As the air gets chillier and the days shorter, few things feel more warm and fuzzy than settling in with a well-balanced Mai Tai. Such a simple formula—light and dark rum, orgeat, curaçao and lime juice—and yet such potency in its ability to transport you to a better, sunnier place. Add to that canvas a thoughtful range of new flavors, and that island getaway (in your head) just gets that much more interesting. Sip on these and you’ll want to brag about the adventure to all your friends.
Can't make it to any of the bars serving these great Mai Tais? Try making one of them, the Nutty Ocho Rios, at home.
There’s love poured into this drink, as head bartender Keith Werner likes to say—but also consideration and surprise. The house rum blend that’s infused into it consists of an eclectic mix of those hailing from Jamaica, Martinique, Barbados and Wisconsin (say what?). That’s then mixed with Amaro Averna, fresh lime juice, some nectar syrup, simple sugar and mahalo bitters.
The result is bright and citrusy but also a little funky (the Martinique asserting itself). This is immediately followed by a creamy, vanilla, caramel mid-palate, which turns out to be a lovely contrast to the botanical, nutty finish.
Don’t let the not-quite-imaginative name fool you. This drink is as unexpected as a New Orleans-y bar in the middle of Hollywood, which is what Sassafras proudly is. Where to begin? It’s got subtle orange flavors from Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao, warm vanilla notes from Stolen smoked rum, a house-made spiced orgeat and, thanks to the rum, a “smoked coffee and, wait, did I taste chocolate, too?” thing going on.
The cocktail is made in 10-liter batches and aged in charred French oak barrels for at least 30 days, then hung above the bar in a rotating dry-cleaning rack. The result is crazy-refreshing, whether you’re kicking back on Bourbon or Vine Streets.
image: Danielle Bernabe
This is what happens when you invite a chef at your establishment to help in the drink-tinkering process: You get an “h” added to “Tai,” and a sweet-spicy drink that’s fun on the taste buds on so many levels. It’s Gosling’s rum and fresh lime juice, mixed with (believe it or not) peanut-infused coconut milk, run through a nitro tap.
“It gives the cocktail a little sparkle and makes it very round,” says beverage director Robert Stevens, who collaborated with chef and Tiki drink lover Travis Weisner. To top it all off—what else?—freshly ground Thai chili, which melds beautifully with the lime and peanut.
We know. The name sounds sticky-chewy, like something from a vintage candy shop. But, oh, were we mistaken. Think cacao, not chocolate—the pure, good stuff, harvested from warm faraway lands. It’s decidedly for grown-ups—as is the case with the new Mai Tai from Kui Wright, the head bartender at the resort that provided the tropical backdrop for Don Draper in season six of Mad Men.
That flavor comes from not chocolate liqueur but rum infused with cacao (specifically, SelvaRey, a five-year-aged dark rum variety with cacao, co-owned by Bruno Mars, who grew up on Hawaii). “We smelled it, and we knew we wanted to do something with it,” says Wright. The texture is a surprise, too, thanks to the tapioca, egg white and cacao powder foam that tops off the drink. Flecked with sea salt, the whole package is sublime and designed to be sipped. Without a straw. Slowly.
Is this caffeinated cocktail a brunch beverage or an after-dinner drink for those nights destined to melt into the next day? Doesn’t matter. We’ll drink it whenever. Frankly, the idea of sipping coffee liqueur (Caffè Borghetti) blended with pineapple-infused rum (Plantation) was just insane enough to make us sit up and pay attention.
But don’t be scared. It’s shaken with fresh lime, a mildly flavored yet strong-bodied orange liqueur (Wolfberger Wolfamer) and a house-made orgeat. (The recipe is hush-hush, but head bartender Tonia Guffey says the almonds are toasted and blanched on-premises.) It becomes this incredibly balanced cocktail that encourages you to sit back, relax and enjoy.
For those evenings you’d like something refreshing but also comforting, this drink might hit the spot. Brandon Reyes, who invented it for the experimental Bittercube-run tasting room, says it’s intended to “recall your trip to the Caribbean around the fire with your best pals.”
