The Mai Tai, History, A Recipe, A How To, An Explanation and Technique followed with a Shopping list

I must take a break from my generally offensive (to unfunny people) “10 Rules of Drinking like a Man series” to offer to new readers this treatise on Mai Tais.  You see I am In a Mai Tai competition next week, and on TV to explain it later today, and you see, I want explain more than the 3 minute TV spot can offer.

The Mai Tai is shrouded in mystery. The bad news is that you probably don’t like it.  But the good news is… you probably never had one!  Hooray!  Did you know the sugary pancreas exploder that you had that one time in Cancun is not indicative of the true Mai Tai?  Good news, it wasn’t!  And there is a whole new world of Mai Tais waiting for you.  Because the Mai Tai story is so complex, because the Mai Tai recipe is so simple and because the Mai Tai technique is so high, I offer instead to Henry David Thoreau this (simplify, simplify).  After I (don’t) explain the Mai Tai’s history, all you need to know is there are:

  • 4 Mai Tai Recipes
  • 4 Mai Tai Fundamentals
  • 4 Mai Tai Secret Ingredients

And, if this is your first time to my blog, you should probably know I’ll, “accidentally,” likely use some, “crass,” language,  like I might say, “four letter words,” even though, no part of the expression, “smelly pirate hooker,” for example , is a four letter word.

Mai Tai History

The way you should know the Mai Tai was invented by Trader Vic in 1944 and it was awesome. The way you would like the Mai Tai more was adapted in 1954 by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  Both of these were likely a combination of stolen/inspired drink called the QB Cooler invented by Don the Beachcomber in 1937.  But the Mai Tai you know is likely mostly interpreted by bartenders following the R.A.L.T.P.M. recipe (I’ll explain later).

Which is right?  Which is best?  The answer is quite simple, the one you like the most is the most.  To explain further would involve me quoting – verbatim – Jeff Berry’s recent book along with old interviews from Trader Vic and Don Beach that most people don’t care to hear. But If you DO CARE FOR SPECIFICS, I very strongly suggest that you purchase, for money, from your local book store, both, Sippin Safari, and, Beach Bum Berry Remixed. Remixed, is mostly a recipe book for any tiki enthusiast, but, Sippin Safari, is a truly fascinating  account of the tiki craze that was arguably the most successful food and beverage trend of the last 100 years.  Sippin Safari, is well written in a way that anyone can enjoy and be transfixed, and it has pretty pictures and brevity that makeit perfect for plane travel.  Jeff Berry is the guy you should ask about the Mai Tai’s history.  Buy his books,  and read his blog. That’s all you’ll need to know history-wise, except that, Mai Tai, is Tahitian for, “The best, out of this world.”

Mai Tai Recipes

QB Cooler -1937-

The "Quiet Birdman" Cooler The QB Cooler, tastes very much like a boozy Vic's

There are 4 Mai Tai Recipes, and the first is not a Mai Tai at all.  Depending on the history you choose to believe, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai was based on the flavor profile of Don Beach’s QB Cooler.  This begins the path of the Mai Tai being about flavor more than ingredients.  This drink is pretty good;  it’s just a bit sloppy. But blending it does help the sweetness get toned down.1 oz Orange Juice 

.5 oz Lime Juice

.5 oz Honey Mix

.25 oz Falernum

1 oz Soda

1 oz Jamaican Rum

1 oz Puerto Rican Rum

2 Dashes Angosrura

.25 oz Ginger Syrup

4oz Crushed Ice, Blend and Garnish with mint

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai -1944-

The Trader Vic Mai Tai is one of the best cocktails ever, origins be damned

It is said that Vic based this on the QB Cooler.  True or not, they do taste very similar despite sharing only one ingredient.  Vic won in history, but he also won in creating a simple drink full of balance.  When practicing this Mai Tai, spend a lot of time trying different brands of rum, this drink is for showcasing rum, not hiding rum.1 oz Dark Jamaican Rum 

1 oz Martinique Rhum

1 oz Lime Juice

.5 oz Orange Curacao

.25 oz Simple Syrup

.25 oz Orgeat

Shake with crushed ice, pour into a double old fashioned, garnish with mint, also optional, pineapple wedge and dark rum float

Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai -1953-

The Royal Hawiian Mai Tai, this is a resort drink, but if fresh is aplied, it is good

Though this is the Mai Tai that lead us down the dreadful path of the over sugared tiki drink, if fresh juice is used, fear not the deadly sweet pancreatic explosion.  Instead you will be refreshed, and full of vitamin C.1 oz Dark Jamaican Rum 

1 oz Demerara Rum

1 oz Light Puerto Rican Rum

1 oz Orange Juice

1 oz Pineapple Juice

.5 oz Lime Juice

.25 oz Lemon Juice

.25 oz Orange Curacao

.25 Orgeat

.25 Simple Syrup

Shake and strain with crushed ice, dump into a huge glass, garnish with excess

R.A.L.T.P.M. Mai Tai –unfortunately common-

I have made this, and when in a "Pan Asian" restaurant, I may order one for old time's sake.

