Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months. The list includes commercial restaurants and bars, plus Mai Tais we had at home tiki bars and events. For this list the rating is solely about what’s in the glass and does not factor in other elements such as ambiance, food, service, or decor.
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.
Summary of the Top 10 of 2023
The best by a mile was the amazing Appleton 17 Legend Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove. That Appleton 17 sure makes a great Mai Tai (and it should, considering the price). Also notable was Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin in two of these – I love the heavy rum with olive and brine notes. Boo Loo uses the same Super Jugoso Orgeat that Kon-Tiki Oakland uses., and Kon-Tiki would have had others but we limit each location to a single entry.
And, yes, whatever they were doing that evening in January at the San Jose Airport Trader Vic’s was nearly perfect. Trailer Happiness in London lived up to the reputation, as did the Buz-Tai. We salute Tiki Tom’s for making our Ultimate Mai Tai the right way, and wish Dr. Funk would make their Mai Tai as good as this one was all the time. The Banyan Mai Tai was served at a treehouse, which shows you can get a great Mai Tai nearly anywhere.
1. Smuggler’s Cove with Appleton 17 2. Mai Tai with Appleton 17, Appleton Rum Event 3. Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport 4. Kon-Tiki Oakland with Saint Benevolence Aged Rum Clairin 5. Banyan Mai Tai at Tiki in Waikiki by Skull & Crown Trading Co. 6. Dr Funk 7. Buz-Tai at Hula Hoops 8. Ultimate Mai Tai at Tiki Tom’s 9. Trailer Happiness 10. Boo Loo Lounge with Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin
I’ve been doing the Top 10 Mai Tais of the Year list for a fewyearsnow, and some years there aren’t a lot of close calls. But in 2023 we had so many great Mai Tais that many of them would have been deep into the top 10 in past years and this year couldn’t crack the list. But they’re nonetheless worth noting and we thank the bartenders and bar owners for making these stellar Mai Tais.
For this list the rating is solely about what’s in the glass and does not factor in other elements such as ambiance, food, service, or decor. Each location only gets one Mai Tai on the list, exceptions for guest cocktails such as the Oaxaca Mai Tai at The Kon Tiki.
Some of the Mai Tais involve rum substitutions from what the bar would normally serve, such as subbing the rum at the Tangaroa Terrance from Bacardi/Coruba to El Dorado 8. 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.
Check the links for additional info about most of these entries.
I do still continue to love Instagram, where even the ads help me with my holiday shopping. Plus all the connecting and commenting on the things we love to share. Check out the fun at @UltimateMaiTai. So, here are the Top Nine Posts for 2023.
Appleton 17 Mai Tai with Martin Cate (497)
Appleton 17 at London event (370)
Napa Museum for Tiki Exhibition (358)
Cocktail Archaeologist Costume meme (348)
Trad’r Sam’s iconic sign (309)
Ultimate Mai Tai at Royal Tot (294)
World’s Worst Mai Tai at Make & Drink studio (268)
Tonga Room (266)
Legendary Mai Tai on Make & Drink channel (262)
So, what I’m hearing is that y’all were pretty interested in Appleton 17 Legend rum this year. Seems like you’ve chosen the correct feed for all your Mai Tai minutia.
Top Nine says I had 29,600 likes on 244 posts, an average of 121 per post, so thank you all for the likes. I’m in the “top 1% of accounts with up to 5000 followers,” so the goal next year is to be a smaller fish in a bigger pond.
The holiday season continues in downtown San Jose where two holiday cocktail pop-ups are still pulling in revelers. Both Sippin’ Santa and Miracle offer a variety of festive cocktails along with interesting and fun glassware that’s available for sale.
We started at 55 South for Sippin’ Santa, the tiki-themed holiday pop-up produced with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. The new cocktail and mug this year is Sharkey’s First Christmas, featuring vodka, aquavit, melon and walnut liqueur, lime and pineapple juices. Mrs. Mai Tai thought this was pretty good and I have to agree it was a nice twist and the mug is pretty good too. I had Sippin’ Santa cocktail that has Demerara rum, amaro, lemon, orange, and gingerbread mix – an all time favorite mug and the cocktail is always great too.
The team at 55 South did a good job with the drinks and decor again this year, though the music for our experience was a Sade playlist followed by mid-1950s rock ‘n roll hits. So, not really the holiday vibe. We arrived early and the crowd was sparse, but grew later in the evening.
Miracle on 1st is at Paper Plane across the street and continues to impress. The decor is elaborate here, and we found the service at the bar to be quite efficient and super friendly. I was driving and asked for something non-alcoholic and received a very nice juicy highball that was fantastic. Mrs. Mai Tai had the excellent Marshmallows & Unicorns, the complex cocktail with gin, several liqueurs, lemon, egg white, bitters, and cardamon. Our friends really liked their Carol Barrel and Hot Buttered Rum, two Miracle standouts. Crowds grew during our visit and there was a line when we left, so go early if you can.
Miracle has a larger cocktail menu than Sippin’ Santa and the more varied options seem offer something for everyone. Sippin’ Santa added a holiday spritz this year but we think the smaller menu is a deterrent for many potential patrons. Adding a couple more cocktails would help for 2024.
