History of the Mai Tai
The mai tai is more than a drink. It’s a happy place: Each sip invokes dreamy images of sunsets on sandy beaches, cobalt blue water and lush tropical islands.
Even the mai tai’s traditional garnish casts a tropical shadow. Drink enough of them, and the spent half lime placed convex side up and its adjacent mint sprig may start to resemble an island with a palm tree.
Despite that sunny association, the cocktail’s birthplace wasn’t on some seaside shack but rather at the corner of 65th and San Pablo in Oakland, the original location of the tiki bar Trader Vic’s. In 1944, owner Victor “the Trader” Bergeron wanted to feature a great spirit — 17-year J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum — in a cocktail for friends visiting from Tahiti, and he concocted a simple mix of the rum with lime juice, orgeat (almond syrup) and orange curaçao.
What happened afterward is a story of a rise, a fall and, now, a redemption. The mai tai has always been versatile and adaptable, on purpose: It was envisioned as a simple mechanism for highlighting a great spirit. For many years, that versatility was the mai tai’s downfall. Readjusted to the point that a mai tai no longer looked like a mai tai, it became a vague stand-in term for any syrupy-sweet tropical concoction. But today, the drink’s inherent adaptability has led to its renaissance, as Bay Area bartenders are returning the mai tai to its noble roots while putting original, delicious spins on the template.
“The margarita is a flawless vehicle for a huge range of Tequila, and the same goes for the mai tai,” says Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove. “The mai tai exists as a showcase: Here’s a terrific rum and here are all these accents dancing around it.”
Even the name endorses the drink: “Mai tai” means “good” in Tahitian. Almond and orange are flattering accompaniments to rum, especially when combined with lime and sugar. The proportions of the supporting ingredients are mostly diminutive, either quarter or half ounces; they are structural elements, designed to bolster the rum.
Perhaps because of its simplicity, the mai tai inspired tinkering from the very beginning. At Trader Vic’s, the popularity of the mai tai depleted stocks of the J. Wray Nephew, so Bergeron adjusted the original recipe to accommodate rums that were easier to source, and to include Bergeron’s own brand of mixers. The proportions always remained the same.
But over time, not every mai tai practitioner has been so thoughtful in his or her modifications. And that led to some very, very dark times for the mai tai.
“The mai tai stands historically as the most debased cocktail of all time,” says Cate. For years, he says, “the mai tai became a stand-in term, meaning just something exotic.”
Ask for a manhattan, even at a sub-standard bar, and you’ll probably get a drink that resembles a manhattan, Cate points out. But ordering a mai tai might get you something with sour mix, pineapple juice, grenadine or cranberry juice.
The mai tai’s decline began in the 1950s, when the post-war period saw a burst of travel to Hawaii. Up to that point, most Americans’ vision of Hawaii had been defined by movies and Polynesian-theme restaurants, which projected a visual archetype rooted in fantasy, not reality.
“So, they’ve been sold this vision, and then they get to Hawaii,” says tiki historian Humuhumu Trott of the website Critiki, “and it was clapboard housing, not cute little thatched huts.” To some degree, the lack of charm and culture was the result of brutal interference by the military and other visiting groups, including missionaries.
Donn Beach, who had opened his Polynesian-theme Don the Beachcomber restaurants in California, saw an opportunity to give tourists the Hawaiian fantasy they craved. In 1946 he opened a Don the Beachcomber location in Waikiki. More important, Beach helped other businesses understand tourist expectations of Hawaii.
As Beach assisted businesses in Oahu in refurbishing for the tourist trade, the mai tai was adjusted to be more island-y as well, which meant including pineapple juice. The popularity of this version spread, despite that there were also Trader Vic’s locations in Hawaii serving the true, original pineapple-free mai tai. But the tropical appeal of pineapple prevailed, establishing what is often called an island mai tai.
“It makes sense,” says Trott of the island mai tai. “It makes financial sense, and it makes sense in terms of taking good care of your customers and giving them what they’re there for.” Beach understood the Polynesian pop culture decor fantasies mainland Americans harbored, and he catered to that.
