1956 Mai Tai

Another piece of the puzzle. This letter from Trader Vic Bergeron himself was put up for auction several years ago (source: Tiki Central). Owning history is one thing, but understanding it is better.

This recipe differs significantly from the classic 1944 Mai Tai recipe, and Bergeron indicates this is the recipe that’s served both in the stateside Trader Vic’s restaurants but also the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. This recipe seems to predate the widespread use of pineapple juice in the Hawaiian style Mai Tai. 

1956 Mai Tai
Juice of One Lime
Dash of Rock Candy Syrup
Dash of Curacao
Dash of Orgeat
1½ ounces Trader Vic’s Puerto Rican Rum
¾ ounce Myer’s Plantation Punch Rum

Some things are immediately curious to fans of the ubiquitous 1944 recipe. 

The Measurements

“Dash” each of Orgeat, Curacao, and Rock Candy Syrup?

Many of you are familiar with using a “dash” of bitters in a drink and may think that this is an incorrect measurement. It turns out that there is an explanation in the 1972 Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. On page 27, it says that for liquid ingredients such as syrups and juices that 1 dash = ¼ ounce.

Still, that’s quite a bit less Curacao and Orgeat than the ½ ounce measures that are typically used.

For “Juice of one Lime” we know from Bergeron’s 1974 book Rum Cookery & Drinkery that on page 96 that it states that  “Juice of one average Lime = 1 ounce.”

The Rum

The Mai Tai was born with 17 year-old Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum. So, the notes here about using a lighter Puerto Rican rum are quite surprising. In fact, it almost seems like the exact opposite kind of rum that most cocktail enthusiasts desire in a Mai Tai.

But, it is worth noting that it wasn’t any old Puerto Rican rum. It was specifically listed as Trader Vic’s Puerto Rican Rum. That Vic, always selling… But since Trader Vic’s sold both a “Golden Puerto Rican Rum” as well as a “Light Puerto Rican Rum.” It is unclear which Bergeron is recommending. The recommendation is also likely influenced by what the average consumer could easily buy, and so a commonly available Puerto Rican Rum does seem to be a cogent recommendation for a Mai Tai made at home.

The other rum is Meyer’s (sic) Planters Punch Rum. This was quite different than the Myers’s Dark Jamaican Rum you find today, notably in that it was bottled at 97 proof and very likely 100% pot-still. This too was a widely available dark Jamaican rum in the 1950s.

The Adjusted Recipe

Translating everything, we can approximate a 1956 Mai Tai.

For the Puerto Rican rum, let us assume that Vic recommended the Golden rum that has at least some age on it. In this case, choose a lightly aged Puerto Rican or other column still rum. Bacardi Anejo Cuatro, Don Q Gold, and Cruzan Aged would be all be good options.

For the Jamaican rum you’d want rum that is largely pot-still and dark. Getting to 97 proof is somewhat difficult since few rums are sold with that ABV. A recommended combo would be Hamilton Pot Still Black Jamaican Rum (46.5% ABV), along with Coruba Dark Jamaican Rum (40% ABV) to cut down a bit on the ester-forward flavor of the Hamilton. To make the measurement easier, and also keep the ABV a closer to the desired 97 proof, let’s make this 2 parts Hamilton and 1 part Coruba.

1956 Mai Tai – Adjusted for 2020
1 ounce Lime Juice
¼ ounce Rock Candy Syrup
¼ ounce Curacao
¼ ounce Orgeat
1½ ounces Lightly Aged Puerto Rican Rum
½ ounce Hamilton Pot Still Black Rum
¼ ounce Coruba Dark Rum 

Mix in 16 ounce tumbler glass with shaved ice. Drop half a spent lime shell in the glass. Stir and decorate with fresh mint.

The Verdict

This Mai Tai is quite passable. The first thing you notice is that it’s very easy to drink. I had concerns this would be too tart, but my testing proved otherwise. The small half-ounce of Hamilton Pot Still rum is still very forward on the palette, which leads me to believe than the Myers’s Planters Punch rum would have performed similarly back in 1956.

It most certainly isn’t as layered and complex as the 1944 recipe with a more complex rum and higher amounts of Orgeat and Curacao. But I could see that especially in Hawaii that the tourists would down these very easily. It’s a cold, refreshing drink for a hot day, but since this is stirred and not shaken there is less dilution than in a traditional 1944 style Mai Tai.