Celebrating The (nearly) Perfect Mai Tai
By Rick Carroll
Bright as a tropical moon, smooth as summer surf, rich as old Lurline passengers, cool and fresh as green limes, the Mai Tai is Hawaii’s favorite drink. One sip and it’s paradise. Or, should be.
On the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Mai Tai, the state of the most popular tropical cocktail in the Pacific is shaky. Most Mai Tais served in Hawaii today are too strong, too sweet and, at $7 and up, too expensive. They are pale imitations of the original.
Some taste like gasoline, others like cough syrup. They burn the throat, produce terrible headaches and generally give Hawaii a bad name. They should be served with a Surgeon General’s warning.
The worst Mai Tais are served in Waikiki. They contain cheap rum, bottled pre-mixes, canned pineapple juice and orange juice concentrate. Weak and syrupy, they look murky in a plastic glass brightened only by a red maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge skewered on a plastic sword. These tacky concoctions have little in common with a real Mai Tai and should be avoided at all costs.
Some variations on the original theme are excellent because they don’t alter the basic ingredients.
The classic Mai Tai is an unforgettable cocktail, an icy Jamaican rum and fresh lime juice drink with a subtle hint of oranges and almonds and a sprig of fresh mint for garnish.
Now, that’s a Mai Tai.
The Mai Tai may be Polynesian in name, but it’s American in origin, created not on a tropical lagoon but on the mudflats of San Franciso’s East Bay in 1944, by a legendary California restaurateur, the late Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic’s fame.
“There’s been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai. And I want to get the record straight,” Bergeron said before he died. “I originated the Mai Tai. Many others have claimed credit. All this aggravates my ulcer completely. Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”
Don the Beachcomber claimed he created the drink but circumstantial evidence favors the Trader, who, in a 1947 book, “The Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (Revised),” told how he originated the Mai Tai in his Oakland restaurant:
“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 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 addition 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.
“I added a generous amount of shaved ice and shook it vigorously by hand to produce the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went into each drink for color and I stuck in a branch of fresh mint.
“I gave the first two to Eastham 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.'”
The Mai Tai became popular at Trader Vic’s restaurants in Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle. In 1953, Bergeron introduced the Mai Tai to Hawaii at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Hotels whose well-heeled guests arrived by Matson Line steamships.
It was the right drink at the right place at the right time.
To celebrate the Mai Tai’s 50th birthday, I went in search of the perfect Mai Tai, no small task since there are more than 6,000 drinking establishments in the islands today. Most serve a Mai Tai, not all of them are mai tai, if you know what I mean.
The decline of the classic Mai Tai began shortly after 1959, when Hawaii became a state and jets cut the flight time from the West Coastto 4.5 hours. Bartenders now had to hustle to serve the big new wave of tourists eager for a taste of the tropics.
“Everybody wanted a Mai Tai,” said Harry K. Yee, former head barman at Hilton Hawaiian Village. “We served them as fast as we could make them.” Made by the gallon, sold by the glass, a Mai Tai cost $1.25 back then. “They are sweeter, bigger, milder and more expensive now,” Yee said. “They are not the same drink.”
Seeking greater profit, Waikiki hoteliers diluted Mai Tais, used cheaper rum and substituted Hawaii’s own pineapple juice for fresh lime juice.
While everyone was snorkeling, the Mai Tai slowly evolved into a sickly sweet, two-rum float with pineapple juice under a pink paper parasol. It began to fade in popularity as a new generation turned to Frozen Margaritas. To punch up the Mai Tai, bartenders added a 151 rum float which made it taste like boat varnish.
By the 1980s, the original version of the Mai Tai could be found in Waikiki only at the Halekulani, which takes great pride in serving classic cocktails by original recipes. New York bartender Danny DePamphillis reintroduced the original Mai Tai at the Moana Hotel in 1986. It was perfect-Trader Vic would have been proud- but at $5.50 its revival was short-lived.
Today, contemporary versions of the original Mai Tai may be found in Hawaii’s finer drinking establishments. If you’re a purist, like me, you will follow the original recipe and make your own. I guarantee it will be-out of this world, the best. Mai tai roa ae.
Trader Vic’s Original Mai Tai
- Pour only 80 proof J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice.
- Add juice from half a fresh lime.
- Some orange curacao.
- A dash of rock candy syrup.
- A dollop of French orgeat.
- Shake vigorously.
- Add a sprig of fresh mint.
Where To Find the Perfect Mai Tai
Where you sip a Mai Tai is almost as important as the ingredients.
This tropical drink always tastes better in a thatch hut on a lagoon with coco palms lining the shore. A great Mai Tai in the Tonga Room of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel is not the same as a great Mai Tai on Waikiki Beach. Here’s my short list of where to find and enjoy the best Mai Tais in Hawaii today:
The search for the perfect Mai Tai ends here at the House Without A Key. It’s as close to the original as you will find in Waikiki. This sophisticated version is comprised of a fine blend of two rums, lemon and lime juice and sweet orange curacao. A purple Vanda orchid adds a splash of color. $7.25.
Jameson’s By The Sea, Haleiwa
Up on Oahu’s north shore, big waves draw surfers from around the world but Mai Tai connoisseurs pack the lanai at Jameson’s at sundown to catch the wave of Mai Tais prepared by head barman Jim Bragaw; the best in Surf City. $5.00
New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel
Go on Aloha Friday when the exotic sounds of Arthur Lyman waft across the golden sand. Ask veteran bartender Clara Nakachi for a classic Mai Tai. Sit under the tree where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote poems to Princess Kaiulani. Take a sip, stare out to sea and wonder, is this not be paradise? $5.75
The Bay Club, Kapalua Bay Hotel & Villas
Maui may be the Chardonnay capital of the Hawaii (all those California wine-bibbers) but you can find a great Mai Tai at the newly renovated Bay Club overlooking Kapalua Bay where head barman James “Kimo” Tagupa knows how to make a good one. $7.25
Ohia Lounge, Kulakoi Hotel & Golf Club
At the end of a hot dusty trail ride on the Molokai Ranch, nothing tastes finer than a Mai Tai in the Ohia Lounge, an airy seaside bar on Hawaii’s biggest white sand beach. Mai Tais taste original here because hardly anything ever changes on Molokai, thank goodness. $5.50
Tahiti Nui, Hanalei
Tahiti Nui got smashed by Hurricane Iniki but its world famous Mai Tai lives on. It’s Auntie Louise Marston’s secret 30-year-old family recipe imported from Tahiti. Only change over the years-no more vanilla beans. The new Nui reopened New Year’s Eve-same place, same Mai Tais, the best on Kauai. $5.00
Shipwreck Bar, Kona Village
Johnno Jacko wrecked his 42-foot schooner on the reef at Kaupulehu in 1959 and stayed on in the islands to build Kona Village. The hull today serves as the Shipwreck Bar where host Fred Duerr still serves the traditional Mai Tai, according to Trader Vic’s recipe. $7.00
About the Author
Rick Carroll is the author of numerous Hawaii books from The Bess Press including Great Outdoor Adventures of Hawaii and the best-selling anthology, Chicken Skin: True Spooky Stories of Hawaii. He is now editing Travelers’ Tales Hawaii, due in the Spring of 1999 from O’Reilly & Associates, San Francisco. A former San Francisco newspaperman, Carroll lives at Lanikai Beach, Hawaii, and still drinks dry martinis, up, with a twist.
Copyright Rick Carroll 1998. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on November 9, 1994. Reprinted here with permission of Rick Carroll