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.