The Mai Tai earns its reputation as the most iconic tiki cocktail of all time despite containing no pineapple, passionfruit, guava, coconut, or any of the usual tropical drink suspects. No, the primary source of the Mai Tai’s magic is the rum, and just any won’t do, which you can read all about below.
Another key to a successful Mai Tai is orgeat (or-Zsaht, as in Zsa Zsa Gabor), which is a syrup made from almonds that has a cherry, marzipan-like flavor. Thanks to the cocktail revival there are several quality options to choose from, though the mass-market stuff it ok too. Or you can make your own, details below.
So yes, making a proper Mai Tai may involve an Amazon order and a trip to the liquor store, trust me, going through the trouble is worth it. For those who fulfill the quest, paradise awaits.
1 ½ oz aged Jamaican rum (2 oz if not using Smith & Cross)
½ oz Smith & Cross rum
¾ oz lime juice
½ oz orange curaçao
½ oz Orgeat Works Latitude 29 Orgeat - or another orgeat
Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Fill with ice. Shake for 6-8 seconds, or so, and strain into a rocks glass over crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig. Additional tiki flair optional, but encouraged.
My favorite orgeat is made by a company called Orgeatworks. It was founded by a Brooklyn local named Adam Kolesar who we affectionally call Tiki Adam. His obsessive cocktail nerdiness rivals my own, which is why I trust him. Adam makes a variety of orgeat styles. For a Mai Tai I like his Latitude 29, it's brighter and has just the right level of marzipan, for my taste. You can order on Amazon or through his site, tell him Tom Macy sent you!
There are plenty of other good orgeat options out there. The main difference from one to the next is how floral the marzipan note is. If you find one overly perfumy, you can split the ½ oz quantity with simple syrup to tone it down. Orgeats all vary in sweetness as well, so you may need to add a touch more lime juice or simple/cane syrup to balance your drink out.
Making orgeat from scratch is a cocktail nerd rite of passage. It's basically making almond milk - which is water blended with blanched almonds - and then adding sugar and some other flavors. I liked to the toast the almonds to maximize flavor. The almond extract and orange flower water supply the marzipan/floral note which can be adjusted to taste. This is how I like it, but you can use more, less, or none at all. You can also use rose water in place of orange flower water.
2 cups sliced, slivered or chopped blanched almonds
2 cups water
2 cups sugar (about)
1 teaspoon almond extract - or to taste
1 teaspoon orange flower water - or to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Spread almonds evenly on a baking sheet.
Roast for 5 minutes, or until fragrant. You can also toast them in a pan on the stove.
Put the almonds and water in a blender and blend for on high for 1-2 minutes until the almonds are ground into meal-like consistency.
Strain through cheesecloth, a mesh chinois, or a coffee filter pressing to extract as much liquid as possible. Make sure there is no sediment. This is your almond milk, it should yield about 1 cup.
In a small pot, combine the almond milk and twice as much sugar, which will be about 2 cups, over low/medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Do not boil.
Remove from heat and stir in the almond extract and orange flower water.
Orange curaçao a brandy-based orange liqueur. It was originally made with bitter oranges from in the Dutch island of Curaçao, but now it can be made anywhere. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao is the industry standard for a Mai Tai, but just about any orange liqueur will get the job done. Even triple secs like Cointreau are fine too, just maybe not the lower quality (aka cheap) stuff.
The Ghost of Wray and Nephew 17
Which rum to use in a Mai Tai is a whole odyssey in and of itself. Trader Vic (the creator the Mai Tai, see below) originally used Wray and Nephew 17 year, a supposedly transcendent bottling of Jamaican rum that is, sadly, now lost to us. But even if it wasn’t, not many of us could afford to put a 17-year old rum in a mixed drink. So the goal of any serious Mai Tai maker is to use something that echoes the original. But how do we know what it tasted like? Thankfully, Vic left us a roadmap, it just depends on how you read it.
In his 1972 "Bartender's Guide", Vic calls for 1 ounce of dark Jamaican rum and 1 ounce of Martinique rum in his Mai Tai. Wray and Nephew 17 had already run out by the 1950s, and after series of alternatives, including Wray and Nephew 15, he had resorted to this blend in his restaurants.
This is the recipe that bartenders used during the cocktail renaissance of the early 2000s when they wanted to learn how to make a proper Mai Tai. Martinique rum was interpreted to be Rhum Agricole, which is a style of rum made in the French Caribbean islands, Martinique in particular. Rhum Agricole is distinct because it is made with sugar cane juice, as opposed to molasses which is what 97% of the world's rums are made with. Cane juice rums have a drier, grassier profile with a more pungent aroma that’s often described as funky. It’s similar to cachaça, which is made in the same way. This blend of agricole and Jamaican rum in a Mai Tai became the standard way to make a Mai Tai across much of the cocktail community. It's how I first learned to make one, and how I continued to for years.
But recently, things changed for me. I read Martin Cate’s book “Smuggler’s Cove” (named after his San Francisco bar of the same name) which includes a scrupulous deep dive on the correct rum to use in a Mai Tai (p. 261). He examines the evidence regarding what Vic's Mai Tai rums actually tasted like, and it appears that I've been doing it all wrong, as have many of us. Cate notes, and I've personally cross-referenced, that when Vic talks about Martinique rum he used descriptors like “nutty and snappy”, “very similar to Jamaican rum”, “heavy in body” and “coffee-colored”. None one of this sounds like a light, grassy Agricole Rhum to me. Clearly, he is talking about a rum of a different color - so to speak.
