Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mai Tai Cocktail

Mai Tai Cocktail

World’s Best Umbrella Drink?

The Mai Tai is perfect as a summer cocktail: sultry, yet cooling and refreshing at the same time.

And to answer the question posed above: Yes, the Mai Tai is the world’s best umbrella drink. No doubt about that.

But I know that many people scorn the whole concept of umbrella drinks — usually because they’ve had bad experiences with versions that are over-the-top frou-frou or so full of fruit they are sickeningly sweet. So, lest you harbor suspicions about the Mai Tai because of its parasol persuasion, let me hasten to add that this is arguably one of the world’s top ten drinks.

In fact, I’d say there’s really no “arguably” about it.

Mai Tai Cocktail

Recipe: Mai Tai Cocktail

Trader Vic originated the Mai Tai in the 1940’s. And bartenders have been abusing the drink ever since.

Most bartenders have no idea how to mix a proper Mai Tai. Some use Mai Tai-making as an excuse to use up half-empty containers of various fruit juices that have been sitting in the refrigerator for who knows how long. Then they add several disparate spirits, top with an umbrella, and call it a drink.

No thanks.

A real Mai Tai contains just a few ingredients. But ingredient quality is important in this drink, so choosing the proper ones is an important consideration, as we’ll discuss in the notes.

This recipe serves 1. The umbrella is optional, but a cocktail straw makes it more enjoyable. There are several “authentic” recipes for this drink that differ slightly in their details. I prefer the version that David Wondrich championed in Killer Cocktails.

  • 1 ounce dark rum (I like Gosling’s; Meyer’s works well too and is readily available)
  • 1 ounce amber rum, preferably aged (Appleton Estate V/X is good; Bacardi gold is serviceable; a more expensive rum would be ideal)
  • ½ ounce Grand Marnier or Cointreau (Grand Marnier is the better choice; see notes)
  • 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice (about 1 large lime)
  • ½ ounce Orgeat syrup
  • Garnish (optional; can use lime wedge, empty lime shell, mint sprig, maraschino cherry, pineapple wedge, and/or umbrella for garnish; see notes)
  1. Put all ingredients (except garnish) in cocktail shaker that is half-filled with ice. Shake well.
  2. Strain into glass filled with crushed iced (see notes; cubes work, but not as well). Garnish with a sprig of mint; or a lime wheel; or an umbrella; or by putting empty lime shell in glass; or use a combination (see notes).
Why Shake?

Note that the recipe directs you to shake the drink. There are three reasons for this:
  1. It makes the drink cold.
  2. Shaking with ice somewhat dilutes the drink, which adds volume and an important dimension to the final flavor.
  3. Lime (or any citrus) juice is difficult to incorporate into a drink merely by stirring. So it’s better to shake a drink that contains citrus.


  • Choosing the right ingredients is important for this cocktail. The higher quality the rum, the better this drink tastes. That said, you don’t want to invest a fortune (and some aged rums are crazy expensive). The brands mentioned in the ingredients list work well, but feel free to experiment. Jamaican rums are ideal in a Mai Tai.
  • Trader Vic’s original recipe calls for curaçao, a liqueur made with dried citrus peel. Thus Grand Marnier (which is a type of curaçao) is an excellent choice. I use Cointreau because it’s the orange liqueur that works best in most of the cocktails I make on a regular basis. And given the price of these liqueurs, I choose not to stock both Cointreau and Grand Marnier in my home bar (although their flavors are distinct, they also quite similar).
  • Cointreau is actually a triple sec, a class of liqueurs that is quite similar to curaçao but somewhat drier (less sweet). Camper English wrote a great explanation of the difference between curaçao and triple sec in Fine Cooking.
  • The Mai Tai requires Orgeat syrup, a sweet syrup flavored with almonds and orange or rose water. I rarely see this in liquor stores, but it’s readily available online. Amazon sells a 3-pack of Orgeat at an attractive price. That much will last you a couple of years, but the stuff keeps. (You can also buy a single bottle, but the 3-pack is the better deal.) Refrigerate once you open the bottle.
  • It’s impossible to duplicate Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai because he used 17-year-old Wray & Nephew rum, which is no longer available. The recipe here is a pretty close approximation, however. Other good variants on the recipe include another David Wondrich version, found on Esquire Magazine’s cocktail reference site; Drink Boy’s (he also has a nice video on how to make a Mai Tai); and the version on The Internet Cocktail Database.
  • The best source I’ve seen on Mai Tai historical development and recipe variations is at Wikibooks.
  • You want to serve the Mai Tai over crushed ice if possible. If you have a refrigerator with an ice maker that provides crushed ice, you’re gold. If not, wrap some ice cubes in a heavy towel (canvas is traditional, but who has that around the house?), give the bundle some good whacks with a blunt instrument, and voilà: crushed ice. Or you can use your blender to crush it.
  • You could also use traditional ice cubes (and I’ve used those in some of my photos because they photograph better), but the crushed ice melts to a nice slurry that’s pleasant to sip through a straw.
  • Speaking of straws, that’s the one garnish I think is necessary to this drink. Yes, you can drink it straight from the glass, but using a straw is a much more sensual experience. Many grocery and liquor stores carry cocktail straws.
  • Common garnishes for the Mai Tai include lime wedges, an empty lime shell half (just chuck it into the glass for a nice spot of color), pineapple wedges, maraschino cherries, mint sprigs — and of course umbrellas. Garnishes don’t do much for me, so I often serve my drinks without. But this is one cocktail where garnishes are quite attractive, and add to the drink’s festive nature. And if you happen to have some tiki mugs lurking somewhere in your cupboard — well, haul them out to serve this drink.

The Return of Tiki Culture

The Mai Tai is perhaps the most famous tiki drink. Tiki drinks (and tiki culture) took root in the US during the 1930’s, when Don the Beachcomber opened a Polynesian-themed restaurant in California. Trader Vic soon followed with his own Polynesian-themed eatery, and the two men became great rivals. Between them, they originated a number of tiki drinks. Don the Beachcomber had his own version of the Mai Tai, but over time it lost out to Trader Vic’s.

And the umbrellas? Well, according to the The Straight Dope both Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber garnished drinks with tiny parasols until the early 1940’s, when their supply (from factories in East Asia) was interrupted by World War II. (And if The Straight Dope can’t give us the straight dope on this important matter, who can?)

Tiki drinks and culture hit their high point in the 1950’s and 60’s, and then largely disappeared during the 70’s. Now tiki drinks are making a comeback — and thank goodness the umbrellas are still around to welcome them.

Richard Nixon’s Favorite Drink

Richard M. Nixon also hit his high point in the 1950’s and 60’s, and then disappeared (so to speak) during the 70’s. So it’s fitting that the Mai Tai was his favorite cocktail. Eric Felten recounts a story about a Mai Tai-fueled Nixon “backslapping” his way out of the Washington, DC Trader Vic’s in the early 70’s, even warning a group of diners that the Mai Tai’s they had just ordered were “lethal.”

Last month on Kitchen Riffs we discussed the Classic Daiquiri, which was the favorite cocktail of Nixon’s presidential rival, John F. Kennedy. This blog isn’t political, so we’re not going to get into the merits and demerits of these two gentlemen. But I can say with authority — and certainly experience — that their taste in drinks was excellent.

More Tiki!

Although I’m quite familiar with the Mai Tai, my knowledge of other tiki drinks is shockingly thin. I think I owe it to loyal readers of this blog to remedy that deficiency.

Yes, extensive research is needed. I should practice my rum mixology. And I must immerse myself in tiki culture. Maybe have a pig roast in the backyard. That’s it! Big tiki cookout, maybe some babes in grass skirts, and of course . . .

“Hold it right there,” says Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Drinks are a yes. Pig roast is a maybe. Babes are in your dreams only.”

OK, so maybe I’ll settle for one of those little plastic hula-girl dolls. Hey, I can put it on the dashboard of my hotrod! Then I’ll crank up some 60’s surf music to set the proper mood.

Cowabunga, dude.

You may also enjoy reading about:

The Gin and Tonic
The Classic Daiquiri
Pimm's Cup
The Income Tax Cocktail
The Sazerac Cocktail
The Corpse Reviver Cocktail
Simple Syrup


kankana said...

I can't take my eyes off that drink photo ... gorgeous drink !

Nicky V. said...

Everyone is invited to my house for Happy Hour! Where can I find Orgeat syrup?

Kitchen Riffs said...

@Kankana, thanks for the compliment! Glad you like the photo.
@Nicky V. Party at your house! Some liquor stores carry Orgeat syrup, but it's not easy to find. I always buy mine at Amazon - scroll up to the Notes section, there's a link in the 4th bullet-point. Thanks for the comment.

Heidi @ Food Doodles said...

Wow that looks amazing. I love the first and second photo - just gorgeous! And I loved the history :D

Anonymous said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE mai tais and are well know in our area for making them for any excuse. Love you pictures! They are amazing! Here is my loving post on mai tais.

Kitchen Riffs said...

@Heidi, thanks for the kind words. Glad you liked the history - the Mai Tai has a lot of it, and its fun to write about. Thanks.

@Danazia, Thanks for the compliment! Good to meet a fellow Mai Tai lover. Thanks for the link to your blog - great post.

Anonymous said...

not the right recipe but you have one wrong rum in there, you cannot use grand marniner for curacuo and you are missing simple syrup and you are missing the right garnish

what you made might be a nice drink but isnt a mai tai

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Anonymous, technically, unless you use 17-year-old Wray & Nephew rum, you can't make a Mai Tai — that's what Trader Vic originally used, and it's no longer available. And although I've never tasted that, from what I understand it's pretty stiff stuff, and you'd want some simple syrup to help tame it. The rums I specify are more mellow, hence no need for simple syrup. There are better choices for the amber rum than the ones I specify, but there not as readily available in most US liquor stores. I'm curious why you think Grand Mariner isn't an adequate curacao? It is a curacao, after all — I'd think the objection would be to the Cointreau (a triple sec) that I specify. Actually, since I wrote this, I've changed my mind and decided Grand Mariner works just a bit better than Cointreau (although both are really good). As for the garnish, the top photo is pretty close. Trader Vic loved to pitch half a lime shell into his drinks. I prefer lime wedges, plus they make for better photos! And the mint was original to the drink. But Tiki drinks are notoriously loose with their garnishing, and although the pineapple wedge is a bit on the edge, it just looks right. Anyway, thanks for taking time to comment.

Larry G said...

Grand Marnier has a cognac base and the flavor can overpower a Mai Tai a bit more than the average curacao. Also Grand Marnier is ridiculously expensive whereas a decent curacao like Marie Brizzard or Senor Curacao can be found for $15-25 for a 750ml bottle. Additionally, I would strongly recommend a rum mix of Appleton 12-Year (which can be found typically for around $25-30 on sale) and Clement VSOP (a Martinique rum that usually runs about $30). The mix of the dark Jamaican Appleton and the earthy Martinique rum most closely approximates the flavor profile of the original Mai Tai (at least according to several experts such as Jeff Berry). As for the orgeat, I've found that making my own tends to come out wonderfully. I usually simmer 1 cup almond milk with 2 cups sugar, 1/2 tsp almond extract and dash of orange blossom water. This will keep in the fridge about a month, but can last longer if you add a little vodka or silver rum to it as a preservative. Also, you can't discount the use of a mint sprig as a garnish. When you slap the mint sprig in your palm to release the oils and add it to the glass, the fragrance helps accentuate the flavor of the drink. Also sinking the spent lime shell adds additional fragrance and flavor from the oils in the rind. --Larry

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Larry, I find the Grand Mariner OK in the small amount called for, although that's my taste. I'm usually able to buy it on sale for $35 or less, although you're right the Marie Brizzard is a much better deal (doesn't taste quite as good, though, IMO). I should try the rums you recommend. And one of these days I should try making my own orgeat, although in the past year or so I'm starting to see more of these in my liquor store. Thanks for the comment!