The Basics History & Trends

6 Things You Should Know About the Mai Tai

Rid yourself of misconceptions about this time-honored tiki drink.

A short glass lined with white zig zagging designs is filled with crushed ice, a spring of mint, a thick slice of lime, and the golden hues of a Mai Tai
Tim Nusog

Contrary to how bars were serving it in the ’90s and early 2000s, a real Mai Tai is no haphazard fruit-salad mishmash—it’s a classic straight to its rummy core. But like many drinks that involve fruit juices, it got muddied along the way, with shortcuts and liberties that often left you with a headache and a literal bad taste in your mouth, instead of memories of tropical splendor. But that degradation will be suffered no more—it’s the moment of the Mai Tai, and here’s what it’s all about.

1. It’s the Stuff of Tiki Legend

While it’s impossible to give full credit to one maker of the Mai Tai, its invention is likely a one-two punch of two Tiki icons: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach) and Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron. Beach seemingly started the footprint for it in the 1930s at his famed Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood (now in Huntington Beach, California.), but Trader Vic certainly appears to be the barman who perfected the drink as we know it today sometime in the 1940s at his renowned original Trader Vic’s, in California’s East Bay.

2. It’s Not Supposed to Be Super Sweet

“While bastardized over the years, the Mai Tai is quite a dry, crisp and boozy cocktail,” says Meaghan Dorman of Dear Irving in New York City. Texture, however, is another matter. Her tweaked version includes lime juice, orgeat, Clément Créole Shrubb, Rhum JM and Appleton Estate Reserve Blend Jamaican rum. “The richness and almond fat of the orgeat lengthens the finish and makes it rounder,” she says. “The hit of rhum agricole adds a fresh, grassy funk to the richer Jamaican rum, keeping it dynamic.”

3. Ice Is the Key

“Coming at this from nearly 20 years of making Mai Tais, I want to see the drink on crushed ice, with a nice frost on the outside of the glass,” says Tiki maven Martin Cate, the owner of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove. “The dilution rate of crushed ice is slower.” For him, that means shaking it with crushed ice and dumping the entire contents of the shaker into your glass. “If you use just a little, then you shake and the drink melts it and becomes insipid and watery. But a good solid scoop of crushed ice sits really well for a long time.”

4. So Is the Rum

“Every Mai Tai since Trader Vic’s original, which featured 17-year-old Wray & Nephew, has been an attempt to recreate a rum that hasn’t been produced for decades,” says New York City bartender Ray Sakover. “This rum was the driving force behind the classic Mai Tai. ... In order to replicate the original flavor of the Wray & Nephew 17, Vic used a pot-still Jamaican rum and a Martinique rhum. ... Most bartenders since have used this or similar blends to stay true to what we believe the original might have tasted like.”

5. More Is More with Garnishes

While a Martini looks best with a single olive or lemon twist, and a Negroni only needs an orange peel, with the Mai Tai, bigger is better. “My advice on garnish is go crazy—a little cocktail umbrella, pineapple slice, tropical flower,” says Shawn Chen of RedFarm and Decoy in New York City. “I like to embrace the Tiki culture. When it comes to garnishes, it should make you feel like you’re being transported to a tropical paradise.”

6. It’s Meant to Make You Happy

“The history of the Mai Tai came out of people’s yearning for a place that’s carefree and peaceful after the Great Depression,” says Chen. Indeed, one of the charms of the Mai Tai is its ability to make one forget one's troubles, both large and small.