Then our craft (bartending) died and though it has had a renaissance thanks to tireless nerdful efforts, it is still weak in influence over all bars.  Maybe things are better that way.  Anyway, when I first learned the Mai Tai, in a bar that didn’t smell great, I was taught the mnemonic device, “run after leggy tall pretty models.”  And though that is just as hard to remember as it would be to, oh I don’t know, OPEN A FUCKING BOOK AND LEARN HOW TO DO YOUR JOB RIGHT, it has always stuck with me.  It has mostly stuck with me in the way that one might have the sentiment, “remember when we were kids.”Run= Rum, whatever you got, caramel colored Monarch works 

After = Amaretto, tastes of almonds, even better if you have neon red crème de noyaux, some bartenders add a dash of grenadine to simulate this

Leggy= Lime, if you only have Rose’s Cordial, you can skip it, don’t muddle fruit, this is a low effort drink

Tall= Triple sec, an orange liqueur, don’t use Cointreau, your boss will get mad

Pretty= Pineapple, for this drink, the can is fine

Models = Myers, the only aged rum in the bar

Some Rum, Less Amaretto, A Squeeze of Lime, Triple Sec (half as much as rum), Pineapple (half a can, ‘cause you might need to make another one), Myers (you better make that bottle last for years) Build over ice, garnish with a cancer colored cherry.

Mai Tai Fundamentals

The secret to making any of these Mai Tai’s is, even the slapdash one at the end,  that there is as much in technique as remembering that long list of ingredients.  The 4 fundamentals are 1. Technique 2. Flavor 3. Fresh and 4. Aromatics.  Across any of those Mai Tais, this is how you make them better.

1. Technique: For technique the biggest things to consider on the Mai Tai is the crushed ice and the viscosity of the ingredients.  Most importantly, the ingredients of the Mai Tai are far too thick to mix just by pouring over ice, they need to be shaken every time.  Otherwise the drinker will just, “not,” enjoy one unmixed layer after another and likely quit when they arrive at the layer of straight lime juice.  I recommend shaking the ice over cubed ice and then straining it over crushed ice.  Room temperature ingredients also do bad things when poured over crushed ice.  As for retaining the crushed ice you shake with, sigh, I hate that, but it is OK at the BBQ, get it?

Mai Tai Technique: Always shake, strain over fresh ice

2. Flavor: Though lime juice is the only ingredient that all of the above 4 Mai Tais share, there are common flavor profiles.  When made correctly, people swear that Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is full of juice.  But what about the rum?  They all specify rums that taste very different, Demerara rum tastes nothing of 20 year old Jamaican and that tastes nothing of some light well rum.  Think of the flavor components-almond, spices, citrus and fresh.  The Mai Tai should taste like an exotic fruit that was just picked from a tree more that any one ingredient in it.  And you can trick the taster if you work with something spicy, something tart and something almond-ish.  Some say the tiki template is“1 sour, 2 sweet, 3 strong, 4 weak + spice.” –thanks Craig Herman. -see comments

3. Fresh: You can make a drink with poor sloppy technique and it will still be OK if you keep it fresh.  But if you tighten up that technique and keep it fresh, therein lies greatness.  But when thinking of fresh, understand how far it really goes.  Ice, how long has it been out of the freezer?  How long has the crushed ice been sitting around melting faster?  Lime juice, is it from a bottle, or from A LIME? Orgeat, if you made your own, it is OK in the fridge for a month or 3, but it won’t be very good after a week.  Even pineapple juice, when painfully fresh squeezed will taste like an elixir for long life.  Don’t buy good rum and mix it with canned juice and bad ice and wonder why your Mai Tai doesn’t pop.

4. Aromatics: The Mai Tai is a thick drink and as such doesn’t have a lot of aroma.  This is the job of the garnishes.  There are three common garnishes for the Mai Tai and boat loads of others less common.  Mint:  mint should be big, bushy and bright, when given a light tap or, “shocked,” it should release a huge aroma.  Put the sprig right next to the straws.  Pineapple:  when fresh and ripe the pineapple wedge smells of melon and citrus, it confuses the palate when added to the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai.  Dark Rum Float:  though not part of the original, it is a common addition, it adds hints of spice and vanilla to the drink that will float at 80 proof above the drink the whole way down.

