I visited 52 unique tiki bars in 2019, and had dozens of Mai Tais on a Hawaiian vacation. Needless to say that 2020 was a different kind of year, but we still have ten Mai Tais we want to highlight as the year’s best.
As with last year, some of the Mai Tais involve rum substitutions from what the bar would normally serve. This presents the reader with more to consider when visiting these places, but highlights that making spirit substitions is often what changes a good Mai Tai into a great one. Considering that most of my 2020 retail cocktails were the to-go variety, getting a fresh Mai Tai or asking for a top-shelf spirit was much more difficult this year. We hope to return to more of a normal pattern in 2021.
Mai Tai with Mount Gay XO at The Vesper (Campbell, CA)
This craft cocktail bar and restaurant has a very nice rum selection, so I chose Mount Gay over the default and I was quite happy with this balanced Mai Tai.
Mai Tai at Forbidden Island (Alameda, CA)
Cocktails are always better when the bartenders know your preferences. Such was the case at Forbidden Island where we visited their tiki patio shortly after re-opening and were so pleased by the hospitality that we missed after months of to-go cocktails. I was pleasantly surprised when my Mai Tai was delivered by John Peterson with “extra orgeat,” even though I didn’t specify it when ordering. It was a great well-rounded Mai Tai that included the noticeable almond sweetness that I prefer in this cocktail.
1944 Mai Tai with Appleton Reserve at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar (Anaheim, CA)
The date was March 8. Less than 10 days later everything would be shut down, but on this day I wandered into Trader Sam’s after a great Sunday morning at Disney California Adventure park. Unlike the evening two days earlier, Sam’s wasn’t at capacity and I was able to relax with a cocktail. It’s to the credit of the Trader Sam’s bartenders that they are eager to accommodate, especially when things aren’t crazy inside. Skipper Will made me a traditional 1944 Mai Tai made with simple syrup rather than the Sam’s standard agave syrup, along with Appleton Reserve Jamaican rum. This was the best Mai Tai I’ve ever had a Trader Sam’s.
Coruba / Hamilton 86 Mai Tai at Fred & Ginger’s Exotic Cocktail Bar and Lounge (San Jose, CA)
My house Mai Tai blend is a mix of Jamaican and Demerara rums, so it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this blend of Coruba Jamaican rum and Hamilton Demerara rum while enjoying front-yard cocktail hour with our friends the Fritchs. Their home bar is amazing and while we didn’t step inside, Terra Fritch still made an incredible Mai Tai.
Appleton 12 Mai Tai at Rum Sugar Lime (Reno, NV)
We were tipped that this was the place for great cocktails in Reno, so we had a short visit on a weekend getaway. The standard-issue Mai Tai from Rum Sugar Lime is very good, but I ordered a second one to-go. Everything was packaged nicely, including some fine crushed ice, and I prepared the cocktail in the hotel room. A truly outstanding Mai Tai made with Appleton 12 Jamaican rum, my favorite rum and go-to Mai Tai rum sub.
Buz-Tai at Hula Hoops (South San Francisco, CA)
Hula Hoops has a strong cocktail program, including this Mai Tai riff developed local tikiphile Buz Deadwax. The Buz-Tai has three kinds of rum and adds a little Allspice liqueur. It is a bold and brash Mai Tai riff, and this to-go cocktail traveled great and tasted wonderful.
Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco, CA)
In early February, I landed at the Cove due to unexpected circumstances and had a great Mai Tai along with an evening of rum tastings. On my previous visit in late 2019 I was disappointed that they changed their orange curaçao, so I was so pleased for the return to normalcy in 2020. Sadly, this was my last visit to the Cove pre-COVID. Smuggler’s Cove includes Denizen Merchant’s Reserve rum and wonderful house-made Orgeat. It has been my go-to for Mai Tais in San Francisco for many years.
Mai Tais at Gar Woods Grill and Pier (Carnelian Bay, CA)
Mrs. Mai Tai and I had a weekend away and ate lunch on Lake Tahoe on the sunny back patio at Gar Woods. This is one of the few places where you can get an officially licensed Trader Vic’s Mai Tai and the cocktails were fantastic. I tried the “Trader Vic’s Mai Tai” (made with Mai Tai Concentrate) as well as the scratch “1944 Mai Tai” and both tasted like they were made by the Trader. With the calm lake waters lapping nearby along with fresh mountain air, this was the most relaxing Mai Tai of the year.
Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s (Emeryville, CA)
Mai Tai Day in August was crazy in 2019 for the 75th anniversary of the Mai Tai, so 2020 was bound to be a smaller event. But even with COVID we were able to celebrate in the Trader Vic’s outdoor space with a special internet-based toast to Trader Vic and the Mai Tai. Mai Tais came packaged in custom Mason Jars, too. I had a lot of Trader Vic’s Mai Tais in 2020, before and during COVID. But none tasted as good as this one that somehow was chilled and balanced to perfection.
The Last Ultimate Mai Tai at The Kon-Tiki (Oakland, CA)
For the second year in a row, my best Mai Tai was at The Kon-Tiki. In early March, we said goodbye to bartender Terry Six as he left the bar to move to Southern California. For one last time I got have the Ultimate Mai Tai made by Terry. This was number one in 2019 when it was on the menu the night I completed the Kon-Tiki Rum Expedition, and was made the way that Terry knows I love it – thank you again. Made with Appleton 12, Plantation Xaymaca, Plantation OFTD, and Smith & Cross rum – along with heavy orgeat – this was the best Mai Tai I’ve ever had.
Walnut Creek Yacht Club (Walnut Creek, CA), Craftsman Bar (Anaheim, CA), Smith and Cross Mai Tai at Eagle’s Nest (San Jose, CA)