Each year we celebrate the 10 best Mai Tais that we had the pleasure of tasting in the last 12 months. The list includes commercial restaurants and bars, plus Mai Tais we had at home tiki bars and events. For this list the rating is solely about what’s in the glass and does not factor in other elements such as ambiance, food, service, or decor.
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.
It would be hard to miss from the descriptions, but we’d be remiss without specifically calling out rum from Jamaica as being the key or even singular component for basically all of the entries. The Mai Tai was born with Jamaican rum and still shines best with it.
Honorable mentions (ordered): Rumba, Golden Pineapple Craft Lounge, Trader Vic’s Emeryville, Rum Club, Casa de Christa, The Sinking Ship at Tiki-Ko, Strong Water Anaheim, Tiki Tom’s, Mamahune’s, Deck, The Grass Skirt, Forbidden Island, Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport, America’s Bar, Halekulani Hotel, The Drunk Munk, Tonga Hut North Hollywood, Little Hill Lounge, and Damon’s.
The Rum House (Manhattan, NY)
The Rum House a small bar located off the lobby of the Edison Hotel just off Times Square. Trader Nic’s Mai Tai, named after the head bartender, features Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black and unaged Rhum JM, plus a tiny float of OFTD. Both rums play well together in the base. Simply fantastic!
We had a short but memorable visit to this cozy bar that has a nice rum collection and bartenders more than willing to do some rum education with patrons.
Dealer’s Choice Mai Tai by Adrian Castañeda at The Kon-Tiki Room (Oakland, CA)
Had a fab time over at Oakland’s Kon-Tiki Room at Palmetto to send best wishes to local raconteur Adrian Castañeda who is moving to Barcelona. We’ve bumped into Adrian in all sort of places over the years and with him tending bar I asked for a dealer’s choice Mai Tai.
It was great to see a cane spirits expert scan the shelves and pull down three bottles to work with, and to use them in just the right ratios. For the Mai Tai, Adrian used 1 oz of Worthy Park Kon-Tiki Single Barrel (aged 5 yrs, cask strength), along with ½ oz each of Worthy Park 109 and Uruapan Charandra Anejo. This was a fantastic Mai Tai! So rich with flavors, where the aged Jamaican rum really paired well with the molasses and sugar cane juice-based Charandra from Mexico.
We wish Adrian all the best!
Sunken Harbor Club (Brooklyn, NY)
Everything they say is true! The famed Mai Tai created by Garret Richard for Sunken Harbor Club in Brooklyn is indeed a top-notch Mai Tai.
There are a couple unusual adjustments to the preparation of this cocktail. Firstly, a few drops of saline solution are added to bring out the flavors of the ingredients. Next, a lime wedge is placed in the glass and combined with the the shaken cocktail. In addition to a gigantic bouquet of mint, a lime peel is expressed and then wrapped around the straw.
The fragrance of lime and mint really add a lot to the cocktail, not unlike the little squeeze of lime I’ve had with previous Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s. The lime in the glass adds a little bit more tartness as you finish the drink, but the blend is rums is quite delightful.
The Kon-Tiki Single Barrel Mai Tai (Oakland, CA)
I had several excellent Mai Tais at The Kon-Tiki, including their house Mai Tai that was improved in 2022 with Super Jugoso Orgeat, rum-based orange shrubb, and three rums. But this version with Kon-Tiki’s special single barrel release from Worthy Park was totally fantastic. This flavorful pot still Jamaica rum really stands up in a cocktail and the other components compliment the rum so well.
We’ve had so many excellent Mai Tais at The Kon-Tiki over the years (custom versions topping the list in 2019 and 2020), and it warms my heart that if anything the Kon-Tiki house Mai Tai has never been better.
Dr. Funk (original blend) (San Jose, CA)
This was my most frequented tiki bar and Mai Tai in 2022, thanks to a creamy combination of house-made orgeat and sugar syrup that maintained the quality throughout the year. Dr. Funk Rum House + Kitchen made a big splash at the end of 2021 to finally bring a world-class tiki bar to America’s 10th largest city.
The original rum blend in the Dr. Funk Mai Tai featured two of our favorite rums, Appleton 12 and Smith & Cross. Regular readers know we love Jamaica rum above all others, and we know these two rums play well together. The blended aged rum from Appleton tempers some of the wild, overproof tendencies of Smith & Cross, resulting in a unique combination.
Unfortunately, the availability of Appleton 12 has been constrained for most of 2022, which meant that Dr. Funk finally had to switch to Denizen Merchant’s Reserve in their blend. The new formula does work really great in a Mai Tai (and would have still been in the Top 15) but we think the original blend was the best.