Mai Tai Secret Ingredients

The Mai Tais above have several ingredients that you may be unaware of.  1, 2 and 3 most people don’t know are Orgeat, Falernum and Orange Curacao.  The fourth secret ingredient is rum, most people think they know rum, but they don’t.


Trader Tiki Syrups, tell 'em Andrew sent you

Orgeat: An  almond based liqueur or syrup flavored with orange flower water and lots of sugar.I can recommend 2, Fee Bros, which despite and to spite my peers I enjoy and Trader Tiki. These are very different but I enjoy both because of their no alcohol content; they are great for mocktails.  Both can be found locally at Delaurenti’s in Pike Market, online at Keg Works or even better a fun and simple project to make your own.  Check out this recipe on Art of Drink.

It is OK, and can live outside of the fridge

Falernum: A spiced lime liqueur, popular in the Caribbean and a classic tiki staple.  It is flavored with almond, citrus, cloves and sugar.  This time I can’t really recommend Fee Bros (even though he gave me a ride to the airport that one time) but I will recommend John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum and if you want to spice it up, try Paul Clarke’s no. 8 Falernum, it is what I make and love.  All praise be to the Cocktail Chronicle.

Orange Curacao: Specifically is a liqueur flavored with dried laraha citrus peels from curacao.  Like many fancy boozes, we can’t really get a good one in Washington, seek them out on the net, but use Grand Marnier in the meantime.  Even though the bottle looks like a grandma, it is still quality.

I love this book, even a teatotaler would be entertained

Rum: There are 2 main types of Rum, Rum Industrial and Rhum Agricole.  Cachaca is neither but is close to Agricole.  Nix Cachaca for now.  Rum Industrial is made from the byproduct of refining sugar, and thusly is generally has more of a caramel flavor and tastes of molasses.  Rhum Agricole is a French method of making rum that is from fresh pressed sugar cane.  It will have a fresher, green, grassy flavor, be lighter in flavor and body and be more delicate.  Then to top off those two main schools, every little island and nation that makes rum has a wide variety of styles and techniques to make their rum special.  To not list those here, please take it on my word that rum is considered the broadest spirit category and can take a long, slow, happy, flip flop clad life to understand them all.  Good luck.  But I would also recommend this book by Wayne Curtis called, And a Bottle of Rum.

Mai Tai Competition

Did you know that I am in a Mai Tai competition and that you should VOTE FOR ME.  But what?  You have integrity?  You want to know why?  You want to try my drink first?  Then come down To Mistral Kitchen for Happy Hour on Tuesday the 14th and I will sell you a drink for money.  It would be easier to take my word for it.  But let me explain my drink as well.  When I heard there would be a Mai Tai Madness Competition, my first thought was, “nobody knows what is in a Mai Tai anyway.”  It was with that sentiment, and my generally contrarian nature, that I contrived to do what Vic may have done to the QB Cooler: take the flavor and make it my own.  So I set out to make a Mai Tai that tastes like a Mai Tai that contains no rum.  I planned on doing this by only using Italian liqueurs, many of which are bitter.  I call it Elena’s Virtue, and it is indeed a lightly bitter, herbal, Italian Mai Tai.

Elena's Virtue, a Mai Tai variation with no rum

Elena’s Virtue

1 oz Amaro Nonino

.5 oz Amaro Montenegro

.5 oz Lime

.25 Tuaca

.25 Luxardo Amaretto

Shake ingredients  and strain over crushed ice, garnish with an orange zest and basil, then pour

.25 oz Ramazotti Amaro into a decanter, fill with hickory smoke and pour over the drink

If this impresses you, (and on an intellectual level it should) come on down and try one in person at Mistral Kitchen.  Cheers, thanks for making it through the lecture.

This entry was posted in Cocktails, mai tai, recipes, rum history, tiki and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Mai Tai, History, A Recipe, A How To, An Explanation and Technique followed with a Shopping list

  1. Megan says:

    As always, hilarious and informative.

  2. dominik mj says:

    If you are mentioning Trader Vics recipe, you always have to go for the original one – the one with Wray & Nephews 17 years old cask strength [no Rhum Agricole]. The latter recipes were weak attempts by Vic Bergeron and his siblings, to reproduce the same drink with lesser [but available] ingredients.

