Top 10 Mai Tais of 2019

I had a lot of great Mai Tais in 2019 and it was difficult to pick the top 10. I easily had dozens more worthy of inclusion.

Note that for many of these Mai Tais I am making rum substitutions from what the bar would normally serve. This is both fair to me as a customer (I want the rum I prefer) but also unfair to the bars that serve good but not great Mai Tais and where I didn’t order another Mai Tai made with a specific rum. It also challenges you, dear reader, to think a little bit harder when making a decision about the best places for Mai Tais.

That said, most of the time I’m subbing the readily available and not super expensive Appleton 12 Rare Blend rum. So, it’s not like I’m subbing some obscure and expensive spirit. The point being that I think that ordering a Mai Tai with a specific rum is completely fair game at any bar worth taking your money.

Number 10

Molasses Mai Tai at Fred & Ginger’s Exotic Cocktail Bar and Lounge (San Jose, CA)

This is the only home tiki bar on the list. The Mai Tai was made with Molasses Syrup in place of the simple/rock candy, and the rum was Appleton Reserve. This Mai Tai came out rich and delicious, and Fred & Ginger’s was one of the very cool home tiki bars I visited this year.

Thank you to our hosts Terra Fritch and Alex Fritch.

Number 9

1944 Mai Tai with Appleton 12 at Trader Vic’s Emeryville (Emeryville, CA)

I do like the scratch 1944 Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s and it’s even better when you sub a higher quality rum. And Appleton 12 is my go-to single rum sub.

Why two? Well, there was a mixup when we ordered but I’ll never turn down an extra Mai Tai when it’s as good as this one was. This was before the book signing by Shannon Mustipher the Women of Tiki talk. I also attended the lecture by Beachbum Berry at Vic’s this year. I certainly hope that Trader Vic’s continues to do these kind of events.

We had a great time this year at Trader Vic’s 75th birthday party for the Mai Tai. So many people in attendance but still an outstanding event.

I also celebrated my birthday at Trader Vic’s this year, where we reserved the Trader’s Office for a family brunch. That even coincided with one of the Hawaiian Bazaars, one of the few tiki shopping events here in Northern California (contrast with SoCal which has three or four ever weekend). Long live Trader Vic’s and the 1944 Mai Tai!

Number 8

Mai Tai at Club 33 (Anaheim, CA)

This was a good Mai Tai, but an amazing venue. Thanks to some benefactors, we enjoyed a lunch at the private Club 33 at Disneyland, back in May when this was the only place in the park where alcohol was served. It’s not often you have a three Mai Tai lunch at a park where booze isn’t served. Definitely a unique experience I’ve dreamed for years of experiencing.

The Mai Tai here followed the 1944 formula, and we enjoyed lunch on the first day of their 2019 tiki promotion. Glassware was by San Jose artist, B-Rex.

Number 7

Mai Tai at Forbidden Island (Alameda, CA)

Alameda’s Forbidden Island was one of my most visited tiki bars in 2019, and on one visit I had an incredible Mai Tai made special by Brian Rechenmacher (now at Braise in San Jose) and featuring Smith & Cross rum. It’s always nice when the bartenders get to know your preferences, and Brian put it all together for a fabulous Mai Tai that was superbly balanced. I’ll follow that guy wherever he goes.

I had several memorable visits to Forbidden Island in 2019, including my first time visiting the Parking Lot Sale, a visit on their anniversary (13 years, can you believe it?!?), and the taping of Tiki with Ray Live.

I’m about 20 rums into the rum list at Forbidden Island and something tells me I’ll be spending more time there in 2020.

Number 6

Mai Tai at Lono Hollywood (Los Angeles, CA)

I’m not sure why this place isn’t discussed more. I know it gets very “clubby” later in the evening on weekends, and I know some purists declare this more of a “tropical bar.” But our visit early in the evening midweek was really outstanding. The room was dark and moody, exotica music was playing, and we enjoyed a number of tiki drinks including their signature Curse of Lono cocktail, served flaming.

