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.
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.
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)
- Put all ingredients (except garnish) in cocktail shaker that is half-filled with ice. Shake well.
- 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).
Note that the recipe directs you to shake the drink. There are three reasons for this:
- It makes the drink cold.
- Shaking with ice somewhat dilutes the drink, which adds volume and an important dimension to the final flavor.
- 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.
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.
You may also enjoy reading about:
The Gin and Tonic
The Classic Daiquiri
The Income Tax Cocktail
The Sazerac Cocktail
The Corpse Reviver Cocktail