The anatomy of a Mai Tai

The Tiki cocktail is having something of an identity crisis. How exactly did it get so confused, and what makes for a truly great example of the drink? Tyler Zielinski seeks insights from experts on how to make the perfect Mai Tai

Words by Tyler Zielinski

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A Mai Tai at famed Tiki bar Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco (photo: Allison Webber)

From its genesis in 1944 to the modern day, it’s safe to say that the Mai Tai has experienced something of an identity crisis. What should be a balanced blend of rum – particularly Jamaican rum – lime juice, dry curaçao, orgeat and, in some cases, sugar syrup, served over crushed ice and garnished with fresh mint, is often a cloying mixed drink filled with tropical juices and syrups galore – even at some of the world’s best bars. For cocktail aficionados and bartenders, this breaks the first commandment of Tiki: ‘Thou shalt not bastardise the Mai Tai’.

Admittedly, there aren’t actual commandments in the Tiki world, but there may as well be when it comes to the makings of a Mai Tai. ‘It’s a drink that unquestionably transcends its origins and belongs in the broader pantheon of classic cocktails,’ says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and author of Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.

Even though there’s less pedigree for the drink in London, the feeling across the pond is just as strong. ‘Historically, it’s a massively beloved and influential cocktail, not to mention that it tastes fantastic,’ says Gergő Muráth, spirits and rum educator at Spirit Cartel and ex-bar manager at London’s pioneering Tiki bar Trailer Happiness.

trailer happiness mai tai
The Mai Tai served at pioneering London rum bar Trailer Happiness (photo: Tyler Zielinski)

The Mai Tai originated at Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California, the American state where Tiki was born. One evening at the iconic cocktail bar, Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic) whipped up a rum cocktail for friends visiting from Tahiti, inspired by a drink served to him at famous Havana bar El Floridita. That drink was the Golden Glove – a mixture of white rum, Cointreau, lime juice and sugar; a drink that, in essence, was a rum-based Margarita (also known as a Daisy). Vic’s friend took a sip of this bespoke cocktail, a balance of old Jamaican rum (J. Wray & Nephew 17 year), dry curaçao, lime juice, orgeat and rock candy syrup, and exclaimed ‘Maita’i roe a’e’, roughly translating as ‘Out of this world’. And so, the Mai Tai was born.

But how did the drink devolve into the random mixture of pineapple, orange juice and grenadine that continues to plague so many bars? ‘It’s not a super well-known fact, but Vic himself is responsible for one of the major changes that happened to the Mai Tai,’ explains Muráth. ‘Matson cruise liners contracted Vic in the ’50s to design drinks for their cruises and their newly opened Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Vic created what he called the Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai, integrating pineapple and orange juice on top of his original recipe, and setting the scene for a million awful recipes sold under the name.’

The proliferation of tropical and Tiki drinks over the last decade has helped bring the classic cocktail back to its former glory

Today, the Mai Tai still struggles to separate itself from its lesser alter-ego, but the proliferation of tropical and Tiki drinks over the last decade has helped bring the classic cocktail back to its former glory. We’ve asked a handful of experts to help set the record straight on the anatomy of a proper Mai Tai.

The Rum

While the importance of each element in the Mai Tai cannot be understated, many Tiki-philes and tropical cocktail lovers point to rum as the most significant component. ‘It needs to be made with a Jamaican rum,’ says Muráth.

Trader Vic’s original formula employed the use of two ounces (60ml) of J. Wray & Nephew 17 year, a now-unicorn rum – but sticking with a base of aged Jamaican rum should help retain the desired funky notes (known locally as ‘hogo’ and derived from the use of wild yeasts and a slower fermentation). ‘I like to use a highly-aged Appleton rum to pay tribute to the historical Wray & Nephew component,’ adds Muráth.

Once his rum of choice was discontinued, Trader Vic resorted to using a 15-year aged rum from the same distillery – but soon after, even stocks of the younger spirit began to dwindle. As a result, Vic developed a rum blend to prolong the life of the 15-year-old, cutting it with a full-bodied, pungent blend of Red Heart and Coruba rums from Jamaica (this recipe became known as the ‘first adjusted formula’). Today, bartenders have embraced this approach, with most Tiki bars developing their own Mai Tai house rum blends.

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'A variety of Jamaican rums' are used to create the Mai Tai served at Trailer Happiness

‘A lot of people like to use an agricole-style rum in their blends based on Vic’s so-called “second adjusted formula”,’ says Muráth, ‘But as extensive research by Martin Cate shows, the rum actually used in that blend was more likely a molasses-based Martinique rum as opposed to one made from fresh sugar cane juice.’

Muráth also claims that overproof is a popular choice in the mix. ‘The original rums were closer to 43% abv, so I tend to only add a smaller kick by using a 54.5% abv rum from Jamaica’s Worthy Park Estate to round out my blend.’

