Happy Birthday Trader Vic

Everyone’s favorite Mai Tai inventor was born on this day in 1902. Victor Jules Bergeron had a difficult childhood, losing a leg to tuberculosis when just six year old. Early adulthood was no better until he scrapped some money together to open a small restaurant and bar at named Hinky Dinks at 65th and San Pablo avenue in Oakland in 1934.

A visit Don the Beachcomber’s convinced Bergeron to adjust the theme of his venue. The Bamboo Room at “Trader Vic at Hinky Dinks” opened as initially as an exclusive ladies’ lounge. Later, it became a co-ed destination and eventually the Trapper Lodge theme of Hinky Dinks gave way entirely to a Polynesian theme. The venue eventually got a shorter name, simply Trader Vic’s in 1938.

This photo shows Bergeron in the midst of that transition, sporting a Pith Helmet that never became his trademark and was soon forgotten. One guesses that Bergeron thought a hat would add character to his persona, as it did for Donn Beach. One also guesses that Bergeron got fed up wearing such head-ware and might have even thrown it into the trash accompanied by colorful profanity.

Bergeron’s fame soon spread as a restaurateur and cocktail developer, a celebrity chef of sorts. That fame as the Gordon Ramsay of his day was one reason he was asked to develop a cocktail menu for the Matson hotel properties in Waikiki where the Mai Tai became a viral sensation starting in 1953.

Bergeron died in 1984 at the age of 81, but today let’s remember the young man who was about to shake up the restaurant and cocktail world. Raise a glass of rum or brandy, or maybe a famous Trader Vic’s cocktail such as the Fogcutter, Eastern Sour, or a Mai Tai. Cheers and happy birthday to Trader Vic Bergeron.

Photo courtesy Trader Vic’s

Dark Rum Shootout: Goslings vs. Bacardi vs. Trader Vic’s

I had been planning to do this comparison already but was inspired by the Goslings float on the pretty reasonable Mai Tai I had at 19Ten in Santa Rosa last week. Dark Rums of this type are typically column still rums with little to no age, but darkened with caramel coloring. All are under $20 a bottle and issued at 40% ABV.

Todays lineup:

  • Goslings Black Seal – the most ubiquitous dark rum apart from Myers’s and thanks to Gosling’s trademark, the called rum in a Dark n’ Stormy.
  • Bacardi Black – previously known as Bacardi Select.
  • Trader Vic’s Dark – private label brand used at the Trader Vic’s restaurants and available in some retail locations.

These three rums are fairly similar, and distinct from dark rums from Jamaica or Guyana given their lighter character. Though Goslings does have a very pleasant burnt caramel flavor that reminds me of Demerara rums from Guyana like Lemon Hart 1804. This was the standout among the bunch and the taste from a glass was similar to the 19Ten Mai Tai.

Bacardi Black has a sweeter taste that isn’t nearly as flavorful, though it is not unpleasant, and is about the same hue as Goslings. It’s used in the wonderful Mai Tai at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki, which is why I bought it in the first place, but compared to Goslings it doesn’t seem offer much.

Meanwhile, Trader Vic’s is by far the darkest of the bunch and when you can find it at retail a few bucks cheaper too. Unfortunately, the taste has an artificial candy flavor that I did not find pleasant in the glass. So, Goslings is the easy pick here.

I’m not sure that any rums of this category are totally necessary, given that Myers’s or Coruba are not big funk bombs typical of Jamaica and could serve adequately for dark floats or in recipes calling for rum of this style.

17 Year Wray & Nephew Rum Copy

This rum recipe comes from Greg Easter and the book Advanced Mixology: A New Apporach. 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. Easter includes a Mai Tai recipe using this rum that he claims was close to the original.

Producing some Nastoyka for the rum blend always felt like a PITA to me, so we thank Brenda Gadow for being a mensch and doing the work to infuse rum with raisins, hibiscus, vanilla tea, and star anise. And then to combine that Nastroyka with five rums and one liqueur.

The Wray Copy is a very flavorful rum when sampled neat, quite reminiscent of the long finish and dark fruit flavors of Appleton 17 Legend (itself an attempt to recreate the original Wray & Nephew rum). At about 50% ABV, it is boozier than the original Wray but very close to Legend.

