My Mai Tai

I love everything tiki!


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Ever since the resurgence of 50’s Lounge music in the 90’s I’ve been into everything Tiki. I have a nice collection of Tiki ceramic mugs (one is pictured above), old Hawaiian records, plenty of Hawaiian shirts, and an August Holland “Pearl of Wisdom” print from the 60’s (gift from a friend – see below)





I even have an original hand-carved Tiki sculpture brought back from Hawaii by my grandfather in the 1950’s with shiny eyes made of seashell and also pictured in the background of my drink photo above.  So I’m a legit Tiki fan, and I particularly like the odd American romanticized fantasy version of all things Polynesian perhaps even more so than the reality of Polynesia itself. However, at one time I actually gave a shit about the reality back when I was obsessed with all things mythological. I did lots of reading about Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and even purchased this lengthy tome:





Guessing by the placement of the bookmark, it looks like I only made it to page 13, but I seem to recall skipping around and reading other bits and pieces. I’ve of course forgotten it all now, but since “I has the internets” it doesn’t matter, I can just Wikipedia shit whenever I need to and suddenly I’m an expert! So what is “tiki” anyway? It’s either the first man, or woman, or another ancient ancestor, depending on the version of history you want to follow, but generally it refers to a carved sculpture of said historical/mythological humanoid and is often associated with sex (naturally). Why do we care? We don’t really – we’re mostly interested in American Tiki Culture and the Tiki Bar in particular. According to the Wikipedia God, the earliest Tiki bars were in 1930’s California – one called Don the Beachcomber and the other called Trader Vic’s. You can read more about them on your own, although some of the history is disputed, but suffice it to say that those two bars and their eponymous owners are the sole source of the most famous drinks we refer to as “tiki cocktails” including the Zombie and of course the Mai Tai. The Mai Tai’s origins are disputed, since both masters of Tiki claimed to have created it, but according to my research it seems most likely that Don (Donn) was the originator in 1933 but that it never caught on and was dropped from his menu. Later Vic recreated it in 1944 and made it the drink that we know today. It’s hard to separate the truth from cocktail folklore, but as with all things cocktail (and all things Tiki) we should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Here’s a brief history and quick recipe comparison and if you ask me, Donn’s version is remarkably similar to his recipe for the Zombie, which I’ll be exploring later this summer…


As you can imagine, the number of stories about the Mai Tai’s origin is almost as long as the list of recipes for it. Many of them are just basically rum, lime and pineapple, so I don’t even look at those, but there seems to be some basic agreement that it should include 2 oz. of rum, some lime, double strength sugar syrup and and orgeat syrup, which is a specialty almond syrup that you can buy at a good liquor store or make yourself. I’ve made this using store bought orgeat and also making it myself, and making it yourself definitely tastes better and is kind of fun (though it requires a day of forethought) but it’s a bit cloudy and viscous so you might just want to find a bottle of the premade stuff. Also, I’ve tried it both with rock candy syrup (double strength simple syrup) and substituted that for grenadine which I think tastes a little more “tropical”. I’ve used the standard Rose’s grenadine, but I’ve also made my own grenadine and it’s a new treat that I have been exploring and enjoying immensely. It’s simple to make – 1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice with 1 part sugar, heat in a skillet until dissolved (just like simple syrup), squeeze in half a lemon (or lime) and optionally add a teaspoon or less of orange blossom water (I bought some on Amazon cuz it’s also an essential ingredient to making orgeat syrup). Additionally you can add a few whole cloves during the heating process for a spicier flavor.


So you may be asking yourself “why no pineapple?” Well, that’s a later style of Mai Tai called a Royal Mai Tai, which was actually created by Trader Vic for tourists in Hawaii. It’s more fruity, and more of a punch than a cocktail, so I don’t recommend it for the serious cocktail enthusiast. It does make a nice garnish though, and I’ve gone all fruity with my garnishes for that reason, although the traditional garnish is an upside down spent half-shell of lime with a mint sprig poked through it to look like a desert island. I originally made my Mai Tai with orange and pineapple juices, and it was okay I guess, but the original is much better. My take on the original kind of blends Donn’s and Vic’s versions together. I like homemade grenadine instead of rock candy syrup and I add a bit of falernum for a spicy kick. Feel free to adjust those two to your taste and consider adding a bit more orgeat and/or lime if you wish. Also, in terms of rum, the original calls for a very specific aged rum that no longer exists, so some mixologists have blended dark and light rums. I prefer to stick to a good aged rum (I like Don Papa or Pyrat at the moment) but I have also blended it 50/50 with Don Q Añejo rum from Puerto Rico and it’s nice too but I’m saving that for my summer mojitos.


  • 2 oz. aged rum (or 1 oz. light rum and 1 oz. dark rum)

  • ¾ oz. fresh squeezed lime

  • ½ oz. Cointreau

  • ¼ oz. orgeat syrup (home made if possible)

  • ¼ oz. grenadine (home made if possible) OR rock candy syrup

  • ¼ oz. Velvet Falernum


Shake with crushed ice until very cold, pour without straining into Old Fashioned glass, garnish with a half-shell lime with a mint sprig. Or just go nuts with pineapple, lime, lemon, umbrellas, etc. and pour into a tiki mug!

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All cocktail photos and written content for Drinking and Thinking... © 2019 by Dave Hebb