The Basics Drinking Out

The History and Secrets of the Mai Tai

Justin Shiels

Tiki is the ska music of the cocktail world—a genre with a relatively small but fiercely devoted band of fans. But outside of that reverent circle of enthusiasts, there’s a whole lot of misunderstanding about the nuances that make all that fun seem so entirely effortless.

To many a bartender, the Mai Tai is the quintessential torch carrier of Tiki, a rummy, nutty, citrusy mix that’s not simply the result of a breezy happy accident—far from it. But after Tiki made its flowery foray into American culture between the 1930s and ’50s, thanks to tropical-minded entrepreneurs like Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (a.k.a. Donn Beach) and Victor Jules Bergeron (a.k.a. Trader Vic), the poor Mai Tai got a bit mangled.

“I see a Mai Tai on a lot of menus and think, Oh, cool!” says bartender Sarah Ann Clarke of Tiki den Hidden Harbor in Pittsburgh. “But then I look at the list of ingredients—bright red maraschino cherries and bottled fruit juice—and that’s getting away from what the drink is supposed to be.”

The flame that ignites the heart and soul of a Mai Tai comes from a conscious layering of both rich and bright, sweet and tart flavors and texture. “The Mai Tai is fairly simple seeming, but it’s complex and not too sweet. I really love the straight-forwardness of it and the way all the ingredients play together,” says Clarke.

Much credit for that complexity comes from the one-two punch of the rums typically used: Jamaican and, often, Martinique—one rich and earthy from its pot-distilled molasses base, one zippy and floral, as distilled from freshly pressed cane juice.

That layering of rum styles is an ode to the original single rum that kicked off a tropical revolution—Jamaica’s J. Wray & Nephew. It was, by most accounts, used in the drink invented by Bergeron, the founder of the Trader Vic’s Tiki restaurant empire, which began in 1934 with one Oakland, Calif., spot and now has locations everywhere from Munich to Manama, Bahrain.

“He blew through his supply and had to switch to blending rums,” says Martin Cate, the author of “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki” and owner of the bar Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. “For him, it was all about keeping the rums involved full-bodied. You can make a Mai Tai with a light-bodied, clean, column-still rum, but it’s not as interesting as a drink.”

Add to that the nutty sweetness of orgeat (an almond syrup most commonly found in French and Italian culinary culture), orange liqueur and lime, and suddenly there’s a symphony of flavor afoot.

“The Jamaican rum is super funky, and the Martinique rum is grassy and vegetal,” says Clarke. “Together, they make an interesting combo, and it’s a great intro for those who are new to Tiki.”

Justin Shiels

But was Bergeron the true inventor of the marvelous Mai Tai, or was it Beach? Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the owner of New Orleans’ ode to Tikidom, Latitude 29, unearthed a couple of plausible yet differing answers to that question, although it does appear that Bergeron’s version was his and his alone and the one that prevails today.

According to Berry, Beach’s widow, Phoebe Beach, recalls her husband inventing a drink he called the Mai Tai Swizzle in 1933, but it didn’t stick in the cocktail canon and disappeared from his famous bar and restaurant Don the Beachcomber’s menu sometime before 1937.

Berry also hunted down Bergeron’s longtime executive assistant, Fred Fung, who affirms that Bergeron developed his own Mai Tai in 1944 without any knowledge of Beach’s version 10 years prior. “But then again, Beach’s friend Mick Brownlee, who carved Tikis for Beach throughout the 1950s, said that Bergeron was trying to reverse-engineer a drink he liked at Don the Beachcomber’s called the Q.B. Cooler,” says Berry.

More than the J. Wray & Nephew and subsequent search for the perfect facsimile of it, one of Bergeron’s other enduring contributions was the orgeat, which was not used by Beach. “Vic was part French Canadian, and his parents had a grocery store, where they sold it,” says Cate. “He enjoyed it as a kid.” Bergeron found that a little almond syrup added a lovely accent and some much-needed depth, both soft and earthy, to the rum and citrus. He went on to use it in two other of his paradisiacal creations: the Scorpion and the Fog Cutter.

“By the time Bergeron finished, he had created an entirely new formula, one he could rightly call his own,” says Berry of the Bergeron vs. Beach debate. “The two drinks have nothing in common except lime juice and rum, and not even the same rum.”

Today, the rum has become less of a conundrum and more of an arena where bartenders of sharp palate and flowery dress code play.

“I’m not sure what the correct result is,” says Brian Miller, a partner and the beverage director of The Polynesian in New York City. “I’m just trying to replicate Vic’s masterpiece with what I have at my disposal.” For Miller, that’s a blend of Jamaican, demerara and agricole rums. In the spirit of Bergeron, he and others find their own way to the ultimate expression of the drink through myriad combinations of its mainstay spirit.

“That’s what’s fun about the drink,” says Cate. “You can be a purist about the structure, but the rum world has a lot of flexibility. I’ve gone through multiple variations in my Mai Tai. It’s one of these things I’m never done playing with. When I see people mixing around, I say, hey, why not? That’s cool as long as your rums are talking to you.”