We tried this rum in our standard Mai Tai recipe, using 1 oz of lime juice ¼ oz of Demerara Syrup. To emulate the Giffard orgeat Easter calls for we used a split of Latitude 29 and Liber Orgeat. It wasn’t a bad Mai Tai but certainly felt too sweet, and the rum definitely got lost in the blend.

There’s a Mai Tai recipe in the book that varies from the standard proportions so we tried that. This goes heavier on the orange liqueur, less on lime, and no sugar besides the orgeat. This version was considerably better, and it turned out to be quite a nice Mai Tai. Not like the incredible ones made with Legend 17, but quite formidable nonetheless.

For an additional perspective, check out the Mixing Up Tiki video: Mai Tai Showdown Featuring Appleton Estate 17, Wray & Nephew 17 Clone, and Denizen Merchant Reserve

Regional Differences with Trader Vic’s Ready to Drink Mai Tais

Ready to drink Mai Tais are popular in tourist locations, so there’s no surprise to see one from Trader Vic’s alongside those from Koloa, Kō Hana, Cutwater, and more. But this Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is different from the canned Mai Tai available on the mainland.

Hawai’i Mai Tai
200 ml, 9.95% ABV, “Made with rum and orange liqueur,” made by World Spirits Ltd.

Mainland Mai Tai
12 oz/355 ml, 10% ABV, “Made with aged rum, lime juice, cane sugar, and natural flavors,” made by Iguazu Company LLC.

The Hawaiian version is richer and much more syrupy, though not unpleasant. There are hints of maple syrup and fruit. The mainland version has a darker color and a significantly lighter mouthfeel, with hints of almond and rum. Neither particularly tastes like a Mai Tai, though notably neither veers off into pineapple or coconut flavors.

Quality wise, these are about the same – not as good as the more expensive craft cocktail brands such as Kō Hana, Small Hand, or Proof Cocktail Co, but way better than most canned Mai Tais especially Cutwater.

The Mai Tai in Hawaii started in an unusual way, due to territorial rights to the Trader Vic’s name. Interesting to see this regional difference still manifests itself with these two very different Trader Vic’s RTDs.

The Evolution of the Mai Tai on Make and Drink YouTube

We were pleased to be the inaugural guest on Derek Cole’s Make and Drink channel on YouTube. In the video we discuss how the cocktail evolved in Hawaii and even make the original Hawaiian Mai Tai that did not include Pineapple juice. Make and Drink is a really great cocktail channel and Derek’s production values are off the chart.

The thumbnail for the video includes some “Easter Eggs” about the Mai Tai and even some forthcoming content. Stay tuned for future collaborations.

Now is also a good time to recommend subscribing to the Make and Drink Patreon, where you can support high-quality content like this as well as being able to interact with other patrons and Derek who is also producing patron-exclusive content. Check it out.

Mai Tai Day 2023 at Trader Vic’s Emeryville

We missed the big all-day Mai Tai Day celebration at Trader Vic’s this past weekend since we were in Hawaii. So we had to go to dinner on Wednesday to celebrate since Mai Tai Day is officially August 30th, chosen based on the proclamation by the city of Oakland in 2009.

It was just Mrs. Mai Tai and me after friends had to cancel at the last minute. But we always enjoy our dinners, especially when we hit a bunch of Trader Vic’s favorites such as Crab Rangoon, Peanut Butter Crackers, Trader Vic’s Salad, Island Fried Rice, and Mac Nut Mahi Mahi. Always so good!

The Mai Tai was made with my favorite rum, Appleton 12, and was quite nice as a toast to the ol’ Trader himself who invented the cocktail 79 years ago.

But the Trader Vic’s team are not living in the past, as witnessed by some fine cocktails that Mrs. Mai Tai had. She started with the delightful Koko-Nana Delight, simply coconut, banana, and rum – served in the cute Ramu mug. Even better was her second, the Pondo Punch. This rich cocktail contains a blend of rums, along with spiced citrus, guava, peach, and mango – and is served in the Angoram mug. A couple of really fine modern cocktails.

Koko-Nana Delight

We were able to pick up one of the souvenir glasses from the Mai Tai Day celebration. As we exited the restaurant, the sun was setting over Emeryville’s picturesque harbor and we knew that Mai Tai Day 2023 was over.