This is the best Mai Tai cocktail recipe on the planet. However, let’s learn a little bit about the history of this glorious drink before we make one. The Mai Tai cocktail is easily the most wondrous and yet least understood cocktail sloshing around on the face of the earth. It is the Vincent Van Gogh of the cocktail world. Today, we set the record straight.
The Mai Tai is special. It is a spirit that’s truly associated with tropical paradise. It’s best served with a cocktail umbrella. It soothes, it pleases, it titillates — and yet it seems so wildly open to interpretation that the end result is often hardly the drink it started out as.
Below, we share the history of this legendary drink as well as the perfect original Mai Tai recipe.
How the Mai Tai came to be
It was 1944 when a fellow known as Trader Vic (real name Victor J. Bergeron) invented the Mai Tai. The drink wasn’t a sugary sweet nightmare in any sense — it was simple and designed to show off the quality of a particular rum on Vic’s shelf.
The aforementioned rum was a Jamaican rum that had been aging for nearly two decades. Pungent and golden, this medium-bodied rum was ripe for a creative treatment. Vic thought for a moment and then poured it with some orange curaçao, orgeat, simple syrup, and lime.
He added ice.
A generous man, he poured the first drink for his friends visiting from Tahiti. One of them was so excited that they shouted, “Maita’i roa a’e!” (This means “The best! Out of this world!”) Pleased with this response, Vic named the drink “Mai Tai” to remember the moment.
But little is ever clear-cut in the bartender world. Several other barkeeps laid claim to the drink as well. There’s a sentiment that the Q.B. Cooler, created by Donn “Don the Beachcomber” Beach in 1933, was the original inspiration for the drink. Beach’s invention contained loads more ingredients than the Mai Tai, but Beach claimed Vic was a huge fan of his drink’s flavor mixture and adopted it for his own drink.
To this, Vic replied with characteristic reserve: “Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.” You can find more gems of this sort in his book, Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide.
Polynesian culture became an infatuation for Americans after the Great Depression. Trader Vic opened Polynesian-themed restaurants all over the western hemisphere that drove the frenzy around the Mai Tai to feverish levels.
So feverish, in fact, that the world literally ran out of his preferred rum for the drink. This forced him to opt for a 15-year-old rum as a substitute, which began to run out yet again in the 1950s. Undaunted and tired of depending on the global supply chain for his drinks, Trader Vic coined his own mixture of Jamaican and Martinique rums to imitate the original 17-year-old rum he loved so very much.
But the story doesn’t end there. The Mai Tai found its way to Hawaii in 1953 aboard a Matson Steamship. This company hired Trader Vic himself to finalize cocktail menus at their ultra-luxurious hotels. By 1954, both orange juice and pineapple juice had found their way into the Mai Tai, presumably as a tamer segue for tourists.
It is this recipe that today reigns supreme as the “Mai Tai.” The bastardized drink evoked dreams of a beach paradise and was further popularized by Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and many other high-profile celebs the world over.
It wasn’t until recent years that love for the original reappeared. Trader Vic’s recipe now reigns supreme among cocktail connoisseurs, with rum enthusiasts and bartenders alike reviving what Trader Vic originally envisioned.
Mai Tai Recipe
The perfect Mai Tai comes from San Francisco bartender Martin Cate. Below is his recipe for this amazing cocktail. Note nothing needs to be cooked. When we say cook time below we mean how long it will take to make the drink once you have finished prepping.
- Prep Time 2 Minutes
- Cook Time 2 Minutes
- Total Time 4 Minutes
- Serves 2 People
- Calories 200 kcal
- 12 oz. of crushed ice + cubes
- ¾ fl. oz. of fresh-squeezed (non-negotiable!) lime juice
- ½ fl. oz. of orange curaçao
- ¼ fl. oz. of orgeat
- ¼ fl. oz. of simple syrup (real sugar preferred)
- 2 fl. oz. rum (blended or aged)
- Blend all ingredients in a shaker along with 12 oz. of crushed ice and cubes.
- Shake the drink until it’s frosty cold on the outside and pour it into an old-fashioned glass.
- Use the emptied lime shell and a sprig of mint to garnish it.