The Original Mai Tai

By / Wine + Drinks / August 16th, 2021 / 2

There’s something about the Mai Tai that brings out peoples’ improvisational sides.

And almost never in a good way. People seem to think that the cocktail is more of a concept than a recipe and, as such, free-pour some gold rum into a blender or shaker, and then drown it with whatever random tropical juices are on-hand, despite the fact that the original version wasn’t a juicy drink at all. A proper Mai Tai contains only three-quarters of an ounce of fresh lime.

Don’t tell that to Jamie Oliver, who thinks both pineapple and orange juice belong in the drink, or Trish Yearwood, who uses sparkling clementine. Another celebrity Mai Tai calls for maraschino cherry juice, which I’ve never seen used in a cocktail anywhere. Still, I’d rather drink any of those than the one Applebee’s featured for its Mai Tai promotion a couple of years back. Their own unique “twist” on the classic, resulted in a “vibrant red and yellow-layered” drink made with passionfruit, pineapple, orange and black cherry.

The irony of all of this is that, for my money, the original Mai Tai didn’t need to be twisted by anyone—it’s arguably the world’s all-time best tiki drink. Unlike a lot of tiki classics, this five-ingredient drink is simple and spirit-forward and lets the rum speak for itself.

That was, in fact, the reason it was invented in the first place, in 1944 by owner Trader Vic at his namesake bar. He wanted to celebrate one of his favourite spirits, a 17-year-old Jamaican rum blended by J. Wray & Nephew, and invented this minimalist tiki drink to do just that.

The problems started when it caught on with a wider audience, thanks, largely to the 1961 film, Blue Hawaii, an Elvis Presley vehicle that saw the Mai Tai quaffed in so many scenes the drink was practically a character in its own right. Having seen it on-screen, people all over America hit the bars and ordered this exotic cocktail but, unfortunately, precious few bartenders knew how to make it. And, if they tried to look it up in their trusty 1961 edition of the Old Mr. Boston deluxe Official Bartenders Guide, they’d have found a Maiden’s Prayer and a Mamie Taylor, but no Mai Tai.

So they did what they had to—made up a recipe. And, between that and the fact that few bars stock orgeat, it appears to have just become a sort of “anything goes” kind of drink.

The past 20 years has seen cocktail “originalism” fix a lot of issues like this and, quite recently, we’ve seen the original Mai Tai make a comeback, at least in tiki and craft cocktail circles, where spirit-forward drinks are prized and maraschino cherry juice is shunned.

See, the news isn’t all bad.

Mai Tai

  • 2 oz Appleton Estate 8-year-old rum
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz Pierre Ferrand dry orange curacao*
  • ½ oz orgeat (almond syrup)**
  • ¼ oz demerara syrup**
  • 1 mint sprig (for garnish)

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add all liquid ingredients and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.  

*A good orange Curacao can be hard to find in Canada. If Ferrand or Briottet is unavailable, try Triple Sec or Grand Marnier.

**Both these syrups can be made at home but, making orgeat from scratch is an exercise in masochism, so we generally buy Luxardo orgeat (really good) from thecraftybartender.com, an online cocktail supply company that also sells B.G. Reynolds’ Rich Demerara syrup.    

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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