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.
The best by a mile was the amazing Appleton 17 Legend Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove. That Appleton 17 sure makes a great Mai Tai (and it should, considering the price). Also notable was Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin in two of these – I love the heavy rum with olive and brine notes. Boo Loo uses the same Super Jugoso Orgeat that Kon-Tiki Oakland uses., and Kon-Tiki would have had others but we limit each location to a single entry.
And, yes, whatever they were doing that evening in January at the San Jose Airport Trader Vic’s was nearly perfect. Trailer Happiness in London lived up to the reputation, as did the Buz-Tai. We salute Tiki Tom’s for making our Ultimate Mai Tai the right way, and wish Dr. Funk would make their Mai Tai as good as this one was all the time. The Banyan Mai Tai was served at a treehouse, which shows you can get a great Mai Tai nearly anywhere.
Boo Loo Lounge with Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin (November 9, Orinda, CA)
This small Bay Area tiki bar has soft opened with a nice rum selection and make the Mai Tai with Super Jugoso Orgeat. We thank Maxton Kennedy for making an amazing Mai Tai with Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin from Haiti, one of our favorite unaged spirits. Look for more from Boo Loo in 2024.
Trailer Happiness (June 14, London, England)
Everyone said this was the best Mai Tai in London and so we were pleased it met our high expectations. This was a rich Mai Tai with a long finish and a great mouthfeel, thanks in part to the use of Appleton 8 Reserve rum and Grand Marnier. The orgeat really shines in this cocktail.
Ultimate Mai Tai at Tiki Tom’s (February 11, Walnut Creek, CA)
Our Mai Tai recipe was added to the menu at Tiki Tom’s in February and repeat “quality inspections” indicate they’re still making it right. The Ultimate Mai Tai features our four-rum blend of Appleton 12, Smith & Cross, Xaymaca, and OFTD and is priced only a few bucks more than the standard Mai Tai – needless to say we think the premium is worth it.
Buz-Tai at Hula Hoops (February 17, South San Francisco, CA)
This Mai Tai riff comes from local raconteur Buz Deadwax and has been on the menu at Hula Hoops since opening. The boozy cocktail is made with several quality rums, allspice dram, and fire. Shockingly, I liked this more than the Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove the week before and even better than the Ultimate Mai Tai at Tiki Tom’s. It was just that good, at least on this day at that time. We thank bartender Maria for making an awesome Buz-Tai.
Dr. Funk (January 30, San Jose, CA)
We’ve loved the Mai Tai at Dr. Funk ever since they opened, though the use of Appleton 12 was dropped during the great bottle shortage of 2022. Denizen Merchant’s Reserve is now paired with Smith & Cross for a great Mai Tai that was well-balanced and with perfect almond flavors from the house-made Orgeat.
Banyan Mai Tai at Tiki in Waikiki by Skull & Crown Trading Co. (August 25, Honolulu, HI)
Served at the Tiki in Waikiki weekender at Don’s Treehouse at the International Marketplace, the first time cocktails have been available here in decades thanks to the fine folks at Skull & Crown Trading Co. This Mai Tai is different than the three available at S&C’s Chinatown location, and featured Appleton Estate 12 rum, Kō Hana Kea rum, Smith & Cross rum, Dry Curacao, Lime, Orgeat, Demerara Syrup, and a topping of Angostura Bitters. The bitters served to give this a bit of a “Hawaiian Mai Tai with rum float” vibe and I thought this Mai Tai was amazing even on a second round.
Kon-Tiki Oakland with Saint Benevolence Aged Rum Clairin (January 12, Oakland, CA)
The Kon-Tiki was my most visited tiki bar in 2023 and I started another Expediton rum list. This one kicked it off in grand style using Saint Benevolence’s amazing aged expression, so bold and flavorful. The Kon-Tiki’s standard Mai Tai is really great, but this rum just elevated the cocktail a bit for me. Super Jugoso Orgeat is the key ingredient that’s made the Kon-Tiki Mai Tai a champ the last couple years.
Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport (January 19, San Jose, CA)
There is absolutely no reason that the standard Trader Vic’s Mai Tai at the San Jose Airport location should be this high on the list. Sure, they made the cocktails in line with other Trader Vic’s locations, but the Trader Vic’s Royal Amber rum isn’t the kind of bold and heavy rum that you seen in every other entry. But something went perfectly there during a visit in the evening before a flight. In fact, we drank two while watching the sunset and they were both amazing.
Mai Tai with Appleton 17 Legend, Appleton Rum Event (June 28, London, England)
We were so lucky to be in London when Campari held a promo event for their Appleton 17 Legend rum release. After trying five different Appleton rums we got to try the Legend both neat and in a little Mai Tai. Chris Dennis made these with Ferrand dry Curacao and homemade orgeat, and this mini Mai Tai certainly lived up to the hype. So bold. An amazingly long finish with deep and rich flavors.
Smuggler’s Cove with Appleton 17 Legend (July 25, San Francisco, CA)
For many years Smuggler’s Cove has been the gold standard for excellent Mai Tais, but tasted side by side with Appleton 17 Legend we couldn’t believe how terrible their standard Mai Tai seemed in comparison (to clarify: it is not terrible). That’s a testament to how different and unique the Legend is in the cocktail, and when paired with the high quality ingredients the Cove is known for. Owner Martin Cate has been lobbying Appleton for years to make a rum akin to the original Mai Tai rum from Wray and Nephew and this is probably as close to the original 1944 that I’ll ever be able to try.
This is the best Mai Tai of 2023 and so far is the Mai Tai of the decade.
This year’s runners up list was particularly strong.
11. 4/10 Tangaroa Terrace w/El Dorado 8
12. 4/11 Strong Water Anaheim w/Lost Voyage Rum
13. 8/19 Hale Kalekona Mai Tai (Oakhana Summer Swizzle)
14. 9/9 Zombie Village
15. 8/16 Oaxaca Mai Tai by Vatos Who Tiki at Kon-Tiki
16. 4/8 Formosa Cafe
17. 10/9 Starboard Tack
18. 8/27 Heyday 1944 Mai Tai
19. 10/7 Rum Sub Mai Tai at Rhumbar Vegas
20. 10/28 Tipsy Terrier Lounge *
21. 1/21 Red Dwarf w/Appleton 8
22. 12/2 Forbidden Island w/Smith & Cross
23. 4/13 High Roller Tiki Lounge
24. 8/30 Trader Vic’s Emeryville w/Appleton 12
25. 10/27 Voodoo Lounge SJ *
Honorable mentions: The Cannibal’s Eye *, Skull & Crown Trading Co., Jammyland, Hala Kahiki Derby *, The Fink, The Tonga Room
* = home tiki bar