Searching for the Father of the Mai Tai Cocktail
In the new edition of his book ‘And a Bottle of Rum, Revised and Updated,’ Wayne Curtis searches for the creator of this famous tiki drink.
The Mai Tai has more fathers than one can reasonably hope to count. There’s a good explanation behind the volume of claims. The Los Alamos–like secrecy that prevailed in many tiki bars meant that no standard recipe rose to the top. Trader Vic Bergeron published two cocktail recipe books at the height of his fame, yet neither included the Mai Tai. So anyone with access to a few bottles of liquor could throw together anything and call it a Mai Tai. And they did. Inexplicably, many involved pineapple juice—which Trader Vic’s original assuredly did not.
Bergeron spent a fair amount of energy in his later years defending his paternity. That others claimed to be the Mai Tai’s inventor, he said, “aggravates my ulcer completely.” The Mai Tai arose as many fine cocktails do, he said, as the result of an impromptu mingling of ingredients. It was 1944. “I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant,” he recalled in 1970. “I took down a bottle of seventeen-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some Curaçao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color [and] I stuck in a branch of fresh mint...”
He said he first served the drink to friends, a couple visiting from Tahiti named Ham and Carrie Gould. Carrie smiled and said, “Mai tai roa ae”—which means “the best” in Tahitian. Bergeron christened the drink on the spot. It later made the leap from Oakland to his San Francisco and Seattle restaurants. And in 1953, according to Trader Vic, the Mai Tai was exported to Hawaii when he was hired by the Matson Steamship Lines to create a drink menu at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
The chief countervailing genesis tale comes, not surprisingly, from Donn Beach, who claimed he invented the Mai Tai at his bar around 1933. The Beachcomber’s version started with heavy Jamaican rum and light Cuban rum, then added lime, bitters, Pernod, grapefruit juice, falernum, and Cointreau. A newspaperman who claimed to have been drinking with both Beach and Bergeron in the early 1970s says that Bergeron admitted that Beach was the Mai Tai’s inventor.
Maybe, maybe not. Donn Beach may very well have been the first to apply the name Mai Tai to a drink. But the one served at Trader Vic’s is the source of today’s classic Mai Tai, and is far and away the better drink. It deserves to prevail.
- 1 oz freshly squeezed Lime juice
- 1 oz Rhum Clément VSOP (or other aged Martinique rum)
- 1 oz Appleton Estate Rum
- .5 oz Orange Curaçao
- .5 oz Orgeat syrup
- .25 oz Simple syrup (1 part water, 1 part sugar)
- Garnish: Lime shell and a mint sprig
- Glass: Double rocks
- Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with 2 cups of crushed ice.
- Shake vigorously for 10 seconds and pour into a double rocks glass and garnish with the lime shell and mint sprig.
Excerpted from And a Bottle of Rum, Revised and Updated. Copyright © 2018 by Wayne Curtis. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.