Shipwrecked is a new bar in Davis, down the highway from Sacramento and home of the University of California. Located downtown, there’s a lot to like and some gripes that may or may not be considered nitipicky. This is a bar only, though they do mention that outside food is welcome. Pirates are a key thematic aspect to this “tiki bar,” because every new tiki bar opening this year seems to feature pirates.
There are three distinct areas inside. The entrance is a beach themed area with some tables, huts, a few very cheap tikis (including some plastic ones). You can order at the bar from here. Going down the hallway, there’s a lounge section that’s nautical themed including a nice photo op stop, giant squid arms made from metal, and some granite tiled walls. The last section is a series of booths that are nominally themed as pirate jails, plus more pirate decor including a room with artifacts. The decor is more fun than fully immersive, but is pretty nice given intended scope and audience. Music on a Sunday afternoon featured gloomy classic rock and mood music.
The cocktail menu features 30 items and has something for everyone. The Mai Tai is okay, though I didn’t really get the complex rum notes I’d have expected from the combo of Appleton Signature, Clement VSOP, OFTD, and Smith & Cross. Mrs. Mai Tai’s Banana Boat Bliss leans on coconut, pineapple ice cream, and cachaca and we thought it tasted great and was easy to drink.
For a college town bar, Shipwrecked is fairly large and I’m sure a lot of fun, though prices aren’t inexpensive. Had they simply left “tiki bar” off their name I’d give them less grief about the dearth of quality tikis, but as it stands they do need to do better in the opinion of this writer. Someone spent money on the build-out, so the plastic tikis really stand out in a bad way. Still, definitely worth visiting.
Grotto sectionMai Tai and Banana Boat BlissDitch the Plastic Tikis, pleaseFijian Mermaid
Not the most traditional Christmas cocktail, but with the new green glaze I think the Suffering Bastard Mug is a perfect vessel. In order to prepare the cocktail we need to make some decisions about the ingredients.
The Trader Vic’s Suffering Bastard is very different from Joe Scialom’s original from the World War II era, and is basically a larger and boozier Mai Tai.
This is the recipe from Trader Vic’s 1972 Bartenders Guide Revised and from 1974’s Rum Cookery and Drinkery. Noteworthy that it specifically calls for an aged Rhum Agriole. But what’s missing? The lime, for one.
Suffering Bastard (1970s) 3 oz Trader Vic’s Mai Mix 1 oz Light Puerto Rican Rum 2 oz Rhum St. James Shake with ice and garnish with spent lime shell, mint, fruit stick, and cucumber
The same books list the Mai Tai as using 2 oz each of Mai Tai Mix and Trader Vic’s Mai Tai rum, so we must assume the lime is incorporated into the Mai Tai mix. As for the blend of Orange Curacao and Orgeat, I thought I’d try the ratio used for the 1958 Mai Tai from the Trader Vic’s in Havana, 12 parts Curacao to 7 parts Orgeat, and make 2 oz of this mix to go with the 1 oz of lime. I don’t have any Rhum St. James but substituted Clement VSOP Rhum that’s also from Martinique. Plus Trader Vic’s Light Rum from Puerto Rico.
Christmas Suffering Bastard 1 oz Lime Juice ¾ oz Orgeat (Latitude 29) 1¼ oz Orange Curacao (Ferrand) 1 oz Trader Vic’s Light Rum 2 oz Rhum St. James (sub Clement) Shake with ice and garnish with spent lime shell, mint, fruit stick, and cucumber (if you have one)
This was very satisfying. You certainly get a bit of that aged and grassy taste from the Clement, but it is balanced well by the subtle sweetness of the Mai Tai mix blend. The use of the light rum softens the edges of the Martinique rhum and keep this as the boozy cocktail it was meant to be.
Had a fabulous lunch with friends at Brewsters Beer Garden in Petaluma. This vast space was completely covered in holiday decorations and despite the name does have a strong cocktail program as well. So, the inclusion of the cocktail-focused pop-up from Miracle is not unexpected.
Saturday was unusually warm, which might have swelled the crowds and made it seem like everyone in the city was at Brewsters. But the effectiveness of the staff meant that our drinks and food came out quite quickly and prepared expertly. The food here leans on brisket and ribs, plus salads and sandwiches.
Brewsters does Miracle a little differently by including a couple of original cocktails on their menu that aren’t seen at other Miracle pop-up locations. We really loved Cappy’s World Famous Eggnog. Normally “world famous” in the title is a red-flag but indeed this was some really great nog, and plenty boozy thanks to the Smith & Cross overproof rum. There’s also The Krampus featuring Tequila, Sherry, and Mezcal – and served in a unique Krampus mug that’s also for sale. Miracle cocktail favorites are available too, including the wonderfully spicy and completely delicious Carol Barrel.
As with other Miracle locations, mugs, glassware, and other merch is for sale. You can even buy to-go bottles of Cappy’s World Famous Eggnog.
Brewsters has been doing Miracle for several years and have the routine down pat. Be sure to check out now through January 2nd, reservations recommended.