At Trailer Happiness, head bartender Joe Farr follows a similar strategy. ‘Personally, I like to blend a variety of Jamaican rums in an effort to produce something somewhat similar to the early J. Wray & Nephew rums used in the Mai Tai,’ he says. ‘However, it’s always nice to expand into other rums every once in a while, as Guyanese, Fijian, Haitian, Madeira and La Reunion rums all make for great bases for Mai Tais, in my experience.’

The sweet and the sour

In a Mai Tai, there’s a balance of sweet and sour components: orgeat, lime juice and dry curaçao. But you may need to consider the rum as well, since some are dosed with sugar.

Cate says that the standard recipe (60ml rum, 25ml lime juice, 15ml dry curaçao and 7.5ml of both orgeat and a rich simple or rock candy syrup) is a good starting point, with the balance of sweet and sour ingredients nearly equal in volume. ‘It’s important to make slight tweaks depending on the seasonal variations in the lime juice, as well as the amount of sugar in your chosen curaçao and orgeat, as each can vary,’ he adds.

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Smuggler's Cove Mai Tai (photo: Dylan + Jeni)

In the UK, Monin is the popular choice for commercial orgeats, while Giffard’s orgeat is arguably the better of the two. In the US, however, Cate recommends craft commercial brands such as Latitude 29 Formula Orgeat and Liber & Co. ‘Just look for ones that actually contain real almonds and not flavouring – the oils from the actual nuts are hard to replicate,’ adds Cate.

For Muráth’s own take on the syrup, he likes to use a mix of nuts – a blend of almond, pistachio, and hazelnuts – and he always roasts them before blending, for a more prominent flavour.

‘The key, really, is making sure that the orgeat doesn’t overpower all the other nuances going on in the drink,’ says Farr. ‘Remember: orgeat is like super glue; a little goes a long way, and once you’ve used it, you’re stuck with it.’

The Ice

Given the viscosity and richness of the orgeat, the Mai Tai requires a finer type of ice to achieve dialled-in dilution. The water content cuts through the hefty nut syrup, yielding a serve that is full-bodied as opposed to saccharine and flabby.

‘Ice in all drinks is incredibly important, but Tiki bars were actually some of the first to focus on the significance,’ says Farr. ‘Tiki bars worked with shaved ice, ice domes, dry ice and even techniques for working with the ice such as swizzling [mixing ingredients with the twist of a swizzle stick] and flash blending [pulse-mixing drinks in a blender]. Personally, I think the best Mai Tais are shaken with cubed ice and served over a combination of cubed and crushed, to optimal dilution and chill.’

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Bartender Melissa Garcia mastering the Mai Tais at Smuggler's Cove (photo: Dylan + Jeni)

The classic Mai Tai was created with crushed ice, which is still a very acceptable option. ‘In a bar with good quality crushed or dense pebble ice, I go for a very short shake and dirty dump [pouring all contents of the mixing tin into the glass, rather than straining],’ says Muráth. ‘But I often use cubed ice as well, which produces an only-slightly-less fantastic drink.’

The Technique

Over-dilution is a Mai Tai’s worst enemy. ‘Be sure that your ice isn’t wet (i.e that it hasn’t been sitting out for a long time and is melting), and don’t shake for too long, as the Mai Tai should be served slightly under-diluted, since it’s served over finer ice,’ says Farr.

Many bartenders employ the whip shake method – either by adding a small handful of crushed or pebble ice to the shaker and shaking vigorously to full dilution, or by adding three ice cubes (one of which is cracked beforehand) and shaking in a similar manner – used for maximal aeration and a bit of chill, with minimal dilution.

The mai tai cocktail at Trailer Happiness
Adding the finishing touches to the Mai Tai at Trailer Happiness

‘I give the ingredients a vigorous shake with some crushed ice, just until the frost forms on the shaker – measure the ice so that the whole contents of the shaker fills a double rocks [glass] perfectly – before dirty dumping the drink into the glass and slapping a healthy bunch of fresh mint on the side,’ says Cate.

Muráth calls for a similar method. ‘Make sure your shake is a short, and very hard one,’ he says. ‘You want to chill more than dilute, much like with a Daiquiri.’

Mai Tai recipes from the experts

Martin Cate’s Mai Tai

  • 60ml blended aged rum (one of which is Jamaican rum)
  • 22ml lime juice
  • 15ml dry curaçao
  • 7.5ml 2:1 simple syrup
  • 7.5ml orgeat

Method: Add all ingredients to a shaker with a small handful of crushed or pebble ice. Shake and dirty dump into a double rocks glass, add fresh crushed ice, then garnish with a lime husk and mint sprig.

Gergő Muráth’s Mai Tai

  • 30ml Appleton 12 year Jamaican rum
  • 30ml Worthy Park 109 Jamaican rum
  • 25ml lime juice
  • 15ml dry curaçao
  • 15ml orgeat

Method: Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice and briefly, but vigorously, shake to chill. Dirty dump into a double rocks glass or mug, add fresh crushed ice, then garnish with a crown of mint.