The key is the subtle addition of apple and cinnamon (yes, like in your pie). Citric and malic acids are added to apple juice so it turns into sort of a lime with more personality. An almond-cinnamon syrup replaces the typical orgeat. Both are shaken with house-made dark and white rums (Twisted Path) and orange liqueur (fresh oranges in a vodka base), plus Bittercube blackstrap bitters. Finally, it’s topped with edible flowers, a star fruit slice, a cocktail umbrella and (who cannot feel all of their stress melt away when they see this?) a Krazy Straw.
It’s not surprising to find the definition of a Mai Tai running wild and loose in The Big Easy. And it certainly does at Cure, a swish craft cocktail bar in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. One of note: the Culture Vulture, described as the “grandchild of the Mai Tai and Margarita.” There’s the expected fresh lime and whiff of orange (from orange flower water), but in this production, the role of the two rums will be played by Siembra Azul añejo tequila and El Buho mezcal. A pumpkin-seed orgeat stands in for the typical almond and bridges Tiki with south of the border.
Dangerous? Maybe. But, says Neal Bodenheimer, Cure’s co-owner and the creator of this particular drink, “We’re in the businesses of first experiences." So actually it may be a safe bet for people who like Margaritas but want to try a Mai Tai, or vice versa, he says. And perhaps it's just the right amount of thrill-seeking for those of us who want our Margarita and our Mai Tai, too.
image: Sharon Pye
Libby is the wife of one of the founders of this unique distillery and cocktail bar, and this is her luscious creation, built over crushed ice in a bamboo Collins glass. The orgeat and house-made rum are artfully blended amid a bounty of juiciness: fresh-squeezed lime and orange juices and organic pineapple juice. Floats of in-house grenadine and overproof dark demerara rum add complexity to flavor, and a pineapple wedge and brandied cherry garnish underscore the “I don’t take myself too seriously” factor that’s so important when sipping a Tiki cocktail.
When you have a Mai Tai with the supposed original maker’s name in it, you expect the typical ingredients: two rums (in this case, Coruba dark Jamaican and El Dorado five-year-old Guyana), fresh lime juice, curaçao and orgeat. But this is no ordinary orgeat. The house-made concoction includes a mix of superfine and turbinado sugar, a bit of amaretto, a touch of cognac and 20 drops of rose water.
Shake this goodness with the other ingredients, and you hit the “bliss point,” says general manager Max Seaman. (With a surname like that, you expect distinctive seaside cocktails.) The resulting drink is sweet, sour, boozy and refreshing but also savory, which is probably why it’s such a desired day-off drink among staff and regulars alike.
image: Jakob N. Layman
It’s a Tiki drink with regional pride. Light and dark Twisted Path rums (organic and from Milwaukee) are mixed with curacao and lime, as a good Mai Tai should be—but also treated with Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur, pine-nut orgeat, and blackstrap and bolivar bitters. “It has all the infrastructure of a Mai Tai but way more herbaceousness and dried-out flavor,” says Marco Zappia, managing partner of Bittercube, who masterminded the recipe.
Almost more importantly, it’s served in a Mason jar and garnished with pine needles (or some other evergreen), along with an umbrella, tiki straw, and edible flowers. It's a drink that warms in so ways for those of us in sweater-weather territory.
This one sports the usual good stuff but with an additional scrumptious nutty layer. “There’s something familiar about it but also something new,” says Shane Paule, the bar manager at this hip island-inspired restaurant. Macadamia nut liqueur is mixed with light rum, Jamaican rum, fresh lemon and an orgeat that takes the kitchen two hours to make. (It’s worth it, though, he says: “You can really taste the almonds.”)
The whole shebang is poured over crushed ice, then topped with fresh ground nutmeg, a spice that originally hails from Indonesia. It’s drinking in the tropics.
You never know when inspiration will strike for a good Mai Tai. This one came about when beverage director Steven Tuttle was exchanging recipes with fellow bartender Kelly Merrill of Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. Merrill served up a classic Mai Tai and navy grog, at which point Tuttle was hit with a thunderbolt: Why not combine the two? The resulting drink is a Mai Tai for those who prefer their cocktails dry, Tiki or not.
“We use a navy-strength rum blend [Jamaican, white and añejo] that provides “heat and funk,” says Tuttle. It’s shaken with the necessary Mai Tai staples but also falernum, pineapple and two types of bitters: walnut and Angostura. It’s the Angostura float that’s the charmer. As you drink it, it mixes down into the cocktail, he says, and changes the flavor ever so slightly as you finish it.