A week or so ago, a friend of mine shot me a text asking me about a drink with dark rum and pineapple juice. As a bartender, I was at the same time perplexed and a little embarrassed. How did I not know this? I know a ton of cocktails, many very mainstream, some fairly obscure. I have poured tons of drinks with those ingredients in them. After wrestling with many drinks in my mental Rolodex, we both settled on what is a very common drink in almost any bar or restaurant: the Mai Tai.
Why didn’t I think of that? Well, there is a reason. Two, actually. Pineapple juice and dark rum are ingredients in many drinks. They just go well together in a tropical sort of way. It seems natural that liquor made famous and still primarily distilled in the tropics is paired with a fruit that is grown in the tropics. The other is that if you go to five different bars and ask for a mai tai, you are going to get five different rum based drinks. The Mai Tai is one of those cocktails that, while it has a traditional recipe, is very susceptible to manipulation and interpretation. And it goes right back to the person (or people) that invented the cocktail.
The mai tai came out of an era where all things Polynesian and colorful were trendy. Hawai’i had just opened up to tourism (and tourism was booming), we were well on our way to beating the Axis powers, and things in general were looking up. After two world wars that sandwiched an era of Prohibition, people needed a drink. And drink they did. On the west coast, two men were opening up the palates of people to the islands. On one side there was “Trader” Victor Bergeron, the person widely credited with inventing what we now use as the base of the Mai Tai. The story goes that he had bought a ton excellent rum for Jamaica, and wanted to use it in cocktails for his new restaurant. He made the cocktail for some of his friends who happened to be from Tahiti, and complimented it by saying “Maita’i roa ae” (“Out of this world!”). The first word stuck, and gave the cocktail its name.
On the other side of the equation was a man named Don “the Beachcomber” Beach. He was a veteran of World War Two who had opened up a restaurant before he left with the tropical theme that would help define the tiki era. His ex-wife built the single restaurant into a chain, and with his royalties he was able to retire and live in Hawai’i. He knew his rums, and was able to blend some incredibly popular drinks from the era, the most popular one he is credited with being the Zombie. However, his version of the mai tai was not an incredibly popular one with his clients, and soon faded into obscurity against the popular Trader Vic version.
Both men were very competitive. They were trying to build a the Hawai’ian/Polynesian/Tiki culture, while not giving anything that the competition could use in their own restaurant. To do this, they went to great lengths to make sure that no one knew the actual recipes of the drinks they were making. That included the bartenders. Large batches of the drinks were made and used through the day. If they ran out of a particular drink, the bartender had to guess, by taste and smell, what was in the drink. And if you go to another tiki bar and ask for a drink, you had no hope of getting it right. This lead to variation after variation of cocktails, no one knowing what was in the original. And this trend spread across the country. Ohio had a very popular one in Columbus, the Kahiki, which offered flaming entrees as well as potent drinks. Image a recipe going on a cross country game of Telephone. Everywhere has a different version, the only commonality being rum.
For the record, here is the Trader Vic recipe:
2 oz. Jamaican rum, aged well
.5 oz. orgeat (almond syrup, pronounced or-ZHAT)
.5 oz. orange curacao
.25 oz. sweet syrup
.5 oz. lime juice
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass over ice. Shake well, and serve in a tiki glass full of ice. Garnished with a lime wedge.
Don the Beachcomber’s recipe:
1.5 oz. Plantation rum (dark rum)
1 oz. Cuban style rum, dark or aged
.5 oz. falernum (a tropical syrup, with a little more flavor)
.75 oz. orange liqueur (Cointreau is suggested)
1 oz. of fresh grapefruit juice
.75 oz. of fresh lime juice
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 dash of Pernod (absinthe substitute)
In a blender with a cup of crushed ice, add all of the ingredients as well as half the shell of the lime. Blend for five to ten seconds, and then pour into an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a pineapple spear and mint sprigs.
This is a more common, modern version, courtesy of Drinksmixer. This type was most popular with tourists in Hawai’i. Since they did not have the same access to aged Jamaican rum, they added dark rum on top, sometimes an overproof one.
1 oz. light rum
.5 oz. orgeat
.5 oz. triple sec
Sweet and sour mix
.5 oz. Dark rum
Pour light rum, orgeat, and triple sec, in order, into a collins glass. Almost fill with equal parts of sweet and sour mix and pineapple juice. Add dark rum as a float.
As mentioned before, it is hard to find a local place that does not have a Mai Tai. It is not a drink that most places will list as something that is signature, since it is so common. And it is hard to judge a cocktail that has as many versions as there are bars in Dayton. Imbibe listed it as one of the twenty five most influential cocktails of the twentieth century, and Donn Beach and Victor Bergeron as two of the most influential cocktail personalities. It has survived, in all of its forms, as the signature drink of the tiki era. A mini-vacation in a glass, it offers something to enjoy while you are planning that next big vacation. Cheers!