With its distinctive balance of rich rum, nutty orgeat, fresh lime and orange curaçao, the Mai Tai has long held a top spot in the tiki-sphere. As many tiki origin stories go, the cocktail’s custody battle was long and heated. Dating back to the 1940s and contested most publicly between Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber, the claim has largely been settled in favor of Trader Vic’s formula, but variations on the drink have long circulated. Many of these versions could easily be forgotten, but some bartenders have devised delicious modern interpretations of both Beach and Vic’s recipes.
Choosing the Right Rums
In the book Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cate explains that most early variations of the Mai Tai happened on the rum end of the recipe, with brands and styles chosen depending on what was available at the time. In the same spirit, Cate recommends experimenting with rums to find the combination that best suits your tastes, adding that “the rum it was born with was 100 percent Jamaican pot still rum with a tremendous amount of age on it. So ideally you’re looking for a balance of full-bodied pot still flavor tempered by quite a bit of oak, and as there is no exact analog on the market today, you may find that your own blend will produce the most satisfying result.” At the Smuggler’s Cove bar, Cate uses Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, a blend of 8-year-old Jamaican pot still rum and molasses-based rhum grand arôme from Martinique, based on one of Vic’s later revised rum blends.
Darker rums like blackstrap will lend a richness to the drink (as exemplified at Maison Premiere), while brighter options like rhum agricole will lighten things up. Remembering that no two rums are exactly alike, it makes sense that two types of Jamaican rum anchor the version served at Hale Pele in Portland, Oregon, and at The Varnish in Los Angeles, their adaptation of Trader Vic’s recipe employs dark Jamaican rum and Demerara rum. Meanwhile, at Villon in San Francisco, Banks 5 meets Jamaican rum, and in New York at Glady’s, Shannon Mustipher (one of our 2019 Imbibe 75 People to Watch) throws a curveball with the recommendation of Paranubes Rum from Oaxaca in her book Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails (paired with Hamilton 86 Demerara). “Paranubes has funky, fruity and vegetable notes, is medium- to full-bodied due to its higher proof, and smooth in spite of being unaged,” she says. “It makes a Mai Tai that is drier where sweetness is concerned, while being richer-tasting and fuller-bodied that a Mai Tai made with Jamaican and agricole rums.”
Slight Tweaks Are the Right Tweaks
After the perfect blend of rums has been chosen, look to another of the Mai Tai’s key ingredients for fresh flavor: orgeat. Tweaking your orgeat recipe can make a noticeable difference, like at the Roosevelt Room in Austin where the house orgeat combines unsalted almonds with demerara sugar, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, vanilla, orange flower water, overproof rum and rose water. And at Band of Bohemia in Chicago, rhubarb joins almonds in Stephan Jurgovan’s Mezcal-based version of the drink, while at Last Rites in San Francisco, the house Mai Tai is made with a cashew orgeat. “We wanted to serve a Mai Tai very close to the original 1944 Trader Vic’s recipe but wanted to incorporate an element that was uniquely ours,” says general manager Susan Eggett. “After trying out lots of nuts, we liked the creamy texture of cashews the best.”
Modern Takes: Everything Goes
Some bartenders get a bit more adventurous with their plays on the classic Mai Tai, introducing alternative spirits and other ingredients. Ivy Mix first spun the framework when she worked at Lani Kai with Julie Reiner, creating a cocktail that’s followed her to Brooklyn bar Leyenda: the Tia Mia. “Julie made hers with a blend of Jamaican and aged agricole that I liked a lot,” says Mix. “I decided to sub out the extremely funky agricole for smoky mezcal, and the result is the Tia Mia. I find that rum can frequently be a great split base with mezcal as the sweetness can carry the smoke of the mezcal.”
The base spirits also get swapped out at Punch House in Chicago in a drink aptly named the Rye Tai, featuring rye whiskey instead of rum. And at sister bar Moneygun, founders Will Duncan, Justin Anderson and Dustin Drankiewicz devised another creative spin by infusing curaçao with hibiscus. “Riffs on Mai Tais are particularly great because the recipe requirements are a little loose and you can tailor it to fit the spirits you’re working with,” says Duncan. “[Because] the flavors of a Mai Tai are complex but well integrated, any base spirit will survive. For example, the Don the Beachcomber version uniquely calls for grapefruit; do a tequila variation using that grapefruit and you’ll be real happy.”
In the Bitter Mai Tai from Jeremy Oertel, the drink gets a bitter boost from Campari, and in Jacob Grier’s book Cocktails on Tap, IPA lends a bright bitterness to the Mai Ta-Ipa. Originally created in tandem with Ezra Johnson-Greenough for a tiki-themed installment of their Brewing Up Cocktails series, the drink was born out of a desire to introduce beer to the classic formula. “Since many tiki drinks don’t have a strong bitter component, we found that they are prime candidates being complemented by IPA,” says Grier. “Shaking a little bit of IPA into the classic Mai Tai recipe adds floral and bitter notes while also giving it a pleasantly frothy texture.”
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