The Real Home of the Mai Tai

Tiki culture lives on at these bars 


 

Trader Vic’s photo by Drew Kelly

The mai tai has long been associated with Hawaii and happy-hour specials on Waikiki Beach, but this storied tropical cocktail was actually invented in Oakland, Calif., at Trader Vic’s restaurant and bar.   

Back in 1944, “Trader” Vic Bergeron wanted to create a new cocktail, something simple that would not be overpowered with heavy fruit juice and flavouring. So, he took a gold, medium-bodied Jamaican rum and added lime, orange curaçao from Holland, “rock candy” syrup and French orgeat almond syrup. Two of his friends visiting from Tahiti were seated at the bar and eager to sample the new drink. One took a sip and exclaimed, “Mai tai—roa ae!” which means, “Out of this world, the best!” 

The mai tai rocketed to superstardom as Bergeron expanded his empire. The cocktail became the “it” drink of the 1950s and ’60s, and was even featured in the 1961 Elvis Presley movie Blue Hawaii. Sadly, its popularity led to its distortion, as busy bartenders began to take shortcuts by making “mai tais” with rum, pineapple juice and grenadine syrup. 

Thanks to craft bartenders who are resurrecting and reinventing classics with original and new ingredients, the mai tai is again having a moment. For the record, Trader Vic’s version has stayed as true as possible to its original recipe and is still a bestseller. The original rum—J. Wray Nephew 17-year-old—is no longer available, so the restaurant chain uses an amber rum. 

“Our mai tai is clean and simple, but exotic,” says Eve Bergeron, Vic’s granddaughter who is involved in the operations of the company, “The key is the squeeze of fresh lime, and a great rum.” 

When made properly, a mai tai is still out-of-this-world, as are its many variations, including the three below.

1944 Mai Tyler, Fleetwood’s on Front Street

The mai tai was introduced to Hawaii in 1953, when the Matson Steamship Lines commissioned its creator, Vic Bergeron, to make a selection of drinks for its hotels. Today, pineapple is the star in most Hawaiian versions, including the one served at Maui hot spot Fleetwood’s on Front Street. The 1944 Mai Tyler (named for local celebrity and investor Steven Tyler) combines muddled Maui pineapple with rum, orange curaçao and exotic Velvet Falernum syrup, and comes topped with a light, house-made passion fruit foam.

Draft Mai Tais, Lei Low Bar

This tiki tipple is so popular in Houston, Texas, that Lei Low Bar has taken to offering it on tap. The bar makes 19 litres at a time, blending dark Jamaican and Demerara rums with fresh juice from pineapples, oranges and limes, plus a house-made orgeat syrup. The batch is then charged (bar-speak for carbonated) with nitrogen for a creamy pour over crushed ice. From there, bar staff spritz its frothy top with their own aromatic Lei Low bitters made with a tropical blend of coconut husk, cinnamon and cardamom. 

Abacaxi Mai Tai, Bar Le Mal Necessaire

Served in a hollowed-out pineapple, this must-order mai tai from Montreal’s Bar Le Mal Necessaire (translation: necessary evil) mixes it up by pouring in one of France’s favourite orange spirits—Cointreau. This plays well with the other ingredients, which include Bacardi gold and black, pineapple and lemon juices and honey syrup. But the best part? You’re drinking from a fruit husk inside a tropical bar in Montreal’s Chinatown.

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Photo by Drew Kelly

Original Mai Tai Recipe  

2 oz. amber rum

3/4 oz. orange curaçao

1/2 oz. Trader Vic,s Orgeat Syrup

1/4 oz. Trader Vic,s Rock Candy Syrup 

1/4 oz. lime juice

Squeeze of half a lime

Garnish

Mint, half a lime and a straw

Method

Shake all ingredients with crushed ice and serve in a mai tai glass, then garnish with spent lime shell, a sprig of mint and a pineapple wedge skewered with a cherry. —Recipe courtesy Trader Vic’s

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