    I guess of all recipes, Trader Vics is the bes [like mentioned, the original]. And I guess, that Vic didn’t used to much the QB Cooler [I have heard the first time of this drink] – have a look on the Knickerbocker cocktail [you can find it in the Esquire drinks]- it is almost a Mai Tai.

    Unfortunately I also don’t share your enthusiasm about your own recipe.
    While it is quite creative, it doesn’t really reflect the character of the most important ingredient [the Mai Tai is doing it with its rum base]. And the taste and ingredients, might taste like a good cocktail but cannot be related to a true Mai Tai.

    Though I might be a bit picky like always…

  3. Hard to have a problem with any of your comments. Couldn’t agree more in fact.

    P.S. You forgot to put the link in when you say “Check out this recipe on Art of Drink.”

    • caskstrength says:

      thanks. it is now added on the complete post, art of the drink aims to be everything I wish I was. glad it is there so I don’t have to be. -Cheers

  4. wasabi prime says:

    Praise Jeebus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster — this is what I’ve been looking for, a REAL collection of Mai Tai recipes. I’m wary of fruity drinks, as true, they are a diabetic coma waiting to happen, but the fresh juices are indeed key, and these would be great to make during the supposed Snowpocalypse II we may be having this winter. I may not be in the tropics, but I’m pretty sure I’ll trick my liver into believing it to be so.

  5. Ben Bennett says:

    I just finished “And a Bottle of Rum” at your recommendation. It was excellent… thanks for the pointer.

    Despite the section at the end detailing different rums, my rum-fu is still weak. And unfortunately there is little room left in my liquor cabinet (and the top of the bookshelf, and inside the wine rack, or in the box on the back porch…) for me to just buy a bunch of rums to explore. So… can you please tell me what “dark Jamaican rum” and “Martinique Rhum” you use (or recommend)?

    Many thanks for an awesome blog… I came for the “Drinking Like a Man” series and then read the older posts and was totally hooked. I especially love your ice-post.

    • caskstrength says:

      More on drinking like a man is right around the corner.

      My Rum-fu is weak too. Especially when MY WHISKEY STYLE IS DEADLY. But that is kind of refreshing, there is no rush, and I kind of enjoy saying to guests, “I know fuck all about rum,” they find it a relief. I live in WA State, where the rums are hard to come by, and I am also more of a rum mixer and less of a rum sipper. Though there are amazing sippers in WA, they are the minority, especially when you have more of a whiskey palate. But two that others don’t like but I do because they are rough around the edges are Westerhall and Seawynde. But for a sweet after dinner drink, I am always floored buy how often you can pour both Zaya and Ron Zacapa 23 for a novice drinker, and with a cannel of ice cream they with enjoy straight liquor.

      But for mixing, I keep it simple, Jamaican I celebrate all of Appleton’s rums. They are an amazing value and provide a huge backbone to cocktails. For Rhums, I use a lot of Scarlet Ibis, Barbancourt and Rhum Clement VSOP, they aren’t too hard to find and all are bright and fresh.

  6. hi guys, i like to ask if anybody knows when the recipe of mai tai appears first time in a book, because i have the Trader vic’s 1947 Bartenders guide and 1946 Book of food and drink and its not inside?????
    Does anybody have any reprint book of trader vic woth the recipe inside?

  7. Sir,

    Your Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe is missing the requisite 1oz of Aged Jamaican Rum (Appleton V/X. Reserve or 12 Year). The Jamaican used along with an aged Agricole is what Vic used after the supply of Wray Nephew 17 & 15 Year old was exhausted.

    Dominik, That J Wray Nephew 17 Year old rum has been extinct since 1948. Vic started subbing their 15 year old after that, but within 3 years he had exhausted that supply as well. The combination of an aged Jamaican and Agricole is an authentic Vic recipe, and it makes one hell of a drink. My preference is to use 1oz each of Appleton Reserve & La Favorite Vieux.

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  10. Skylar says:

    What a wealth of knowledge you are dear…

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  12. Mike D says:

    caskstrength – I was looking at your 1953 Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai recipe and noticed that you have “1 oz Demerara Rum” added to that recipe.
    I have never scene that listed for that recipe, just wondering where you got your information on this recipe. Thanks and as for dominik mj comment about the original Mai Tai with Wray & Nephews 17 years old cask strength [no Rhum Agricole] I doubt that he was even around to taste that so how would he or anybody today be able to reproduce that, they cannot. We can only come as close as we can given what we have available today. Cheers

  13. Pingback: Elena’s Virtue « Measure & Stir

  14. Pingback: I’ve never had a “true” Mai Tai! | Bartending Notes

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