Anatomy of a Classic: The Mai Tai Turns 75
Our columnist examines the evidence to figure out if this bestselling cocktail was invented by Trader Vic or his rival Don the Beachcomber.
Seventy-five years ago, Vic Bergeron—known to pretty much everyone as Trader Vic— invented the Mai Tai. He was behind his bar in Oakland one night in 1944, and he was mixing up some new drinks. He slid one across the bar to his friends, Carrie and Ham Guild, who were visiting from their home in Tahiti. The drink had a base of funky Jamaican and Martinique rums, and was further enlivened with the flavors of orange and lime, and a fleeting hint of almond. The Guilds sipped, their eyes widened, and they proclaimed in Tahitian “Mai tai roa ae!”—which has been variously translated as “the best!” and “out of this world!”
A drink was born. A name was bestowed.
As cocktail origin tales go, this one is strikingly detailed and concrete. Vic even specified the types of rums he used (famously, he called for the rare 17-year old Wray & Nephew from Jamaica). The Guilds later signed an affidavit attesting to the truthfulness of Vic’s account of the cocktail’s birth.
But the very fact that the words “affidavit” and “cocktail” appear in the same sentence suggest something more complicated was afoot. And it may also help explain why the Mai Tai has persisted on cocktail lists—although often in a bastardized form. The Mai Tai, in short, is to tiki drinks what T. Rex was to dinosaurs.
So, how did it come to claim the top of the peak? How did it survive for 75 years?
Taste is surely part of it. It’s an excellent and refreshing drink, and instantly brings to mind the tropics. But it’s also a drink that was enshrouded in controversy and a bit of mystery. And it was opportunistic—it took advantage of a perfect cultural moment.
Here’s a brief history of how the Mai Tai came to be enshrined as a classic.
One origin myth is good. Two are better. They clash and provide sparks for illumination and smoke for obfuscation. The tumult leads to controversy, which can fuel longevity.
Phoebe Beach, Don the Beachcomber’s widow, claimed Don invented the drink in 1933, then Vic stole it. This claim was not met with universal agreement. “I want to set the record straight,” Trader Vic wrote. “I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.” In the 1970s, these countervailing arguments reached an apogee in a lawsuit over the drink’s paternity, after someone released a Mai Tai mix under the Don the Beachcomber’s label.
Who’s right? There’s enough circumstantial evidence for a small eyebrow raise to suggest that Vic might have pilfered the drink. To wit, Vic admitted he had visited Don the Beachcomber about three years after it opened, and essentially lifted wholesale the idea of a South Pacific bar and restaurant. He went back to Oakland, where he remodeled his own place, a barbecue spot called Hinky Dinks.
The catch being, that there’s no evidence that Don the Beachcomber had anything called the Mai Tai on the menu in 1937. Indefatigable tiki historian Jeff Berry, author of a half-dozen books on tiki drinks and co-proprietor of Latitude 29 in New Orleans, notes that the drink does not appear on Don’s 1937 menu, nor in his 1937 book of drink recipes.
Berry admits there’s a slight chance that it appeared as an off-menu item. And it wouldn’t be surprising if something did appear called the “Mai Tai,” as this was not an especially obscure phrase at the time. As early as 1845, it had appeared in American newspapers, in accounts of travelers to the French Polynesian islands. In one such account, which carries a whiff of proselytizing, an island resident (formerly a cannibal) noted that his people had stopped eating one another after missionaries arrived. This trend, he noted, was “mai tai, mai tai”—a good thing. By the 20th century the phrase had inflated its meaning, and was more commonly defined as “out of this world,” or “perfection,” perhaps in the same way “nice” became “nice!” in our lifetime.
Given the relative commonness of the name, Don the Beachcomber may have invented one by this name. And Trader Vic, too.
As to what went into the drink itself, few would dispute that Don’s version shared little of its DNA with Vic’s. Phoebe Beach’s version of Don’s recipe called for Jamaican and Cuban rum, along with lime, bitters, Pernod, grapefruit juice, falernum and Cointreau. Notably, it lacked the defining almond note.