At Lono they serve a high-quality Mai Tai with Rhum JM, Appleton Signature, Smith & Cross, Coruba, and Lemon Hart 151 rums. Bold and in your face, just like the bartender who served me (Chad Austin – check out his totally NSFW podcast Death of the Party). But he was also more than happy to share the rum blend when I asked.

With great food, service, cocktails, and music I’m definitely willing to overlook a little bit of tropical wallpaper and a couple neon lights. I liked Lono a lot and hope to return soon.

Number 5

Mai Tai at House without a Key at the Halekulani Hotel (Waikiki, HI)

The best Mai Tai in Waikiki is a tweak to the 1944 recipe with more lime, orgeat, and sugar. And Lemon Hart 151 as a float. This is a great Mai Tai with a simple twist.

After all the Pineapple-forward Island Mai Tais I had in Hawaii, it was refreshing to see this variant that looks like one of those but doesn’t contain any juice aside from Lime. Given the higher levels of sugar I think it fits in just fine for most tourists but is a standout for Mai Tai aficionados like us.

The recipe bears repeating and deserves to be widely distributed.

Number 4

Mai Tai with Appleton 12 at Skull & Crown Trading Company (Honolulu, HI)

There are a number of craft cocktail bars in Honolulu who make Mai Tais along the 1944 original recipe. Chief among them is the newly opened tiki bar Skull & Crown Trading Company. This would be a top-notch tiki bar in any city, but benefits from the historical Hawaiian artifacts and antiques that make up the decor. There’s even a mermaid above the bar. Friendly staff and respectful patrons make this a wonderful neighborhood bar, and there’s a lively patio out back.

We tried several cocktails and they were all excellent. So nice to see a tiki bar in Honolulu with cocktails I’d love to drink.

The standard Mai Tai at Skull & Crown comes with rhum agricole and is very good. But this one made just with Appleton 12 was even better. My favorite Mai Tai in Hawaii.

Number 3

National Mai Tai Day Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco, CA)

Smuggler’s Cove held a great event for National Mai Tai Day, which is June 30 and the day when many bars celebrate the cocktail. This is not to be confused with what Trader Vic’s calls “real Mai Tai Day” and is aligned with the cocktail’s birthday on August 30. The Cove event was produced in partnership with Appleton and Wray and Nephew rums, and the Mai Tai came with a wonderfully designed Mai Tai glass.

The Mai Tai itself was made with two parts Appleton Reserve, one part Appleton 12, and one part Wray Overproof. This is a really great way to pump up some of the rich Jamaican flavors (and the ABV) while still maintaining a Mai Tai that’s quite smooth and easily drinkable. Really great Mai Tai.

Number 2

Mai Tai with Appleton 12 at Rhumba (Seattle, WA)

I had a great visit to Rumba in Seattle, one the world’s best rum bars. They have a huge selection, a number of outstanding cocktails, and some flight options too. Well worth seeking out in Seattle.

The standard Mai Tai comes with rhum from Martinique and was great. In fact, it was so good that Ray (Tiki with Ray) immediately ordered one for himself! I could not get Ray to shut up about how good this Mai Tai was (in a good way…). Excellent.

But, by now you should know I preferred the Mai Tai just with Appleton 12. And the Mai Tai with Appleton at Rumba did not disappoint. It was so great. 

Number 1

The Ultimate Mai Tai at The Kon-Tiki (Oakland, CA)

The Mai Tais at Kon-Tiki have gotten better over the years. Maybe their orgeat formula or type of limes has changed. Or maybe the bartenders know I like it a little heavier on the orgeat. But they’ve been made really well regardless. I’ve had a lot of great Mai Tais there, including some where I was trying new rums from their Expedition rum list.

But this one was the best, which isn’t a surprise since it features my own personally selected rum blend: Appleton 12, Smith & Cross, Plantation Xaymaca, and Plantation OFTD. And to me this was the best Mai Tai of 2019 and honestly the best Mai Tai I’ve ever had a commercial venue. Congrats Kon-Tiki, you’re at the top of the list and are the current title holder of Ultimate Mai Tai.

This was served the night I completed the rum list and they made up a special menu to celebrate. I can’t thank the Kon-Tiki team enough for doing the special menu and for making the evening so much fun.