As the mai tai became increasingly associated with Hawaii, vacationers would return to the continental U.S. and ask local bartenders for the cocktail. But most bartenders knew neither Bergeron’s original version (even though he published the recipe in “Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink” in 1946) nor Beach’s adaptation. So the mai tai devolved even further, becoming a vague term for a rum drink with something juicy.
“The recipe, ingredients and preparation are extremely important to us, and if any of those are compromised, it may be a version of the mai tai, but not a Trader Vic’s mai tai,” says Rhett Rosen, executive vice president of Trader Vic’s Worldwide. “There are different recipes for many of the classic cocktails around the world, and many for a ‘mai tai,’ but there is only one way to make it like the Trader did.”
Even tiki purist Cate found that he had to add an island mai tai to his cocktail menu at Forbidden Island in 2006. Customers kept sending the classic version back, insisting that the drink should have pineapple juice.
Since then, however, the mai tai’s tides have changed. A new resurgence of interest in the drink has Bay Area bartenders tinkering with Bergeron’s classic template — but in ways that elevate the drink, not debase it.
Notably, many of these modern mai tais exist at non-tiki bars. That’s crucial: As the tiki bar genre has weathered criticism in recent years for its appropriation of Pacific Island cultures, the mai tai’s crossover into other bar spheres suggests that the drink may have greater staying power than the Polynesian restaurants that popularized it.
Take Jennifer Colliau, of the upcoming Oakland bar Here’s How, who plays a large part in the mai tai’s recent fortunes. She wanted to make a true 1944-style mai tai but couldn’t find any orgeat syrups on the market that used real almonds. In fact, there were few orgeats on the market at all, to the point that many bars were using amaretto instead.
So with the mai tai in mind, Colliau created her own orgeat under her Small Hand Foods brand, with the necessary richness and flavor for the cocktail. When she released her orgeat in 2008, it was the only almond-based syrup on the market.
Orgeat is a critical component of the reimagined mai tai at the Financial District bar Pagan Idol, too. Beverage director Daniel “Doc” Parks (who once worked at Trader Vic’s in Emeryville) built his version around Pagan Idol’s house-made almond syrup, highlighting it with a blend of rums and French curacao. In an unusual move, the Pagan Idol mai tai is served as a float, accented by amaro and Sherry for a decadent finish.
Pagan Idol’s mai tai float breaks some of the classic mai tai rules, but carefully. And unlike some of the unorthodox mai tais of decades past, it’s a great drink. It’s part of an exciting new wave of mai tai riffs in the Bay Area. At Miminashi in Napa, you can order a Dan-Totsu, which swaps Tequila and mescal for rum, black sesame for almond syrup and lemon for lime. At True Laurel in the Mission, you can order a mai o mai, made with pistachio orgeat and clarified milk, which tones down the drink’s richness.
And at Pacific Cocktail Haven, owner Kevin Diedrich makes what he calls the naked mai tai with less sugar and less citrus. He squeezes a small disc of lime and drops it in a glass with orgeat, Jamaican rum and a little triple sec. The result is like the love child of a mai tai and an old-fashioned.
These bartenders see the mai tai’s structure as ideal for variations. “The relationship between lime juice, orgeat, curacao and sugar yields the depth and balance to support any spirit,” Parks says. “I often suggest a pinky gonzales, essentially a Tequila Mai tai, or a rye tai, a whiskey mai tai, to guests who are skeptical of rum.”
Not every Bay Area bartender approves of these adaptations, however. Cate believes the best way to make a mai tai is to not mess with it. “I like to keep a tight constraint on the structure of the drink,” he says. Still, it’s possible to be creative: “When it comes to the rum, I think it’s room for excitement,” Cate says. Any high-quality rum with character will completely change the drink, in terms of flavor and sweetness.
While tiki drinks were made for some variation, Cate believes it’s important to stay true to their historical foundations. “We have a story to tell,” he says. “We have a legendary drink to present.”