Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Birth & Evolution of the Mai Tai

The famed Mai Tai! It’s considered a classic “Tiki” drink, fairly potent, and commonly found in many Chinese-American restaurants, especially those with a Polynesian aspect. I’ve consumed many a Mai Tai, and they often taste very different from place to place. In addition, their garnishes usually vary, from pineapple slices to tiny parasols.

What is the origin of this cocktail? How did it become so famous? And how has it evolved over the years? Let’s explore the first twenty years of the Mai Tai’s history, a period when this cocktail became popular and evolved from its original roots.

According to the Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki by Martin Cate & Rebecca Cate, the Mai Tai was invented by Trader Vic Bergeron in 1944 at his Oakland restaurant. One day, he was making drinks for two Tahitian friends, and created a new rum cocktail. His friends loved it, and one declared, "Maita’i Roe A’e," a Tahitian phrase which roughly translates as “Out of This World—The Best.” Thus, the Mai Tai was born.

This first Mai Tai was composed of J. Wray & Nephew 17 year old rum (from Jamaica), orange curaçao, rock candy syrup, orgeat, and lime juice. Over the years, and as Trader Vic expanded his operations across the country, he had trouble sourcing the original J. Wray & Nephew rum, so the recipe was altered, a few different times, using a variety of specific rums.

According to California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees by Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko, the specific original recipe for the first Mai Tai was 2 ounces of 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew Rum, the juice of 1 lime, ½ ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curaçao, ¼ ounce Rock Candy Syrup, and ½ ounce French Garnier Orgeat Syrup. All of this was poured over shaved ice, and garnished with a sprig of fresh mint and a spent lime shell.

For the first approximately nine years of its existence, the Mai Tai didn’t appear to make any significant splash across the country. It was primarily a local drink, which received little, if any, newspaper coverage during that period. Unless you lived near Oakland, or traveled there, you might not have even known the Mai Tai eisted.

However, in 1953, the Mai Tai began its climb to fame. All it took was relocating the cocktail to a tropical paradise, to the lush and alluring Hawaii.   

In 1953, Vic Bergeron was hired by the Matson Steamship Lines, which had started running passenger service from California to Hawaii around 1908. Vic was employed to create cocktail lists for their passenger ships as well as the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, at Waikiki Beach on O'ahu Island.

The first newspaper reference I found concerning the Mai Tai was the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 4, 1953. The article noted Trader Vic had recently created the new drink menu at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It also mentioned that Trader Vic’s favorite drink was the Mai Tai, a “heady concoction with a rum base.” So, the Mai Tai was seen from the beginning as a potent drink, a sentiment which would be common going forward throughout the years.

During the 1950s, Hawaii became a popular travel destination, a tropical getaway, and it would spawn the popularity of the Mai Tai across the country. Tourists who enjoyed the Mai Tai while vacationing in Hawaii wanted to recreate the cocktail at home. Other restaurants and bars across the country also began creating their own versions of the Mai Tai, trying to capitalize on its popularity. If the Mai Tai had never been brought to Hawaii, it might never have become such a classic drink. 

The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), June 6, 1954, discussed the Mai Tai at the Royal Hawaiian, which cost $1.25, and stated it was a “.., sophisticated blend of rums and lime juice with its swizzle stick of fresh sugar cane to munch between sips.

Then, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 26, 1956, mentioned that prior to Trader Vic bringing the Mai Tai to Hawaii, the “...only tropical drink you could buy was a Planter’s Punch.” So, Trader Vic filled a void, bringing the Mai Tai and other Tiki drinks to Hawaii. 

However, the Mai Tai seemed like it was a bit slow to initially catch on. The Honolulu Advertiser, October 31, 1956, printed that Hawaiian tourists “...go for fancy drinks such as the Mai Tai, scorpion or Tonga. But so seldom are these ordered that sometimes even a seasoned bartender has to check his mixing manual.” So, it doesn't appear the Mai Tai was an instant hit, but it grew in popularity over time.

There were a couple brief mentions in 1956 and 1957. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 6, 1956, noted, “A mai tai is a rummy sort of chemistry, the inspiration of Mr. Trader Vic.” While the Lansing State Journal (MI), April 24, 1957, stated the “sugar cane mai-tai” was available at the Surf Room of the Royal Hawaiian.

The Mai Tai began becoming available at other places in Hawaii, besides those owned or consulted by Trader Vic. The Independent (CA), May 15, 1958, printed an advertisement (pictured at the top of this post) for the Lafayette Hotel & Lanais, which stated, “Intestinal Fortitude? Try our potent Mai Tai..a mighty drink in any clime, prepared with 15-year old Jamaica Rum. $1.50.” 

