Often regarded as Hawaii's unofficial signature cocktail, the Mai Tai’s origin is not the Aloha State.
The Mai Tai, the rum-forward cocktail reportedly exhausted global rum supplies in the 1940s and '50s, was invented in 1944 by Victor J. Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic. Originally, it wasn't a saccharine concoction but a simple drink crafted to showcase the robust flavour of a 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum. Bergeron highlighted the golden, medium-bodied rum with a subtle blend of lime, orgeat, orange curaçao, and simple syrup. Legend has it that, after serving the cocktail to Tahitian friends, they were so enamoured that one exclaimed, "Maita’i roa a’e," meaning "out of this world! The best!" This praise led Bergeron to christening his creation the "Mai Tai," signifying "the best."
However, like many cocktail origin stories, disputes exist about the accuracy of Bergeron's account. Donn Beach, the founding father of the ‘tiki culture,’ asserts that Trader Vic's recipe was actually inspired by his own punch, the QB Cooler, invented in 1933. According to Beach, Bergeron, a fan of Beachcomber's restaurant during the period when "Trader Vic" was just a nickname, not a restaurant, admired the flavour profile of the punch and incorporated it into his Mai Tai recipe. Despite the conflicting narratives, Bergeron staunchly maintained that anyone who contested the claim of him being the drink’s original creator, was a, well “dirty stinker."
Following the Great Depression, a growing fascination among Americans for Polynesian culture propelled the tiki trend, giving rise to Victor J. Bergeron's Trader Vic's chain of Polynesian-themed restaurants. These establishments flourished, spanning from Seattle to Havana, Cuba. A couple of years after the Mai Tai's invention, the world faced a shortage of the 17-year-old rum initially used by Bergeron in his recipe. In response, he substituted it with a 15-year-old Wray and Nephew rum.
However, as supplies of the 15-year-old Wray and Nephew rum began to dwindle in the mid-1950s, Bergeron took proactive measures to preserve the continuity of his renowned recipe. He devised a blend consisting of Jamaican rum and aged molasses-based Martinique rum, aiming to replicate the distinctive qualities of the original Wray and Nephew rum. This adaptation not only showcased Bergeron's commitment to the longevity of his creation but also demonstrated the adaptability and ingenuity inherent in the world of mixology.
The modified recipe introduced by Bergeron in 1954, featuring pineapple and orange juices, eclipsed the original in people's affections and on cocktail menus. The Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai, with its sweet and tropical twist, became synonymous with the image of paradise, emblematic of sipping a Mai Tai by the beach during a Hawaiian vacation. This cocktail even secured a notable role in Elvis Presley's 1961 film, Blue Hawaii.
As the 1980s ushered in a period of less sophisticated cocktail practices, marked by the use of store-bought juices and syrups in place of fresh ingredients, the Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai smoothly adapted. Canned pineapple and orange juices were combined with generically labelled "dark rum" and "light rum" in recipes used by bars and restaurants. The original nuances of the Wray and Nephew rum were gradually forgotten. Similar to the daiquiri and margarita, instant Mai Tai mixes, including one from Trader Vic's, became available during this era, simplifying the cocktail-making process but sacrificing the authenticity and depth of the original recipe.
In recent years, restaurateur and author Jeff Berry has been credited with bringing attention to the original recipe of the Mai Tai. Active in the emerging tiki scene in Los Angeles during the early 1990s, Berry became the cocktail expert among his peers.
While the Mai Tai recipe Berry published wasn't a revelation, it gained significance in the late 1990s. By then, Trader Vic's was no longer producing the specific Mai Tai Rum needed to make the drink. Thus, Berry revisited the second adjusted formula and published a recipe that called for Jamaican and Martinique rums. Thanks to the popularity of Berry's books, bars of various kinds started offering Mai Tais crafted to the 1944 recipe formulation, using the specified combination of rums.
Add the white rum, dark rum, curaçao, lime juice and orgeat into a shaker with crushed ice and shake lightly.
Pour into a rocks glass.
Garnish with a lime wheel and mint sprig.