Trader Vic’s History of the Mai Tai

Let’s Set the Record Straight on the Mai Tai

by Victor J. Bergeron “Trader Vic”
San Francisco, 1970

Earlier this year, a long time friend from Tahiti, Carrie Guild (now Mrs. Howard Wright), sent me a column from a Honolulu newspaper which once again has raised the argument over where the Mai Tai was born and who originated it.

I originated the Mai Tai and have put together a bit of the background on the evolution of this drink, which has earned worldwide identification and acceptance.

There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of this drink. Many have claimed credit, including Harry Owens. The people who now own Trader Vic’s in Honolulu (which at this time has no connection with the Trader Vic operations on the mainland) claimed it was originated in Tahiti …. This aggravates my ulcer completely. The drink was never introduced by me in Tahiti except informally through our good friends, Eastham and Carrie Guild.

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 was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. 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 additions 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. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after.

Half the lime shell went in for color … I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham 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.”

This drink enjoyed great acceptance over the next few years in California and in Seattle when we opened Trader Vic’s there in 1948.

In 1953 the Mai Tai was brought by me to the Hawaiian Islands, when I was asked by the Matson Steamship Lines to formalize drinks for the bars at their Royal Hawaiian, Moana and Surfrider Hotels. Any old Kamaaina can tell you about this drink and of its rapid spread throughout the islands.

In 1954 we further introduced the Mai Tai when we included it among other new drinks in bar service for the American President Lines.

It is estimated that several thousand Mai Tais are served daily in Honolulu alone, and we sell many more than that daily in our eighteen Trader Vic’s restaurants throughout the world. I have let Eddie Sherman, the columnist on the above mentioned Honolulu Star Bulletin, know who originated this drink and think it is time the general public knows that these are the facts of the evolution and growth of the Mai Tai.

In fairness to myself and to a truly great drink, I hope you will agree when I say, “Let’s get the record straight on the Mai Tai.”

The Original Mai Tai

The rum which motivated the creation of the Mai Tai was a fine, golden, medium-bodied Jamaican from Kingston. Trader Vic added fresh lime juice, flavored and sweetened it with Orange Curacao from Holland and French Orgeat with its subtle flavor of almond.

The drink chilled nicely with a considerable amount of shaved ice so a large 15-ounce glass was selected to compliment the cooling and generous quality of the Mai Tai.

The Original Formula

  • 2 ounces of 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice.
  • 1/2 ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao.
  • 1/4 ounce Trader Vic’s Rock Candy Syrup.
  • 1/2 ounce French Garnier Orgeat Syrup
  • Add juice from one fresh lime.

Hand shake and garnish with half of the lime shell inside the drink and float a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.

The success of the Mai Tai and its acceptance soon caused the 17-year-old rum to become unavailable, so it was substituted with the same fine rum with 15 years aging which maintained the outstanding quality.

The Mai Tai Goes Hawaiian

During the early 1950s Trader Vic took the Mai Tai to Honolulu while creating drinks for the Matson Line Hotels. He introduced ten exotic drinks in the Royal Hawaiian’s bar. The Mai Tai caught on and within 30 days everyone had forgotten the other nine.

The supply of 15-year-old rum was becoming less than dependable so several other Caribbean products were tested for the same high qualities of flavor. Red Heart and Coruba were selected to be used in equal quantities along with the original 15-year-old to stretch the supply and maintain the character of the Mai Tai.

A few years earlier the supply of quality French Orgeat had also become uncertain so Henry Smith, who produced vitamins for the Galen Company in Oakland, collaborated with Trader Vic to produce and bottle his own Orgeat.

First Adjusted Mai Tai Formula

  • 1 ounce 15-year old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican Rum
  • 1 ounce Coruba – or Red Heart Jamaican Rum
  • 1/2 ounce Trader Vic Formula Orgeat
  • 1/2 ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao
  • 1/4 ounce Rock Candy Syrup
  • juice from one fresh lime
  • Mix and serve as in the original formula.

The mid 1950s signaled the end of a dependable supply of the 15-year old J. Wray Nephew Rum. 

This fact as well as problems with consistent quality in the other Jamaican London Dock Rums caused Trader Vic to make private arrangements, in the interest of high quality, to blend and bottle a Jamaican rum under his own  label and control. Consistent quality was maintained in both a 15- and 8-year aging.

This rum, though excellent, didn’t exactly match the end flavor of the original 17-year- old product. This desired nutty, and snappy flavor was added by the use of a Martinique rum.

During this period Trader Vic had also changed the original Orange Curacao to one produced by Bols which was more to his liking.

The popularity of the Mai Tai demanded that production on the bars be streamlined. Each individual bar was instructed to pre-mix the Curacao, Orgeat and Rock Candy Syrup in appropriate amounts.

Second Adjusted Mai Tai Formula

  • 1 ounce Trader Vic’s Jamaican Rum (15 or 8 year old)
  • 1 ounce Martinique Rum (St. James or Trader Vic’s)
  • 1 ounce pre-mixed Curacao, Orgeat and Rock Candy Syrup
  • juice from one fresh lime
  • Mix and serve as in the original formula.

By the early 1960’s there were several Trader Vic’s restaurants. The Mai Tai had developed into one of the most known and ordered drinks throughout the world and many people expressed interest in being able to make the Mai Tai at home.

Trader’s son, Victor J. (Joe) Bergeron III, was developing a constantly expanding variety of items from the Food Products Company. With this dynamic facility and the increasing market Trader Vic decided to produce and bottle a total Mai Tai rum and also a Mai Tai flavoring mix under the Trader Vic label. This was to be for restaurant use and also for retail sale.

This rum was made to recapture the characteristics of the original 17-year-old rum. First he skillfully blended Jamaican rums and then added Martinique rum for its elusive and wonderful nutlike flavor and a bit of light Virgin Island rum for the smoothness of body. This combination became the Trader Vic Mai Tai rum as we know it today.

The public palate had become more sophisticated and it became necessary to adjust the sweetness of the Mai Tai by lessening the amount of Mai Tai Mix and adding a touch more lime juice.

This is the formula of the Present Day Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s Restaurants

  • 2 ounces Trader Vic’s Mai Tai rum
  • 4 ounces Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Mix
  • juice of one large lime

Text copyright by Trader Vic’s. Used with permission.