Tiki is not a thatched hut bar at the beach. It’s not cheap wicker citronella torches lining your neighbor's backyard barbeque. And it’s certainly not hipsters in floral button downs drinking a pineapple infused craft beer. No, Tiki is scary. The tiki bar is deep jungle samba, cool trade winds caressing fan palms. It’s droll gnarly totems and thanks to the genius of Don Beach it’s curious elixirs whose true origins and recipes remain disputed to this day.
Tiki, in Maori legend, was the first man. Adam. Along with his lady Morikoriko, who seduced him after he found her in a pond, they had a baby girl who created the clouds and.... Look, creation myths are convoluted by nature. Let’s just skip ahead a few millennia to the 1930’s when a man styling himself Don Beach opened the first genre defining Tiki Bar - Don The Beachcomber in California. The refractory period between world wars gave rise to an influx of Polynesian Pop Hollywood films while young soldiers returned stateside with stories of far off tropical paradises, and quite possibly the most telling catalyst for tiki fever … a seething post prohibition rum habit. Don used his travels through Polynesia and a not so minute bit of ingenuity to invent the Tiki Bar as we know it.
Tiki swept the nation and eventually the world. Then, like a lot of hot-fast cultural fads Tiki simmered and fizzled into an old timey cliche. Until recently. The modern boom-boom! in retroism and classic cocktails has seen an unyielding rise in neo-escapism Dionysian debaucherous class. Where kitsch is cool and sweet molasses is preferred over the wincing burn of Kentucky’s finest there you will find dim lighting, transcendent music, prodigious palms, rattan furniture and the most recognizable of all tiki bar culture, the tiki mug. And in that mug you will find that the most quintessential of all tiki drinks. The Adam. The Mai Tai.
My own foray into rum began with a homemade concoction of light rum, pineapple juice, and lime. So when I discovered the Mai Tai early into my exploration of vacation cocktails I was instantly hooked. So adorn those floral button-downs and flip-flops, put on your drinking cap and stock your rum cabinet ‘cuz the Mai Tai ain’t no tropical frou-frou drink.
It was around 1933 that Don Beach mixed a funky dark Jamaican rum and a light Cuban rum with lime juice, bitters, pernod, grapefruit juice, falernum, and cointreau laying ancestral claim to the cocktail’s origin. But another totem on the proverbial Tiki pole says otherwise. Victor Bergeron, better known by his famous monaker, Trader Vic, takes umbrage with this alleged tale of the tai. Vic contends it was a decade later in 1944 at his bar in Oakland that he took a bottle of 17yr old Jamiacan rum off the shelf to pour for some friends. Inspired to compliment the flavor of the rum Vic added some lime juice, a bit of curacao, a dash of rock candy syrup and the one ingredient that separates a true Mai Tai from some bastardized boat drink - Orgeat Syrup. Legend has it Vic served the libation up to his friends visiting from Tahiti who exclaimed. “Mai tai roa ae!”. Tahitian for “the best”.
Whichever version you choose to believe there is no disputing that the Mai Tai we know and love today is derivative of the Trader Vic Recipe while borrowing heavily from Don The Beachcomber’s penchant for creating a medley of rum flavors in a single cocktail. For our purposes we’re going to shake together the two progenitorial recipes and stir in some widely accepted evolutionary standards.
Demon rum. That most scandalous of colonial era, pirate inducing, history-shaping, tiki drink base spirit. We’re going to start with a Jamiacan rum, since both precursory recipes use it. Now there are a lot of variations in rums of this region but most Jamaican rums have a defining characteristic taste profile. I’ve heard it described as the Jamaican rum funk, and that’s really the best way I can relay it. It’s the ambient scent and flavor of the air in Jamaica. A rich earthy sweetness whose vapors coat the roof of the mouth and retro-hale a piquant spice. If you’ve ever tasted true jerk seasoning or smoked a high-grade Caribbean marijuana it kind of has that deep bit of soul that can only be described as - the funk.
Most recipes from this era will call for J. Wray & Nephew brand rum. It’s the rum I found most frequently in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, respectively. Stateside it’s pretty easy to find the gold rum variant with some mild searching. Although, for this our modern recipe I prefer Myers Original Dark. Its rich molasses palate not only accentuates the Jamaican funk but helps the overall rum flavor prevail throughout the drink.
