The Mai Tai – an introduction to Tiki
Let’s talk Tiki. What is Tiki? And why do I capitalise it? For the same reason that people capitalise “God”. Tiki is both a style of cocktail (that could otherwise be described as the tropical style or “exotics”) and an entire lifestyle subculture. Let’s stick to the former, at least for now. Tiki drinks are typically, but not always, rum based and usually include fruit juices, syrups and spices. They are often comprised of a larger number of ingredients than normal cocktails and it is not unusual for a Tiki drink to contain three different rums. Yes, in the same drink. Many Tiki drinks contain overproof rum (57% – 75.5% ABV) which has given them a fearsome reputation although these strong spirits are generally used in very small amounts. Tiki is the most joyous style of mixed drink but it should not be mistaken – as it often is – as a frivolous affair. Serious Tiki drinks are complex in both preparation and in taste. The best have layer upon layer of flavour and nuance and they are also notoriously easy to make badly. As always, balance is the key – typically a sweet/sour balance but a spice often plays a role too.
The history of Tiki has two phases, and two key characters. We’ll deal with the second phase first. Obviously. Tiki had existed as an elite fad since 1934 (more of which some other time) but after the end of WWII it was brought to the masses – largely by one man, and one drink. This drink. Trader Vic – pseudonyms are de rigeur in Tikiland – created the Mai Tai, which is apparently Tahitian for “the dog’s bollocks” or somesuch, in 1944 at his Polynesian themed eatery and bar in Oakland, California. Yes, Tiki, bizarrely, is an entirely American invention. There has been some fierce discussion in the cocktail world about the Mai Tai’s origin but it seems to be finally settled in Vic’s favour so I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that a properly made Mai Tai is, in my opinion, one of the finest drinks in the known universe. The problem is that it is almost never properly made, although you probably have a better chance now than at any time in the last 45 years. Ignore any recipe that is not very close to the one below. It will be pure shite, as we say where I’m from. A good trick to ensure the delivery of a quality Mai Tai to your drinking hand is to ask the bartender if they can make a “1944” or “T.V” Mai Tai. If s/he smiles rather than frowns then you are certainly in capable hands.
The Mai Tai sounds tricky but it is in fact quite simple to make, the secret being to first make yourself some Mai Tai mix. The mix keeps for a long time and the Mai Tai is so good that I personally guarantee you’ll never be left with a funky half bottle languishing in the back of your cocktail cabinet.
Mai Tai mix:
1 part 2:1 sugar syrup (which is itself 2 parts sugar to one part boiling hot water)
1 part orgeat (see notes)
2 parts curacao (not blue curacao – see notes)
Mix well and store in a sterilised glass bottle. Does not need to be refrigerated. Try making an 8oz batch first (2oz / 2oz / 4oz).
The Mai Tai
1 ounce of dry golden rum
1 ounce of rich dark rum
1 ounce of Mai Tai mix (aka 0.5oz curacao, 0.25oz orgeat, 0.25oz rich syrup)
1 ounce of fresh lime juice
Shake hard with about half a shaker of crushed ice. Pour, unstrained, into a DOF glass.
Garnish with half a lime shell and a sprig of mint (this is supposed to look like a desert island). Serve with straw/s short enough that the drinker gets a good whiff of the lime and mint.
Toast Trader Vic Bergeron (or his wooden leg) each and every time.
See, with the mix made in advance, there’s nothing to it. You can rattle these out at high speed all night. And they’re a real crowd pleaser. You’ll be an instant cocktail god/dess.
The observant student will note that the Mai Tai is a convoluted variant of the Daiquiri. Bonus points if you spotted that.
Orgeat is an almond syrup – although there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s also a refreshing addition to a glass of soda and ice. Monin brand is a decent start although there are better options if you get very serious.
You can use triple sec (Cointreau is simply a fancy triple sec) in place of the curacao but you will get the best results from an actual (non-blue) curacao. Bols Dry Orange works well and is very affordable and there are others including Pierre Ferrand.
To sterilise a glass bottle, first clean it out well, fill with very hot tap water while you boil some water. Pour out the hot water and fill with the just-boiled water and leave for at least 20 minutes. Your bottle is now sterile and your mixes will last a lot longer in it. A surprising number of cocktailistas don’t do this and seem surprised when some stringy mold shows up in their fancy-ass syrup two weeks later. The pre-fill is important both to prevent the bottle from cracking due to the thermal shock and to keep the temperature high enough to kill any bacteria.
The real joy of the Mai Tai is playing with the rum combinations. There is much discussion about this in Tikiland, often with one of the rums being a rhum agricole from Martinique. In the interests of simplicity I suggest the following as a guideline. Rum 1 should generally be a dry Spanish style rum – Havana Club Anejo Especial or Reserva are excellent here. If you are in a country, ahem, where you can’t get genuine HC then you should have asked your government to be nicer to the Cubans. Or you could use a similar rum like Flor de Cana 5 or 7 year old, Barbancourt 4 or 8 year old, Abuelo Anejo or 7 year old or Brugal Anejo. Rum 2 should be something rich and maybe a little sweeter. Appleton Extra (aka 12 year old) is a good starting point but there a many other options. Have fun experimenting!
If you want to know more about Tiki, don’t fret, we’ll be back on the subject soon and often. If you can’t wait then I massively recommend reading Beachbum Berry Remixed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. I warned you about the names, right. They call me The Swizzler.
By Chris Pencis 27th August 2017 - 5:40 am
Thank you so much for this world with entry into the mai tai. I’m excited to experiment with more rum varieties.
By Andy 27th August 2017 - 9:17 pm
You’re very welcome Chris. One of the reasons the Mai Tai is such a great drink is the way it responds to changes in the rum (and orange liquer) components. Happy experimentation!
By Andries Oyens 28th December 2021 - 6:13 pm
It is by far the best cocktail I know😊 Thank you Andy
By Andy 7th January 2022 - 9:56 pm
Definitely in my top 5 too!