The classic Mai Tai is one of the most beautifully simple, yet complex-tasting tiki cocktails. Sadly, like many a classic cocktail, the Mai Tai has been re-invented over the decades as a cheap, fruity punch that bears little resemblance to the original.
Let’s dive into the true story of the Mai Tai, its core components, and the reasons why you’re going to want to put this rum classic into your permanent cocktail hour rotation!
What a Mai Tai is and isn’t
A real Mai Tai is not red or bright orange. It’s not served in a hurricane glass, nor is made with pineapple juice or orange juice. Repeat: no orange juice. Does it taste like Hawaiian Punch? Not a Mai Tai.
And while those versions might be enjoyable in their own right (no judgment!), they absolutely pale in comparison to the balance and flavor of the original, true Mai Tai.
A Mai Tai is a classic tiki cocktail, meaning that it originated during the tiki bar hey-day of the ‘40s-’60s in the United States. Tiki classics are the best known, most enduring drinks to have come from that era. Think Hurricane, Zombie, Painkiller, and so many more.
It’s made with a fairly simple list of high quality ingredients, like aged rum, fresh lime juice, and orange curacao. Its flavor is complex, refreshing, citrusy, nutty, and silky-smooth.
Best of all, it lets you taste your rum (or rums) of choice, without overpowering them. A mix of sweet and sour ingredients form a perfect balance to highlight a quality aged rum (or two).
History of the rum classic
The original Mai Tai was invented by Victor J. Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic. Trader Vic started his bar and restaurant of the same name in 1934, serving tropical-inspired food and drink. In 1944, Vic whipped up the first Mai Tai while behind the bar.
It was a 17 year old Jamaican rum by Wray & Nephew that inspired the drink, so he added just a few key ingredients to showcase the flavorful rum.
The story goes that Trader Vic created the drink for two of his friends who were visiting from Tahiti. The wife took a sip and then said “Maita’i Roe A’e!” which translates roughly to “The best!” The name Mai Tai stuck since it perfectly summed up this beautifully simple concoction.
Although others have claimed to have invented the Mai Tai, the Trader Vic story is well-documented. The other tiki giant, Don the Beachcomber, has his own Mai Tai variation. It’s an interesting mix that adds grapefruit, falernum, and Pernod.
There are also tons of other Mai Tai recipes to explore if you want to see for yourself how these fruity variations compare to the OG. Spoiler alert: there’s no comparison.
What is tiki?
Let’s turn it over to Wikipedia for a minute: “Tiki bars are aesthetically defined by their tiki culture décor which is based upon a romanticized conception of tropical cultures, most commonly Polynesian.”
These bars and restaurants were meant to feel like an escape to another time and place, a dining and drinking experience that felt more like a tropical vacation to some exotic, fantasy place than a Friday night.
They became a huge hit in the US in the 1950s and 1960s especially, before becoming a mostly forgotten subgenre of the themed restaurant.
Today, we’re able to clearly recognize the problematic elements of the tiki genre. Many argue that it’s time to drop the word “tiki” altogether.
So let’s be mindful, and not dismiss this important era of cocktail culture entirely, but instead preserve and celebrate the good that emerged from the genre: incredible, inspired cocktails have remained staples in bars around the world.
What was in the original Mai Tai?
- Aged rum
- Fresh lime juice
- Orange curacao
- Orgeat syrup
- Simple syrup (optional)
Use a quality aged rum or a blend of different aged rums. Skip spiced rum and white rum. Try something from Appleton Estate, Diplomatico, Doorly’s, El Dorado, Mount Gay, Plantation, Pusser’s or the Real McCoy. Any quality aged rum will produce a tasty Mai Tai, but it’s really interesting to see how different rums change the drink’s character.
As with any cocktail, always use fresh citrus juice. Grab a citrus squeezer, reamer, or a pair of tongs and squeeze away. If you use a reamer, perfect – you’ll have half of the garnish ready to go when you’re done juicing.
Orange curacao is a sweet liqueur made with the peels of the laraha orange, which only grows on the island of Curacao (coo-ra-sow). This unique citrus fruit gives the liqueur its flavor and this sets it apart from other orange liqueurs such as triple sec. You can use any orange liqueur in a Mai Tai, but for the best flavor, I recommend using Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao.
The next ingredient you’ll need is orgeat. Don’t be intimidated by the strange sound of this simple almond flavored syrup. By the way, it’s pronounced “or-jah-t.” While orgeat is not hard to make at home, it’s also conveniently sold in many grocery stores and on Amazon. If purchasing it, I recommend Liber & Co Orgeat Syrup.
