uses Appleton 12 and Smith & Cross Jamaican rums as the base for their Mai Tai, combining it with house-made Orgeat. The team said they tried several different rum blends, including one featuring a Rhum Agricole, but found that this blend was the best. We agree! The heavier rums from Jamaica add flavor that truly punches through.
I picked up this two-pack of Mount Gay rums at the “bottle shop” at The Kon-Tiki in Oakland and have really enjoyed it. The release is from a few years back and limited to 7200 bottles, but I’m surprised there are still bottles in the market. The release includes two Mount Gay rums made from the same materials, and aged in the same barrels. The difference is that one bottle was distilled in the Copper Double Pot Still and the other in Mount Gay’s Copper Column Still. An included booklet goes into further details about the methods of distillation.
This was really interesting to me, having had more than my fair share of Barbados rums in the last year or two. The ABV for these releases is 43%, so while these aren’t cask strength releases you do gain an appreciation of how the method of distillation truly makes a meaningful difference in the end result. Most notably for me is that when I try each rum just by itself I do taste some of individual flavors that I remember from when I try a blended Barbados rum release from Mount Gay. Both rums are quite good, though the Copper Pot is not nearly as bold and funky as the recent (and much pricer) 48% ABV Pot Still Rum release from Mount Gay (one of my favorite rums). As always, Mount Gay does a good job with the packaging. I think any rum enthusiast would enjoy comparing these two rums, and both have appeal.
As is the tradition here, we made a Mai Tai with these rums. But I was curious if I’d prefer each release on their own, or a blended release with equal parts of each rum. So, it was umtshootout” time and a blind taste test.
Blind taste preference was as follows: First Place: Pot Still Second Place: Blend Third Place: Column
So, I’m still a Pot Still Rum man, but honestly all of these Mai Tais were quite delicious. But the Pot Still just had a deeper and more satisfying flavor.
The 10th most populous city in America finally has a real tiki destination now that Dr. Funk has soft-opened in Downtown San Jose. We visited Tuesday during a soft-open for Tiki Ohana, and we’ve been told that Thursday is the first day open to the general public with next Monday being the official grand opening.
Situated at San Pedro Square, Dr. Funk is an immersive tiki bar with decor buildout by @topnotchkustoms + @m_p_o_r_i_u_m_ and bar program by @kenwongdejanan + @bondtylerbond44. The interior is first class, with seven huts, a long bar, and plenty of tables inside. Outside there are more seats on the tiki patio. There are lots of little nods to the actual doctor named Dr. Funk, including some bubbling potions above the bar. Service was great during our soft-open experience. Food was not yet being served, so stay tuned for further developments.
And the cocktails? FAN-TASTIC.
The namesake cocktail is quite good, leaning into Absinthe which is the signature ingredient. More unexpected was the creamy Dead Man’s Isle featuring Ube, Coconut Creme, and several rums. It had a very unique taste and was a big hit among all who tried it.
And the Mai Tai? Maybe one the best anywhere.
We need more samples before we’re able to add this amazing Mai Tai to our Top 5 worldwide, but it is a very strong candidate. Using Appleton 12 and Smith & Cross Jamaican rums, the Mai Tai was perfectly balanced including a creamy and sweet house-made Orgeat. And, if you’re so inclined, you can order it in a souvenir glass designed by local favorite B-Rex.
After our visit to 55 South, we headed over across the street to Paper Plane, which is doing the Christmas Popup in conjunction with Miracle. Paper Plane has been doing this for a couple years, so their decor is OVER THE TOP. Amazing stuff, and so many lights! Even on a Sunday night this place was packed, though service at the bar did move quickly.
We found the cocktails at “Miracle on 1st” to be excellent, and we want to return to try more. There’s a little bit more of a varied selection than Sippin’ Santa, especially if you’re into Whiskeys and Amaros.
Mrs. Mai Tai had the Jolly Koala, a bright cocktail with Bourbon, Vermouth, Mulled Wine Reduction, and Cacao Nib Aperitif. Plus a cute little Koala to make friends with. This was really great.
I stuck to my wheelhouse and ordered the tropical cocktail named after the catch phrase from everyone’s favorite Christmas movie: Die Hard. The “Yippie Ki Yay, Mother F****r” is a delightful and sweet cocktail with several rums, Ube & Coconut Orgeat, and Pineapple Juice. This one is so easy to sip that I was soon taking off my shoes and feeling the carpet.
The meetup was for members of the “South SF Bay Area Tiki Ohana” group on Facebook. If you’re a local, please join the group for more meetups and local info.