The Press Telegram (CA), June 1, 1958, had a similar ad, also mentioning that the Outrigger was a lounge in the Lafayette Hotel & Lanais. This ad started, “Got guts? Then you’ll love to try a Mai Tai (two’s the limit) oodles of rum and tropical fruit.” This might be the first reference to a restaurant/bar which restricted your Mai Tai consumption to only two because of its potency.

Another potency comment. The Los Angeles Times (CA), May 19, 1958, stated that, “A mai tai, I find out later, is about 14 different shades of rum mixed together and ‘diluted’ with a float of liqueur to smooth it out.” This might be the first reference to a "float" of alcohol added to the top of a Mai Tai. The original Mai Tai recipe didn't include a float, so this was a variation invented at some point, one which also became popular. 

Mai Tais moved beyond California and Hawaii, to Louisiana. The Times-Picayune (LA), October 3, 1958, published an ad for the Pontchartrain Beach Comber Restaurant, which asked diners to “try a Mai Tai cocktail.”

Maybe the first Mai Tai recipe provided in a newspaper was printed in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 7, 1959.  The recipe began, “This is for one drink only. Sip it s-l-o-w-l-y and lose track of time!” The ingredients included 1 ounce rhum negrita, 2 ounces Ron Rico white or gold rum, the juice of 1 lemon or lime, 1 dash of Orange Curacao, 1 dash of Falernum, ½ ounce of simple syrup and pineapple juice if desired. Then, add a handful of crushed ice and shake furiously. Pour it over a glass of crushed ice and garnish it with pineapple, mint, orange, an orchid and a gardenia. 

We can see this is different to some degree from the original Mai Tai recipe, especially concerning the possible addition of pineapple juice. Plus, all of the different garnishes, which would seem to have overwhelmed the drink, were a new addition, the original recipe calling only for mint and the shell of a lime.   

The Mai Tai’s popularity grew. The Muskogee Daily Phoenix (OK), April 17, 1959, reported on a luau party at a New York City penthouse. “There were tall frosty glasses of Mai Tai, the newest popular cocktail hour beverage in Honolulu.” It continued, “Mai Tai, should anyone ask you, is a mixture of orange curacao, orgeat, fresh lime juice, and Jamaica rum served in glasses with lots of crushed ice.” This is much closer to the original Mai Tai recipe.

Besides all the fruits and flower garnishes in some Mai Tai cocktails, this reference might be the first appearance of the paper umbrella. The Mt. Vernon Register-News (IL), August 19, 1959, mention that at a party in Mount Vernon, Illinois, they served a “…Hawaiian Mai-tai drink served with tiny colorful parasols peeping from the glasses.”  

The popularity of the Mai Tai seemed to reach new heights during the early 1960s. For example, the San Francisco Examiner (CA), January 10, 1960, reported that at the University of Hawaii, “…students plan Mai Tai parties where a mixture of rum and tropical fruit juices is served.”

There were continued warnings about its potency. The Daily Independent Journal (CA), February 26, 1960, mentioned, “…a Mai Tai, which has the innocent look of a fruit punch and the countdown of about three martinis.

The variations of the Mai Tai recipe started to multiple as well. The San Diego Union (CA), March 4, 1960, noted that at a recent Polynesian party, the Mai Tai was served, “...made with mango juice and five other juices, rum fortified.” This is the first I've seen of the addition of mango juice to the cocktail.

In Los Angeles, the Mai Tai was available. The Mirror News (CA), June 7, 1960, wrote a review of the drinks at the Kowloon in Los Angeles, mentioning, “Not to sip a delicious rum concoction with Cantonese delicacies is like bypassing wine with a spaghetti dinner.” This seems indicative that the Mai Tai had started to spread to Cantonese restaurants. The article continued, “Most popular Kowloon exotic drink is ‘mai tai’ ($1.75). It means ‘the best’ in Tahitian, contains 15-year old Demerara rum and tropical fruit juices. It’s potent.”

Vegas too now sold Mai Tais. The Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV), June 9, 1960, stated that at Aku Aku, you could order a Mai Tai. The article mentioned, “It’s one of the most popular drinks from the West Indies. Mai Tai means “the best” in Tahitian and it contains 15-year-old Demerara rum and tropical fruit juice.” It's obvious they didn't understand that the Mai Tai didn't originate in the West Indies. The article continued, “...two of these and you will want to trade places with Clyde Beatty.

