by David Bartell
“Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”
– Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, about the Mai Tai
Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Lawrence Welk called him “Mister Hawaii”. Hilo Hattie called him “Papasan”. Trader Vic called him a “dirty stinker”. His name was Harry Owens, and he was in good company. Who was this luminary, and who were his famous cohorts? Were they really dirty stinkers, or just sturdy drinkers? Did they create the Mai Tai, or did they merely reverse-engineer the drink?
Born in Nebraska in 1902, Harry Owens lived in Hawaii for decades as the director of the Royal Hawaiians, official orchestra of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. He was beloved by generations of Hawaiians. He wrote hundreds of radio and television scripts, and had his own TV show on CBS for nine years. He was a decorated statehood activist for the prematurely-titled 49th State. (Alaska beat Hawaii to the title.)
But his greatest legacy is his music, which sings for itself. Harry wrote hundreds of Hawaiian songs, including many of the best ever — “Sweet Leilani”, “To You, Sweetheart, Aloha”, “Hawaiian Paradise”, “Hawaii Calls”— as well as some novelty numbers, “Princess Poo-poo-ly has Plenty Papaya”, and “The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai”. “Sweet Leilani” was Bing Crosby’s first gold record, and won an Oscar as Best Song for 1937.
In his autobiography, Sweet Leilani, the Story Behind the Song, (1970, Hula Horse) Owens tells his story of the Mai Tai. It happened in 1954, about the time the real Leilani, Owens’ daughter, was married.
Harry heard Jack Narz, a great announcer whose singing career never made him famous, follow the likes of Johnny Carson in promoting United Air Lines flights to Hawaii for sponsor Regal Pale Beer. United had a new “Dawn to Dusk” flight from New York to Hawaii, via San Francisco. Harry traded a seat on the propeller plane for a series of over-the-top plugs on his TV show, and found himself in the 49th State with 50 other celebrities.
Among these folks were Pat Patterson, the president of United, his VP and assistant Bob Johnson, and John Daly, a broadcaster. War crime writer Horace Sutton was there, and New York gossip columnist Leonard Lyons. Lyons wrote about such icons as Hemingway and Churchill, and was a familiar of the likes of Joe DiMaggio and FDR’s cabinet.
The most familiar name in the crowd is probably James Michener, who had won the Pulitzer several years before for Tales of the South Pacific. His first epic, Hawaii, would not appear for several more. (His Return to Paradise and Rascals in Paradise are charming, underrated books, replete with tales of tropical libation.)
But Owens’ chief accomplice in dirty stinking was an author named Andrew Geer, who wrote war books with nautical themes. While lounging at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Surf Bar one morning, Geer mentioned a “terrific rum drink called a Maitai” he had tasted on a recent excursion in Tahiti. Owens had just “sampled a couple” of the same at a Polynesian Society luau. A Tahitian musician named Augie Goupil made the drinks and then departed for his home island.
Note that these gentlemen did not claim to invent the Mai Tai. The potion had clearly traveled far already, as had its reputation. The Tahitian connection is plausible, as “mai tai” is Tahitian for “the best”. So if these men were stinkers, we have at least established that they were not particularly dirty ones.
The Gods’ Favorite Nectar
At 9 am a bartender named Kawika was summoned, but he had never heard of a Mai Tai. If the Mai Tai had floated across the Pacific, it was not yet universal. According to Owen’s book, Geer then made the following proclamation:
“You’re about to witness the re-creation of the Gods’ favorite nectar, the rare ambrosia from faraway South Pacific atolls. Here this: It has been written that King Pomare, last of the Ali’i of Tahiti, was the first person to savor the superb elegance of this glorious libation. And then, one day, on the island of Bora Bora – better known today as Bali Hai – great Pomare offered a Maitai to Bloody Mary. Then another – and still another. . . . Magically, she was turned into a great dramatic actress. She grabbed off a leading role in a James Michener movie.”
The veracity of these facts may be jiggered. The movie South Pacific was still years from becoming reality, though the stage version had won the story a second Pulitzer in 1950. (Incidentally, Bloody Mary got her name not from the drink but from the crimson spittle on her chin, from the narcotic betel nut she chewed on. Has such an ingredient ever been used in a tropical beverage?)
Kawika was thereafter dispatched to assemble the following chemistry: four or five varieties of good rum, fancy liqueurs, pineapple sticks, maraschino cherries, orange, mint, and ice. He returned with two assistants and two large old-fashioned glasses. The quintet went to work.
Two ounces each of light and dark rum, an ounce of Cointreau, an equal measure of passion fruit, another of brandy, a pineapple stick, cherry, and the signature mint sprig.
“It looked great!” writes Owens. “It was terrible!”
Substitute Curacao for brandy. Better. Owens wracked his brain to remember what sugar syrup had the taste of ginger, burnt almonds and lime. Substitute Falernum for Cointreau. Better still, and just in time, as a dozen VIPs had joined them. Michener recalled something about orange flowers, which was the missing link: orgeat. After about ten attempts the recipe was perfected, and the party had grown to 50. United Air paid the bar tab, and the next day the hotel printed the final formula and footnote on its menu:
- 2 ounces dark rum
- 2 ounces light rum
- Dash of sugar syrup
- 1 ounce Orange Curacao
- Dash of Falernum
- Dash of Orgeat syrup
- Add 1 pineapple stick
- Add 1 maraschino cherry
- Add sprig of mint
- Float dark 101 rum on top
- Add stick of raw sugar cane to be used as a swizzler.
- When you have trouble singing the first four bars of “Sweet Leilani”, you’ve had enough Maitais.
My Tai or Yours?
Trader Vic’s autobiography came three years later. A Mai Tai is still called “a dirty stinker” in drink menus across America. Old Harry’s narrative never mentions Trader Vic, but it at once boasts and disclaims credit for the original creation of the Mai Tai: “In the years to come, the world learned to love this Geer-Owens re-creation.” (Italics added.)
It is prudent to recall that though the Mai Tai is purportedly a drink of the South Pacific, neither Owens nor Bergeron were islanders. Another Owens friend, steel guitar legend Sol K. Bright (three ounces Hawaiian blood, one ounce Castilian) explains the complexities of such “haole” recipes with one of his clever if outworn caricatures, a “learned Chinese man”:
“All Amelicans clazy!
Take, for exOMple,
Haole Amelican man preparing tea.
He take glass, prace tea inside,
add steaming watah to make it hot.
Then he add ice to make it cold.
He put in sugah to make it sweet.
Then he add lemon to make it sour.
He pick up glass, extend it forward as if to give,
saying: ‘Here’s to you!’
Then, SONAKABEECH, himself drink ‘em.
All Amelicans clazy!”
(c) 1999 by David Bartell