Cate speculates that rather than a cane juice Martinique rum, Vic's Martinique rum was probably molasses-based, or what the French call “rum industrial”. It was also probably heavily aged, and perhaps colored. So instead of Rhum Agricole like many of us have been using, it's better to go with a dark, earthy, full-bodied rum.
The best part about this revelation is it turns out these rums make amazing Mai Tais! Sure, it's great that they're more authentic, but what really matters is that they’re more delicious.
The Brass Tacks
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Ok Tom, this is all great but what the hell kind of rum should I put in my Mai Tai!?!”
Well, there’s no one answer, but here are some guidelines: aged Jamaican is your best bet - though Barbados and Guyanese rums are great too - the older and darker the better. For best results, blend your rum with a ½ oz of Smith and Cross (as is written in the recipe above) which is a high octane (57% ABV!) pot still Jamaican rum. My favorite combo, so far, is a blend of 1½ oz El Dorado 15 (which is actually Guyanese) and ½ oz of Smith and Cross, but just about anything in this template is great. Throwing a little aged Agricole rhum into the mix is nice too, say ½ oz. For a budget option my go-to is Appleton Signature or Reserve.
In general, I’d avoid lighter “Spanish style” rums if you can, such as ones from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, even the aged ones. They're perfectly delicious, but they aren't stylistically right for this drink. Mai Tais need a rum with some robust gravitas to really sing.
But don't don't take my word for it. Play around. There are plenty of great rums out there. Mix, match, blend,, and see what you come up with.
The History of the Mai Tai
The Mai Tai is the crown jewel of “Tiki culture”, which is defined as the colorful and often kitschy Polynesian-inspired aesthetic that was wildly popular in the United States from the 1940s to the early 1970s. It’d be fair to assume that the Mai Tai has roots in Polynesian lore as well, but its true birthplace is California. The inventor was Victor J. Bergeron, aka Trader Vic, a tiki cocktail pioneer and the owner of Trader Vic’s bar and restaurant chain. As he tells it, the Mai Tai was conceived one fateful night in 1944 when he and one of his bartenders set out to come up with “the finest drink we could make”. Later in the evening, he presented the finished product to some friends visiting from Tahiti who immediately pronounced it “Maita’i - roe a’e”, which means “out of this world - the best!”
The Mai Tai spread quickly and was soon on tiki menus everywhere. But because Vic kept his recipe secret until 1972 - a common practice in tiki circles - restaurants made up their own recipes that were nothing like the original. This is why so many Mai Tai recipes today are totally whack (google it and you’ll see what I mean). It also led to confusion as to who was the drink's original creator. There were multiple rumors, but the most notable was Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, who was the unequivocal founding father of tiki cocktails.
Despite there being no evidence that Don created the Mai Tai, some broad truths make it conceivable. He opened the first tiki restaurant and bar in 1933, called “Don the Beachcombers”, which Trader Vic himself visited in 1937. By his own admission, Vic was so smitten with the place that he decided to convert his Oakland-based restaurant Hinky Dink’s into a tiki haven of his own. "Trader Vic's" which would eventually grow into an empire bigger and more enduringly successful than Don’s. So the implication was that since Vic pretty much ripped off Don’s idea for a tiki bar, it’s not a stretch to imagine that he also ripped off the Mai Tai.
But Vic emphatically insisted that the creation was his. As he says in his Bartender's Guide, "anybody who says I didn't create the Mai Tai is a dirty stinker". He even went to court over it. In 1970 Vic sued the maker of a Mai Tai pre-mix because it listed Don as the inventor. Vic won and settled out of court. But the struggle wages on. Don passed away in 1989, yet his wife Pheobe still maintains he did, in fact, create the Mai Tai back in 1933. She has put forth some evidence - letters, old menus - but these have been debunked by Jeff Berry in his book “Beachbum Berry Remixed” (p. 64, which has also served as my primary source for Mai Tai history).
However, Berry does include a tantalizing caveat that he uncovered during his research. According to a colleague of Don’s named Edward “Mick” Brownlee, Don never actually claimed to have invented the Mai Tai. His assertion was that Vic took a different drink of his called the Q.B. Cooler and made an imitation of it that eventually became the Mai Tai (FYI, Q.B. stands for Quiet Birdmen, a drinking club founded by WWI aviators that included Charles Lindberg).
The dates line up, there was indeed a Q.B. Cooler on Don’s menu in 1937 when Vic visited the bar. But I gotta say, on paper, it bears no resemblance to a Mai Tai. The Q.B. has orange juice, honey, and falernum. In fact, the only ingredients the two drinks share are rum and lime. To be fair, some think they taste similarly, including Jeff Berry, but I personally do not. They’re very different, and the Mai Tai is better. But even if the inspiration for Trader Vic’s Mai Tai did come from Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler, I say who cares? Every drink that exists was influenced in part by some drink that existed before it. That's the way it goes. So Don the Beachcomber may have helped to create Trader Vic, but Trader Vic created the Mai Tai. End of story.
If you to post a shot of your Mai Tai
on Instagram, please consider tagging
Cane syrup is a rich simple syrup made with evaporated cane sugar aka “raw”, “pure” or “organic” cane sugar, as they're often labeled. Basically, you want a sugar with a light golden color and a faint molasses flavor. They’re a midpoint between plain white sugar and rich, dark demerara and turbinado sugars - not to be confused with dark or light brown sugars, which are best left for baking. Cane syrup is a common ingredient in rum and tiki cocktails. It's a good option for adding a little richness and body to a cocktail without flavors that are too heavy.
½ cup water
Combine in a small pot over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved.