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Behind the Cocktail: The Mai Tai

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The city of Oakland, Calif., is known for many things, including the Black Panthers and the Raiders football team. But for cocktail lovers, the city across the bay from San Francisco is revered as the birthplace of the Mai Tai.

The classic tiki drink was dreamed up in 1944 by Victor Bergeron—the legendary barman and raconteur also known as Trader Vic—at his eponymous Oakland restaurant. One day, when he was in a creative mood, he mixed Wray & Nephew 17-Year-Old Rum with fresh lime juice, orange Curaçao, French orgeat (almond syrup) and a dollop of rock candy syrup. He shook the ingredients with shaved ice and garnished the cocktail with a mint sprig and lime shell. As the legend goes, Tahitian friends visiting the bar tasted the new concoction and declared it “Maita’i—roa ae,” which is Tahitian for “out of this world—the best.”

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While that story is generally accepted, Bergeron’s rival Donn Beach (born Ernest Gantt)—who opened Don the Beachcomber, the world’s first tiki bar, in 1933 in Los Angeles—also claimed to have created the drink.

After World War II, the popularity of tiki made the Mai Tai a bar staple, even in actual tropical locales like Hawaii. But Bergeron never disclosed his exact recipe, and many bartenders made up their own versions. “That’s why we have so many bad Mai Tais with pineapple juice and other hideous additions,” says Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum.

While the Mai Tai still can be found all over—including at the many Trader Vic’s outposts around the globe—the drink gets special affection in the Bay Area. (After a campaign by local bar The Conga Lounge, city council member Rebecca Kaplan declared August 30, 2009, Mai Tai Day in Oakland.)

The way Martin Cate, talented mixologist and owner of San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove, makes his Mai Tai, it’s strong, tart, slightly sweet and takes you to places far away. Trader Vic surely would have approved.

Traditional Mai Tai

Contributed by Martin Cate

INGREDIENTS:

  • .75 oz Fresh lime juice
  • .25 oz Rock candy syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
  • .25 oz Orgeat almond syrup
  • .5 oz Orange Curaçao
  • 2 oz Premium aged rum (Appleton Estate 12-Year-Old, El Dorado 12- Year-Old)
  • Garnish: Lime rind and fresh mint sprig
  • Glass: Double Old Fashioned

PREPARATION:
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with crushed ice. Shake vigorously until the shaker is well-chilled and frosty on the outside. Pour the drink (unstrained) into a double Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with half of a juiced lime and a fresh mint sprig.

Maria C. Hunt is hostess of Champagne appreciation and entertaining website The Bubbly Girl and author of The Bubbly Bar: Champagne & Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion.

Recipes: Mai Tai
Locations: 807 California Oakland
Series & Type: HistoryBehind the Drink
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