When you pour bold/heavy/high proof Jamaica rums in a glass by themselves it can be overwhelming on the palette even for seasoned rum drinkers. But that same big punch works great in a cocktail like a Mai Tai that doesn’t remove those flavors but allows them to be savored in the context of the sour cocktail format. Great House 2020 was amazing in the Mai Tai.
These are the different Mai Tais I’ve had this month at The Kon-Tiki in Oakland. I’m working on their Expedition rum list and trying some of the rums in Mai Tais.
Real McCoy 5 I enjoy traditional Barbados rum, including those from the Real McCoy brand produced at the Foursquare Distillery. The blend of heavy pot still and lighter column still distillate means that the rum is more delicate than rums from other locations. This Mai Tai didn’t hit me with the usual punch I’m used to, a much lighter style and leaning more on the lime juice for overall flavor. A tad more orgeat would have improved this.
R.L. Seale’s Another Barbados rum produced by Foursquare and with better but similar results as Real McCoy. Again, not terrible but the rum is mostly lost in the cocktail.
Hampden Estate 8 YO This is more like it. A bold Jamaica rum aged for 8 years and issued at a reasonable 46% ABV, this Hampden is just what I’m looking for in a Mai Tai. The rum is bold enough to punch through but the other ingredients do support the rum and make it more palatable than drinking neat.
Hamilton Pot Still Blond My favorite of the Hamilton Jamaica Pot Still rums, this Worthy Park distillate is absolutely fantastic in a cocktail. It’s very smooth, but with long and lingering flavors that make every sip a treat. I’m in love.
The Kon-Tiki’s rum selection is vast and there’s something for everyone. They have a nice printed list with prices to help you decide and the bartenders are knowledgeable and always able to offer suggestions depending on what you’re looking for.
I used the last of the Wray & Nephew 17 Copy Rum in a fine Mai Tai, good to the last drop. This was the recipe published in the late Greg Easter’s book Advanced Mixology: A New Approach. Easter’s family knew Trader Vic Bergerson personally and Easter claims to have sampled a bottle of the famed original Mai Tai rum, albeit a “doctored” version. Easter says that Vic would add a small amount of “Nastoyka,” an infused liqueur, to his rum bottles to give them a special flavor.
Had a great time yesterday for a private seminar for the Three Rum Club, a group of home tiki bar bar owners who are affiliated with Tiki Tom’s in Walnut Creek. The Three Rum Club crowd was a great audience, asked good questions, and even laughed at the punchlines.
The presentation was Appreciating Rum Through the Lens of the Mai Tai, a rum-focused seminar on how the rums in the Mai Tai changed over the years. We covered the different rum styles used by Trader Vic’s over the years, when Rhum Agricole was first used, and how rum blends have been a key component in a Mai Tai for decades.
The welcome cocktail was a special Three Rum Mai Tai that I put together and got to prepare behind the bar at Tiki Tom’s. The three rums included 1 oz of Worthy Park Estate 12 yr and ½ oz each of Worthy Park 109 and Kuleana Hawaiian Rum Agricole. The bold Jamaica rums combined well with the Hawaiian rum that imparts vegetal notes and was really delicious. We have to thank Darrin, Steffani, and the entire team at Tiki Tom’s for their assistance and always appreciated hospitality.
Thanks to Sherri for the logistical help and for the photos.
Denizen Aged White Rum has been in the market for several years, alongside Denizen’s other blended rum products. It is positioned for use in Daiquiris and other cocktails where the a “light rum” is called for and when you want something with a lot more flavor than Bacardi. This is aged for three years and then charcoal filtered and features 80% column distilled rum from Trinidad and 20% high ester pot distilled rum from Jamaica. This is a big step up from the light rums that are not too different from vodka and the Jamaican component really adds a lot of character, body, and flavor even at 40% ABV.
The entire line of Denizen rums got new labels late last year and the Aged White Rum product now says it is “aged up to 5 years.” The big giant 5 on the label totally camouflages the “up to” right next to it. While a possibly longer age (still charcoal filtered) sounds good, the specific mention of Jamaica is no longer present. The label says that Aged White Rum has “both pot and column distilled blends from Trinidad and other Caribbean regions.” Aged White is also 40% ABV.
I did a side by side test of the new and old blends and noticeably favored the older Denizen 3. So, I decided to scour the internet for bottles still for sale and after some bumps in the road that included shady Chinese internet sites I did end up with two nice bottles of Denizen 3. They won’t be held back as precious vintage rums, so I’ll definitely not feel bad about using them in cocktails, but I’m glad I won’t have to pick a new favorite light rum anytime soon.
Our usual plan for park touring at Disneyland is to avoid the heavy crowds during the afternoon and explore other parts of the resort. Such was our journey last Friday to check out Trader Sam’s in mid-afternoon. We checked in to see if something was available inside and they said they could seat us immediately if we took two seats on a corner of the bar. This wasn’t perfect but seating at the bar is pretty great and with no wait was even better.
We love Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. Such a great vibe inside where everyone was in a great mood, friendly but not out of control. Our bartender Maddie did a great job with our drinks and then eventually let us move over a couple sets to let the next walk-up couple take the corner seats.
Mrs. Mai Tai ordered a Krakatoa Punch but was informed the special effects weren’t working, definitely a bummer but this longtime menu favorite delivers. She then went for her favorite, the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum which is Sam’s version of a Painkiller. She also ordered some Panko-crusted Long Beans that were savory and tasty.
I ordered a Mai Tai with Smith & Cross rum which was truly outstanding. Maddie knew I wanted it in an original 1944 Mai Tai format and it came out exceptionally balanced and so flavorful. In this case, as the customer I’m calling for a better rum than the standard light/dark used in Trader Sam’s standard-issue Mai Tai, and its nice that a hotel bar has so many great rums to choose from and that bartenders are willing to make a cocktail with a called spirit.
The exceptional part of Trader Sam’s is the talent of the bartenders to go off menu. Most skippers have their own secret menu of original cocktails and most seem familiar with the classics as well. I asked Maddie for a Navy Grog and was served an excellent version that was rich with flavors and spices and included three different rums. Really a couple a fantastic cocktails from Maddie.
There were a few empty spots during our stay, even by later in the afternoon on a Friday, so it can be possible to get seated inside even if you don’t have a reservation. Trader Sam’s remains one of my favorite tiki bars anywhere.
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.
Summary of the Top 10 of 2023
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.
1. Smuggler’s Cove with Appleton 17 2. Mai Tai with Appleton 17, Appleton Rum Event 3. Trader Vic’s San Jose Airport 4. Kon-Tiki Oakland with Saint Benevolence Aged Rum Clairin 5. Banyan Mai Tai at Tiki in Waikiki by Skull & Crown Trading Co. 6. Dr Funk 7. Buz-Tai at Hula Hoops 8. Ultimate Mai Tai at Tiki Tom’s 9. Trailer Happiness 10. Boo Loo Lounge with Saint Benevolence Rum Clairin