As where Trader Vic’s recipe only calls for the Jamaican rum I’m going to use the Beachcomber technique of two rums. Don Beach was innovative in the art of mixing different rums to bring out tertiary flavors. It can prove a bit tough here in the U.S. to acquire light Cuban rum, (thanks Trump.) If you’re a traditionalist, (which, due to its inherent mysteries, is in itself futile anytime Tiki drinks are in question), honestly Bacardi Silver is a pretty safe bet. I’ve seen recipes using a Demerara Rum, which is actually my preferred style for light rums. I use El Dorado in that regard. The extra sweetness of Demerara sugar rum compliments the Jamiacan funk perfectly. But alas, for my recipe I use the widely agreed upon Barbados Rum for my secondary. Barbados is said to be the birthplace of rum and Mt. Gay Eclipse does a superb job of capturing the tropical fruit and bright spiciness we associate with the Caribbean. You may have noticed none of the classic recipes call for pineapple juice even though it’s a prominent flavor and a lot of knock-off tai recipes you’ll find on Etsy or whatever will use it. What you’re actually tasting is the mixture of Jamaican and Barbados rums, along with the Curacao, bringing out the natural essence of fruit notes and tricking your palate into tasting a pineappely flavor. Go ahead and use that little tidbit to ingratiate yourself at your next hipster cocktail party.
Dry Orange Curacao is a crucial ingredient for getting your Mai Tai to taste right. I use Pierre Ferrand, but Bols is decent for a better price. Sure, there are lots of orange liqueurs that all have their place in cocktalia. Triple sec may be great for margaritas but the aged brandy base of dry curacao adds a bit of class distinction tastily separating our libertine libation from a premade cruiseship mix. ………………… Excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a little thinking about premade drink mixes.
Please, please please please pleeeaaassse, use fresh lime juice whenever you’re making cocktails. I enjoy joking about cocktail snobbery, (there’s Coors Light in my fridge right now), but in all seriousness you’re doing your taste buds and your overall tiki experience a grave misjustice if you use bottled lime juice. If you’re into making drinks at home, and if you’re reading this I’m going to suppose you’ve gotten drunk alone a few times “trying to perfect that new recipe”, just buy a bag of limes and a hand held juicer to keep around.
If there was a shoulder for whom fell the carrying of the Mai Tai that burdensome task would fall on Orgeat. A french almond syrup now commonly found in coffee shops; Orgeat syrup is what takes the flavor profile of the Mai Tai up to that next level of body and fullness. It fills out the drink and gives it that “what is that?” sensation. WARNING: For heaven’s sake man, do not use an almond liqueur. Believe me, this cocktail is nary in need of any more booze and you will indeed screw up the flavor with some dark nutty sweet amaretto. Remember that time you thought it would be a good idea to put extra peppers in your chili because you like it hot, then you had to shame eat it in front of your girlfriend pretending it’s fine and you don’t know what she’s talking about with I messed it up and she can’t eat it because it’s - ahem, just keep the Orgeat almond to a hint of flavor.
Finally I like to keep with the Vic version and add a little rock candy syrup. Rock candy is an inverted simple syrup. Rather than 1 part sugar to 2 parts water it’s 2 parts sugar to 1 part water.
Okay. so let’s make a drink. Traditionally you want a double rocks glass, but for this occasion use a tiki mug if you’ve got one. Go ahead and throw it in the freezer while you mix the drink. You’re going to want a cocktail shaker, crushed or semi crushed ice, (use a lewis bag and mallet or just drop a bag of ice on the floor a few times.) Throw some ice cubes in the shaker and add, 1oz Jamaican rum, 1oz Barbados rum, ¾ oz dry curacao, ¾ oz lime juice, ½ oz orgeat, and ¼-½ oz rock candy syrup. Shake vigorously till the shaker gets too cold to hold. This will froth up the liquid and give the drink some visual body to match the flavor profile. Fill your now frosted glass with the crushed ice and slowly pour the drink in. Garnish with a verdant mint sprig (slap in your palm to awake the aroma) and wha-la! You’ve made a Mai Tai. Go ahead, no one will fault you for throwing a paper umbrella in there.
A Mai Tai can whisk you away in one sip. There’s a lot of rum in there so be careful, but let your mind go and forget about the way of the world for a decent 20-30 minute cocktail. The scintillating silky swag of the Mai Tai pairs well with some sliced fruit, a mild cigar, the scent of a beautiful wahini and transcendental sounds of Exotica by Martin Denny.
Okay, so you’re not a classic Tiki drink snob. You want a cocktail to transport your mind to a tropical south pacific island but also appeal to the mass modern flavor profile. I got your ticket. I call it the Kai Tai. Named after my buddy Kyle because after throwing this version of a Mai Tai together for a pool day a few years ago he refuses to drink anything else at my house. There’s a time and a place for this version and it still packs a punch but lacks the rum forward approach of the classic. Following the same basic ritual it’s 1oz light demerara rum, ¾ oz curacao, ¾ oz lime juice, ½ oz orgeat, and 2 oz pineapple juice. This version definitely wants to be shaken with utmost veheme to really froth up that juice. Oh, yeah. Froth it up good baby, because the kicker for the Kai Tai is to gently pour over the head of the drink ¾ oz of dark Jamaican rum as a floater.
And there you have it, folks. Salute!