Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months.
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 substitutions is often what changes a good Mai Tai into a great one.
For the list, we’ve limited each location to a single entry – otherwise Smuggler’s Cove and Trader Vic’s Emeryville would have dominated the list. So we’ve chosen the best Mai Tai we had at each location and omitted some other great ones that would have landed further down the list. In both cases, the Mai Tai we chose isn’t the standard issue, but suffice to say that we think their default Mai Tais are pretty great too.
I’ll further note that the Mai Tais at Smuggler’s Cove have all been excellent this year. Not “fine” or “good”, but truly excellent. They continue to be on our list of Top 5 Mai Tais served anywhere.
Honorable mention: The Kon-Tiki, Tiki Tom’s, Tonga Hut Palm Springs, The Cellar, Tangaroa Terrace, Three Dots and a Dash, The Reef, Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport, Forbidden Island, Bamboo Club, Ketch.
Wilfred’s Lounge (Napa, CA)
Wilfred’s is one of several new tiki bars that opened in 2021, and is a high-quality destination with a great bar program led by Daniel “Doc” Parks, a fine selection of food, and some well-implemented escapist decor. The Mai Tai features rums from Jamaica and Martinique, but the cocktail is not overpowering with funky flavors that might turn off tiki newbies in Wine Country. It is still quite satisfying, as was the rest of Wilfred’s. Be sure to seek it out.
Undertow (Phoenix, AZ)
We finally made it to Undertow, which has a reputation for immersive decor and a very strong craft cocktail orientation. The drinks at Undertow were all outstanding, including their Mai Tai with creamy orgeat. The spirits in this Mai Tai include Smith & Cross Rum, Rhum JM VSOP, and Cointreau Noir, a combination that we loved.
Foundation with Appleton 12 (Milwaukee, WI)
We really dug the decor and layout of Foundation, a neighborhood bar that had a tiki makeover a few years ago. I thought their standard Mai Tai was pretty good, but the one made with just Appleton 12 rum was even better. We’re so glad we were able to include Foundation on our road trip and even got to visit on “National Mai Tai Day” on June 30.
Lilikoi Mai Tai at Pacific Catch (Dublin, CA)
We were more surprised than anyone that we dug this Mai Tai at West Coast restaurant chain Pacific Catch. They did a special tiki menu for summer in 2020 and delivered a similar “Endless Summer” menu this year, including this Mai Tai. Regular readers know that Island Mai Tais are not exactly my thing, but the Pacific Catch Lilikoi Mai Tai was fabulous. I truly loved it and ordered a second that was just as good. The cocktail featured Flor de Cana Silver, Wray & Nephew Overproof, passionfruit, “house mai tai mix,” and a Lahaina dark rum float. This certainly leaned more to the sweet side rather than the tart side, but it wasn’t overpowering with fruit like most Island Mai Tais are.
Premium Mai Tai by Doc Parks at Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Day (Emeryville, CA)
The annual Mai Tai Day celebration was held in the parking lot and featured several cocktail stations. My favorite of the day was the “Premium Mai Tai” made by Daniel “Doc” Parks and Adrián Castañeda using Appleton 12, Clement VSOP, and Doctor Bird. So flavorful, as you’d expect when you use three high-quality aged rums. The funky Doctor Bird can add so much to a Mai Tai even when used in small proportions.
The Kon-Tiki Room at Palmetto (Oakland, CA)
The “outpost” Kon-Tiki location attached to Palmetto restaurant opened this year, adding another tiki bar to the Bay Area’s stellar lineup. The Kon-Tiki Room Mai Tai is made with Jamaican and Martinique rums, and definitely leans towards the funkier side. Quite savory in initial flavor, with a sweeter finish that’s tastes rich. It seems that they use a different recipe than the original Kon-Tiki location, so I’m solid in declaring The Kon-Tiki Room Mai Tai the best in the city. Check it out the next time you’re in Uptown for a show at the Fox Theater or just to enjoy some cocktails.
San Francisco Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s (Emeryville, CA)
The SF Mai Tai is a standard Vic’s Mai Tai with a float of 151 rum. I love the flavors of the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, including the freshly squeezed lime on top, but the the 151 rum adds additional complexity and flavor to the cocktail, besides being extra boozy. So while I do enjoy the standard 1944 Mai Tai, the SF Mai Tai is now my go-to. We had a lot of great Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s this year, including some specially prepared with some exotic rums from the well-stocked back bar. Bartenders are friendly and never balk at the rum substitution. Vic’s hosted several special events this year including merchandise partnerships with Shag and Sven Kirsten.
Dr. Funk (San Jose, CA)
San Jose finally got the world-class tiki bar that it deserves as being America’s 10th most populous city. Located downtown at San Pedro Square, the cocktail program at Dr. Funk has been high-quality right from launch. This includes the Mai Tai which is made with Appleton 12 and Smith & Cross rums from Jamaica. The team told me they tried Martinique rhum but liked this all-Jamaican blend the best. And I’m totally on-board with “Team Jamaican Rum” myself. The Dr. Funk Mai Tai is great and we even added it to our list of Top 5 Mai Tais at any location.
Mai Tai Fighter by Smuggler’s Cove at Sessions (San Francisco, CA)
Smuggler’s Cove partnered with Sessions restaurant for a Star Wars “May the Fourth” event, since Sessions is located in the Lucasfilm complex at the Presidio. The “Mai Tai Fighter” was a standard Smuggler’s Cove Mai Tai with an added float of Demerara 151 rum. This was the first freshly prepared SC Mai Tai that I’d tasted in over a year and it was so amazing. I’m counting this as a different place the Cove itself because the added float was a different recipe and also neat addition for this special event away from the Cove itself.
“Fritch’s Four” Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco, CA)
When Smuggler’s Cove reopened they had a special rum flight available to pay tribute to our friend Alex Fritch who was tragically killed in May. The rums included in the flight were the five rums Alex chose as part of our 5 Bottle Rum Challenge video recorded in January: Doorly’s 12, English Harbour Single Barrel, Plantation 3 Star, Smith & Cross, and Black Tot 50th Anniversary. The flight demonstrated Alex’s appreciation for different styles of rum, with proceeds going to Alex’s family.
After I tried the flight I asked the Cove team for Mai Tai made with four of the five rums (since four is easier to measure and omitting the really expensive Black Tot rum made this more affordable). There was still a bit of an upcharge from the standard-issue SC Mai Tai but it was totally worth it. The great Smuggler’s Cove Mai Tai base combined with rums selected by Alex himself made this one the most special Mai Tai of the year. Rest in Peace, brother.