While some Mai Tai variants call for pineapple juice, this adapted 1944 Trader Vic recipe omits it for the more classic recipe favored by Martin Cate’s award-winning Tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove. Cate, a former Trader Vic’s bartender, brings some interesting perspective to the Mai Tai genre, which he details alongside the recipe on page 261 of his book, “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.”
Making the perfect old-school Mai Tai is far from a complicated affair. Instead, this drink is all about simplicity (according to Cate, the Mai Tai is “really just a nutty rum Margarita”). The key to bringing a balanced and robust nuttiness to your Mai Tai is using quality orgeat. Try making your own at home, or you can purchase or order the syrup from a specialty cocktail shop.
As with many other cocktails, classic or not, using fresh juice is also key. To juice your limes at home, see if you can find an original Sunkist hand squeezer, which has long been the preferred Mai Tai juicing tool behind the bar at Trader Vic’s. Cate recommends searching for one of these on eBay. The major difference in using this kind of juicer instead of a modern-style hand juicer is that the lime half is hollowed out while maintaining its shape, whereas the hinge-style hand juicers of today will flip the shell inside-out. The idea here is to render a nice half-shell suitable for garnishing. Lastly, don’t shake the lime shell with the drink as it will impart unwanted bitterness.
In addition, Cate advises bartenders to experiment with rums when making Mai Tais. In his words, this drink is “the perfect foil for a huge variety of rums.” He also specifies in the book that the Trader Vic’s original recipe called for 100% pot-still rum with significant age, so bear that in mind when developing your own interpretation.
Fun fact: Trader Vic never served a Mai Tai with a rum float. This style was added sometime over the course of the drink’s evolution between 1944 and now. Cate notes that a Mai Tai served with a float of overproof Demerara rum is referred to as the “Old Way,” a moniker stemming from an elderly Trader Vic’s regular who preferred his Mai Tais this way.
- 2 ounces premium aged rum (such as Appleton Estate 12-year-old or El Dorado 12-year-old)
- 1/2 ounce orange curaçao
- 3/4 ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
- 1/4 ounce orgeat
- 1/4 ounce rock candy syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
- Garnish: mint sprig
Add the rum, orange curaçao, lime juice, orgeat and rock candy syrup into a shaker with crushed ice and shake vigorously until the shaker is well-chilled and frosty on the outside.
Pour (unstrained) into a double Old Fashioned glass.
Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.