When researching his book Sippin’ Safari, Berry was told by a former longtime Don’s employee named Mick Brownlee that Don’s beef was that Vic expropriated a drink called the QB Cooler, which was on Don’s early menus. This was made with falernum rather than orgeat (almond syrup), but the taste profile put it in the same extended family. Berry suspects that Vic may have been trying to reverse engineer the QB Cooler, but ended up with a drink broadly similar but pleasingly distinctive. “You have to give Vic credit,” Berry says. “If Vic was trying to clone the QB Cooler, he ended up with one that was very much his own.”
The earliest Mai Tai appeared on Trader Vic’s menu sometime between 1947 and 1950, according to menu research by Berry. It was not prominently displayed, but lingered low on the list, between the Lotus Bowl and the Martinique Swizzle. (Also listed: Gin & Tonic—your choice of Schweppes or Canada Dry—and Pimm’s No. 1.)
The dispute over the cocktail’s paternity didn’t flare up until the 1970s, for a simple reason: there was little to fight over for the first two or three decades of the drink’s existence. It was just one of dozens of drinks on the menu, and had no special claim on the drinking public’s collective imagination.
Until a convergence of trends pushed the Mai Tai to the forefront. In the 1940s, thousands of American servicemen went sent to the South Pacific, introducing them to an exotic culture. They came home with stories. Among them was a soldier named James A. Michener, who published Tales of the South Pacific in 1947. It became a bestseller, introducing a wide swath of America to Polynesia; this was followed by the Broadway hit South Pacific (1949) and then a smash-hit movie version (1958). Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955 with its tiki-inflected Jungle Cruise, Hawaii became a state in 1959, and Elvis starred in Blue Hawaii in 1961. Tiki, which had been a dining and drinking subculture, accelerated into the mainstream.
At the same time, the development of passenger jets—larger and more efficient than prop planes—made a Hawaii vacation more accessible to more Americans. Tourism boomed, and multi-story resorts displaced low-key guest houses.
The Matson Steamship Line—yes, you could still get to Hawaii by boat—also owned the Royal Hawaiian hotel. During an upgrade, they brought in Trader Vic to help with the drinks list. The splashy resort attracted journalists from the world over, and what happened at their bar did not stay at their bar. In 1956, a noted travel columnist declared that the Mai Tai was the best drink served at the resort. In 1959, another newspaperman declared that the Zombie had been dethroned; the Mai Tai was king.
And so the Mai Tai returned to the mainland, now a celebrity cocktail. Tourists who’d tasted this almond elixir flocked to the mainland tiki bars upon return and demanded it. Bars were quick to add it to their list. A bar without a Mai Tai was no bar at all.
The problem? Trader Vic had kept his recipe a secret, and did so until 1972. That led to some inept reverse engineering and an array misguided riffs early on. Mai Tais in the 1960s were the corner-vendor Gucci bags of the day—identical in name, distant in quality.
Even in its debased state, the Mai Tai persisted through tiki’s tacky years—when anyone with a bit of thatch and a few cocktail umbrellas declared themselves a tiki bar. It even survived the Jimmy Buffett pandemic, when a generic tropical lifestyle threatened to overwhelm the more place-centric South Pacific vibe of old-school tiki joints.
An early, stuttering revival with a return to quality began in the mid-1980s, when the new beverage manager at the Sheraton Moana Hotel in Waikiki found that every bartender seemed to have their own Mai Tai recipe, and none of them were worth ordering a second time. He tracked down Vic’s original recipe, and standardized it across the resort.
The more recent cocktail boom has continued to fuel the revival, and the Mai Tai now appears on menus alongside classics like the Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Widow’s Kiss. Vic’s original recipe is now more or less sacrosanct, and regarded as being something of a proto-craft cocktail, calling for top-shelf rums and fresh ingredients.
The Mai Tai is not an especially hard drink to make, but it is hard to make perfectly. Too much almond can make it treacly; the wrong rums can send it tottering into an irrecoverable imbalance.
But when it’s made well, it remains a remarkable drink, layered and complicated, with each sip like a step further from the shade of palms and across a hot beach to cooling waters.
“It’s not just grenadine, syrup and booze,” says Eve Bergeron, Trader Vic’s granddaughter and the vice-president of marketing for the company, which still has nearly two dozen restaurants around the globe. The drink remains a bestseller, and she says the anniversary will be celebrated at all Trader Vic’s on August 30 this year, with events like the World’s Largest Mai Tai at the Emeryville flagship location, along with specials served worldwide.
Mark your calendar. Seventy-five years for a drink seems worth celebrating.