Tuesday, October 6

Drink Spotlight: The Mai Tai

Fall is definitely in the air here in mid-America, and so before the leaves start falling and the long winter begins, I was looking for a nice, tropical drink to celebrate the end of a great summer and the last (hopefully, but probably not...) grass trimming that I'd just completed. So I turned to one of my all-time favorites, and one drink without which, it just would not be summer: The Mai Tai.

Mai Tai, so the story goes, is Tahatian for "Perfect" or "Out of this world", and was invented by the incorrigible Trader Vic Bergeron. As with a lot of things that Trader Vic has been involved with, it's hard to separate fact from fiction. For one, Vic was extremely paranoid that the bartenders in his restaurant would be coaxed away from him by competitors, and so as a result, his recipes were kept secret from even the people who were preparing them! Vic prepared many different syrups and mixes that were combined by his bartenders, but the true ingredients of which were kept as a closely guarded secret.

What was most unfortunate about this secrecy is that it did not stop rival bartenders from trying to recreate Vic's drinks. Before long, there were hundreds of different recipies from almost as many bartenders, all of them masquerading as a "Mai Tai". This misnaming, commonplace today in the era of the "Frozen Daiquiri", which is often little more than an alcoholic slushie, and a seemingly infinite number of drinks parading themselves around as a "______ Martini", was a real problem for anyone looking for any kind of consistency from one bar to another, and to this day has made the venerable Mai Tai into something with pineapple juice, grenadine, amaretto, and topped with club soda or, horror of horrors, sprite. In many bars, the "Mai Tai" is nothing more than a mix of random rums and juices. I'm all for improvising, but there can be only one Mai Tai. And Highlander.

So how do we have this recipe? Trader Vic took pity upon the masses and, more importantly, wanted to try to end the confusion and just came out with his recipe. You can find it on his website, or in certain good Tiki drink books. Or, below.

The Mai Tai:
  • 2 oz. rum*
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 oz. Orgeat syrup
  • 1/2 oz. orange Curacao
  • 1/4 oz. simple syrup
Shake well and strain over highball or Tiki mug full of crushed ice. Garnish with spent lime hull and sprig of mint.

*A note on the rum. A bottle of J. Wray & Nephew 17-year rum is what Trader Vic had on hand when he first conceived of the drink, but within a few years as the Mai Tai grew in popularity, the already difficult to find rum became ultra-rare and prohibitively priced to the point where Vic began experimenting with mixing different rums to try to get the same character. Rather than spending several hundred to several thousand dollars per-bottle, Vic decided that this was a fair compromise.

The rum combination that I actually used on this occasion, and my favorite combination so far, is 1 oz. Appleton Estate 12-year and 1 oz. Myer's Dark rum. The aged-Appleton is Jamaican rum is a nod to the Jamaican origins of the drink (and is a delicious aged-rum in it's own right), and the Myers adds some depth and funk that really brings the drink together. But you can use any rums that you have handy, and you will find that some combinations just work better than others. I can't recommend the Appleton 12-year highly enough, though.

The other ingredient that you likely don't have just lying around is Orgeat syrup. It took me quite a while to find this almond syrup, and until I did, I had no idea what I was missing. It's worth doing some searching for this drink alone, though several classic cocktails do use it. I found mine at the previously mentioned Lukas Liquor, though there are some recipes around the 'net for home-made, and that will be my next bottle.

And, like the Mojito, make sure you use crushed ice. It helps to tame the otherwise strong flavors in this drink and turns this potent cocktail into a refreshing one. One taste, and you'll know what those Tahitians were talking about. Perfect.

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