Simple syrup is the final ingredient in a Mai Tai and not necessarily necessary. It is necessary in the sense that the drink needs the sweetness, it’s not necessary in the sense that you can instead opt to increase the amount of orgeat you use. This makes a delicious drink, but it does change the balance of flavor slightly. Try it both ways!
Learn all about simple syrup in my Complete Guide to Simple Syrup.
Mai Tai pro tips
Of course you can make your drink however you want, do you! But, if you want to make your Mai Tai as authentic as possible, here are some pro tips that can make all the difference.
If you’re interested in more about the Mai Tai or what rums to choose, pick up a copy of the fantastic tiki book Smuggler’s Cove by Martin Cate.
Don’t float the rum on top
This is a popular way to serve the Mai Tai, but it’s a variation that was started many years after the drink’s invention. According to Smuggler’s Cove, a regular at Trader Vic’s requested his Mai Tai with a float of overproof Demerara rum. This new version was also adopted and referred to as making it the “Old Way.” Not old, like original, but old like ‘for the old guy at the end of the bar’!
The classic garnish is mint and a lime shell
There’s no pineapple or cherries in a Trader Vic Mai Tai. Also, no edible flowers like I’ve used in the photos here either! I can’t help but use a gorgeous orchid because of my obsession with edible flowers, but the original garnish has a two-fold purpose.
A lime shell peel-side up and a sprig of fresh mint are the garnishes of choice because of their flavor-enhancing aromas. The lime oils from the peel and the fragrant mint leaves lend a cool, refreshing flavor to the drink that perfectly balances the sweet almond syrup and the richly flavored rums.
When garnished in this way, they also resemble a little tropical island with a palm tree. So cute! So what’s a lime shell? Back in the old days at Trader Vics, they had a citrus juicer that worked like a reamer and would press out all of the juice while leaving the lime half intact.
This is different from the type of citrus squeezers most bartenders use today, which turn the half inside out. This empty citrus rind is known as a shell.
Whip shake and serve over crushed ice
The ideal method for preparing a Mai Tai is to whip shake the liquids and then serve it over a mountain of crushed ice.
To whip shake, add your ingredients to a cocktail shaker, then add 1-2 small pieces of ice. Shake hard, until all of the ice has melted, then strain the drink into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Give the liquid a gentle stir, then top with more crushed ice and garnish.
The reason a whip shake is used is because it adds less dilution while still thoroughly incorporating the ingredients. Because the Mai Tai is served over small pieces of ice that will melt rapidly, less dilution in the shaker makes for the best-tasting drink.
Make it with pebble or nugget ice
While not a requirement, a Mai Tai made with pebble ice is perfection. Pebble or nugget ice is very small pieces of round or cylindrical ice. If made with a machine like the GE Profile Opal 2.0 Nugget Ice Maker (which is the machine I have), the nuggets are actually ice shavings that are then compacted into little pebbles.
This means that the ice is remarkably soft and chewable. It’s much easier to work with than standard crushed ice, it looks beautiful, and it melts at just the right rate. It’s a pricey investment, but a ice machine like this is well worth it if you use it all the time like I do.
Try making your own orgeat
Want to take your original Mai Tai to the next level? Make your own orgeat syrup! Orgeat is not difficult to make and homemade tastes that much better. I recently shared how to easily make raspberry orgeat on my Instagram. Here’s another great orgeat recipe.
Experiment with different rums
The original Mai Tai was made with a rum that’s no longer available, and bartenders have been seeking the perfect rum blend for decades. There are many ideas about what rum or rums to use, but I defer to Martin Cate’s advice to use blended aged rums.
A long aged Jamaican pot still rum was used in the original. This would have been a tremendously flavorful rum, so it’s fun to experiment with your own rum blends to try to recreate the rich and funky flavor the original Mai Tai would have had.
You may also enjoy these other tiki & tropical cocktails:
Original Mai Tai Recipe
- 2 oz aged rum
- ¾ oz fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz orange curacao such as Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
- ¼ oz orgeat syrup
- ¼ oz simple syrup
- Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with 1-2 pieces of ice.
- Shake hard until all of the ice has dissolved, then strain the liquid into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice.
- Give the drink a gentle stir to help the liquid and ice settle, then top with more crushed ice.
- Garnish with a sprig or two of fresh mint, preferably next to a lime shell to create an island and palm tree.
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