Smuggler’s Cove with Appleton and Hamilton Rums (San Francisco, CA)
Based on a then-recent experience at Trader Sam’s, I asked for a specific custom rum combo during a visit to Smuggler’s Cove shortly thereafter. The Cove’s Mai Tai is always one of our favorites and topped 2021’s Best Mai Tai list. And with hundreds of rums on premise, you can really explore how different rums can shape the flavor of a cocktail such as a Daiquiri or a Mai Tai.
This Mai Tai didn’t change our mind in the least, a combination of Appleton 8 Reserve blended aged rum with a lightly aged but more funky pot still rum from Hamilton. The rums worked great with SC’s world famous Mai Tai syrup and orgeat. We thank bartender Steven Liles for indulging us with the custom order and for making a great Mai Tai. Liles was in fine form that evening, holding court and multitasking by entertaining patrons with stories while skillfully preparing cocktails.
Hale Pele (Portland, OR)
I suppose visiting on Mai Tai Day (June 30 version) might have had something to do with it, but the Mai Tai at Hale Pele really knocked our socks off. Who knew that a combination of inexpensive Jamaican rums like Coruba Dark and Wray & Nephew Overproof could be so flavorful and memorable? That little bit of pot still distillate from the Wray really compliments with rich flavor of the Coruba. It’s been a Hale Pele standard for years and with results like this why would they ever change it?
This Mai Tai was so great we expanded our list of the Top 5 standard-issue Mai Tais to a Top 10 list just so we could make sure it was included.
Maunakea Mai Tai at Skull & Crown Trading Co. (Honolulu, HI)
Skull & Crown is a tiki bar located in Honolulu’s Chinatown and has three Mai Tais on their menu. All three are worthy of trying but we prefer this traditional 1944 style Mai Tai made with Appleton 12, Clement Select Barrel, Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, Dry Curacao, Lime, Orgeat, and Demerara Syrup. The three-rum blend works great alongside the fresh juice and sweeteners. So creamy and very flavorful. We happen to think Demerara or Rock Candy syrup is a really an important part of a great Mai Tai.
We must salute S&C’s dynamic duo, Trader Noa Laporga and Angelina Khan, for being great hosts during our two visits this summer. Skull & Crown is truly one of the best tiki bars on planet Earth.
Classic Mai Tai with Appleton and Hamilton Rums by Skipper Nate at Trader Sam’s (Anaheim, CA)
One of the hallmarks of how Trader Sam’s differs in California is that the bartenders are able and often eager to go off-menu with customers, whereas at the Trader Sam’s in Florida they don’t even know what a 1944 Mai Tai is. Such was the case in early January when I found myself at the bar at Trader Sam’s on a slow afternoon and Skipper Nate totally willing to work with me to find the very best Mai Tai that could be made on the premises.
When I ordered a Mai Tai with Appleton Reserve rum Nate checked the order, “classic style?” which I took to mean no Agave Syrup that they use in their standard house Mai Tai. “Yes, sir,” I said. That Appleton Reserve Mai Tai was faaantastic, and I was more than happy to compliment the Skipper when he asked how it was. Very rummy, but also a wonderful flavor profile – not too sweet, not too sour. Great mouthfeel.
For the second round, I asked Skipper Nate if they had something a little more funky, and he suggested Hamilton Pot Still Blonde rum. I said that would be great – a half Appleton Reserve and half Hamilton Pot Still Blonde Mai Tai.
It was one of the best Mai Tais I’ve ever had.
The funkier rum really added a nice punch to the cocktail, and elevated what was already an amazing Mai Tai. On this day it was damn near perfect.
Birds of Paradise Lounge (Sacramento, CA)
We had the pleasure of crashing one of the monthly Sacramento Ohana parties in the spring when it was hosted by Correy and Mariella Bravo. I had loved their home tiki bar when they lived in the city next door and heard only great things about their place after their moved up north. The entire house is decorated in a mid-century style, with tons of Witco, and the Birds of Paradise Lounge which is a tiki bar renovation of the living room. Their backyard is a tropical haven including a pool, large tikis, and palm trees.
One of the cocktails for the Sac Ohana party was the Birds of Paradise Mai Tai, featuring a complex four rum blend of Appleton 12, Smith & Cross, Plantation Xaymaca, and Kō Hana Kea. This is three of the four rums in my own Ultimate Mai Tai rum blend, but for sure the Bravos have used their hospitality and bartending experience to great use and have made a Mai Tai that works with all the ingredients they are using. So flavorful, with a savory finish informed by the Kō Hana that was fantastic.
It seems impossible to believe that a party Mai Tai served in a plastic cup could be the best this year but when the Bravos make a Mai Tai their way you know it’s going to be Maita’i roa ae.