With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, a look at the origin of the mai tai, a resort cocktail classic that tastes like the tropics no matter where you are.
If you’re not lucky enough to be going to a tropical paradise this summer, one of the best ways to relax during a heatwave is still to lay out by the pool with a cold and fruity Mai Tai—hold the pool and you’ll still be having a great time. But that drink in your hand, the one with three different kinds of rum, lots of tropical fruit juice, and topped with a pineapple kebab and a pink paper parasol, while delicious in its own way, barely resembles the original drink, made famous in 1944 by Trader Vic.
The Legacy of Trader Vic’s
Trader Vic (a.k.a. Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr.) was a legend in the Bay Area food scene. In 1934, he borrowed $500 and opened his first restaurant: Hinky Dink. He became famous for his take on Cantonese cuisine and in-your-face marketing tactics, like letting tourists stick an ice pick in his wooden leg. Hinky Dink soon became Trader Vic’s—a nickname given to him for his tendency to trade his food for goods and services. 10 years after that first restaurant opened its doors, Trader Vic created his legacy: the Mai Tai.
In 1944, some special Tahitian guests had entered Vic’s Oakland restaurant. He wanted to make something new and unique for them, so he grabbed a bottle of 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew rum off the shelf. This rum, which was aged in oak barrels, had a unique flavor profile Vic described as “nutty and snappy.” Vic wanted to show off those flavors, not mask them, so he made a drink that is closer to an Old Fashioned than our current conception of a typical tiki bar drink. He combined that rum with lime juice, simple syrup, orgeat (a sweet syrup made with almonds), and orange Curaçao. Then, he poured the mixture into a glass with a heaping amount of crushed ice and garnished it with a lime wedge and a sprig of mint. Sounds tasty and classy, right?
Trader Vic’s Tahitian guests thought so too. They exclaimed, “Maita’i roa ae!” which in Tahitian means “Amazing! Out of this world!” Vic adopted the name and thus, the Mai Tai was born.
True to its name, the Mai Tai was so lauded that word traveled fast. Trader Vic couldn’t buy the 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew, the whole basis for the drink, fast enough. In just a few years, he had used up nearly the entire world’s supply of the stuff; seriously, the rum hasn’t been made in over half a century! Vic found the next best thing: 15-year-old J. Wray and Nephew, supplies of which, shortly thereafter, also began to run low. However, the 15-year-old didn’t have the same oaky snap Vic had experienced from the 17-year-old rum, so he modified the recipe to be part 15-year-old rum, and part Jamaican rum to most closely mimic that flavor.
The Hawaiian Treatment
So how did this classic cocktail become adult fruit punch? Actually, that’s Trader Vic’s fault too! The Mai Tai was so acclaimed that the Royal Hawaiian Hotel wanted to serve their very own version at their bar and restaurant. Instead of poaching Vic’s recipe, they asked him to create one for them. Vic took his cocktail—the version with the 15-year-old rum and additional Jamaican rum for snap—and added pineapple juice and a few other flourishes to it. It was then that the Mai Tai, as we know it (then called the Royal Mai Tai), was born. And we can extrapolate what happened from there: If two rums are good, then three must be better, and if pineapple juice is good, then multiple kinds of tropical fruit juices will jazz up the drink too. Mint and lime? Not colorful enough for such a tropical drink! Let’s add a fruit skewer. And the pink parasol? That was the Royal Hawaiian Hotel adding a bit of flair.
It’s fairly easy to get that Royal Mai Tai these days. You can buy a mix or go into almost any cocktail bar and order one up. Or really, make one yourself with this Royal Mai Tai Recipe.
You purists and curiosity seekers must be wondering how to make Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai, a drink so popular that it made a type of rum virtually extinct. Here’s Trader Vic’s Original Mai Tai Recipe
But the real question is: How do you make this drink with the rarest of rums?
One answer is that if you have $55,000 or so lying around, you could buy a bottle of 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew when it next goes up for auction. But I’m going to wager a guess that you probably don’t have that kind of cash gathering dust (though if you do and you buy a bottle, please invite me over!).
Anyway, for the rest of us, we’ll need a substitute for the rum. Cocktail enthusiasts have come together to determine the liquor that will produce the best facsimile to J. Wray and Nephew 17. Their answer is equal parts Martinique rhum agricole, made with sugar cane, and a 15-year-old Jamaican rum, though probably not the J. Wray and Nephew; that rum is pretty much extinct as well.
Other Historic Sips
If you’re not a rum person, but like the idea of a fresh, tropical cocktail, there is a Mai Tai counterpart made with whiskey: the Honi Honi. It’s the same recipe, just two ounces of whiskey instead of the rum. It’s like your Old Fashioned whisked you away to an island.
And now you have all the tools you need to create Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai. But if you’d prefer to have a professional make one for you, find your friendly, neighborhood tiki bar—there are tons opening up all across the country—and order a 1944 Mai Tai (Make sure to specify the year!).
Then sit back, relax, and get ready for a tropical treat with a sophisticated interplay of flavors: the layers of sweetness from the Curaçao (dark and rich), orgeat (floral and cloying), and simple syrup (pure sugar), the puckering acid of the lime, and the deep, woody undertones and slight burn of the rum. It’s so delicious, you might spontaneously find yourself saying “Maita’i roa ae!”
Header image by Chowhound.