Even in Ohio you could find the Mai Tai. The Columbus Dispatch (OH), August 18, 1960, discussed Johnson’s Restaurant, an “...oriental restaurant with a particular beautiful Hawaiian atmosphere.” You could get a Mai Tai “which anybody who has been to Hawaii will remember.”

Another Mai Tai recipe, and a variation from the original. The El Paso Herald-Post (TX), September 19, 1960, provided a recipe, which was made with 1 ounce fresh lime juice, ¾ ounce simple syrup, 2 big jiggers of light rum, and ¾ ounce orange curacao. It was then topped with 1 ounce of dark rum, and garnished with a fresh pineapple stick and 2 small sprigs of mint.

A Mai Tai without the rum? The Plain Dealer (OH), November 19, 1960, discussed the Midway Motel, which had just opened the Trade Winds Lounge and MaiKai dining room. Their version of the Mai Tai was radically different. “The Mai Tai has a bourbon base, crushed orange, lemon and ice, and is served in a cocoanut shell.” Bourbon and not rum? Some variation may be expected, but omitting the rum probably means this cocktail needed a name change.

More Mai Tai recipes and their variations. The Honolulu Advertiser, November 27, 1960, printed a recipe that started with a brandy snifter of shaved ice. You then added dark and light rum, in equals parts, with Meyer’s Rum and topped it with curacao. Then, you squeezed some lime juice over it and served it with a straw. The Chicago Daily News (IL), December 8, 1960, called for a frosted glass. Then, you mixed together 1 ounce Jamaica rum, 1 ounce white Puerto Rican rum, 1 ounce lime juice, ½ ounce curacao, 1/2 ounce simple syrup, and ½ ounce orgeat. This was much closer to Trader Vic’s original recipe.

And one more Mai Tai recipe. A writer for the Providence Journal (RI), December 31, 1960, printed that “…the mighty Mai Tai, a memorable tipple, indigenous, I understand, to the South Seas and other branches of Paradise.” Obviously this is incorrect, that the cocktail was an American creation, with no real connection to the South Seas. The writer visited Hawaii, and tasted several Mai Tais, such as the one at Hirams on Waikiki Beach, which was made with three kinds of rum, pineapple juice, and a topping of brandy.

At Fort De Russey, the writer met Eleanor Ito, a female bartender well known for her Mai Tai cocktails. Ito provided her recipe, stating, “Into a high-speed mixer went two and one-half ounces of fresh unsweetened pineapple juice, one ounce of lemon juice, one and one-half ounces of dark run, one and one-half ounces of light run, four dashes of grenadine, and three dashes of curacao or cointreau—.“ Then, you poured the mixture into a tall glass and added a huge slice of pineapple. 

And the Mai Tai recipes continued. The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), January 4, 1961, printed a Mai Tai recipe. First, fill a double old-fashioned glass with shaved ice. Then, squeeze in 1 small lime and drop in half the shell. Add ½ teaspoon each, orange curacao and simple syrup, and 2 ounces of light rum. Next, float 1 ounce of dark rum on top and garnish with a sprig of mint and a pineapple stick.

Mai Tai and Chinese cuisine. As I mentioned earlier, you can often find the Mai Tai at numerous Chinese restaurants. One of the first references to such was in the Los Angeles Times (CA), April 9, 1961. There was a mention of Wan-Q, a Cantonese restaurant, but whose drinks, including the Mai Tai and Zombie, were more “South Seas.”

More advice about creating a Mai Tai. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI), April 23, 1961, spoke with Henry Loui, the proprietor of The Kalia Gardens, who provided advice on the Mai Tai, as well as his own recipe. The article stated, “The mai tai is deceptive to drink, as well as to prepare.”

It continued, “Loui’s theory is that ‘Most people have trouble with the rum. They either use too much or too little. The mai tai is a drink you build.” The recipe then stated that you first put crushed ice in your mai tai glass or brandy snifter. Then, you pour over the ice 1 ½ ounces orange juice, 1 ½ ounces pineapple juice, 1/3 ounce Orgeat syrup, a dash of orange Curacao, juice of half a fresh lime, and 1 ounce light rum. Next, you stir the mixture and add, but do not stir in, 1 ounce of dark rum. Finally, you could add a shaft of freshly cut pineapple and garnish with an orchid blossom.

The Royal Hawaiian, where Trader Vic introduced the Mai Tai to Hawaii, provided their recipe to the Plain Dealer (OH), May 7, 1961. It stated, “Jigger light rum, jigger dark Jamaica rum, juice of one lime (and drop half shell in the glass. Dash of Orgeat syrup, dash of rock candy syrup, dash of orange Curacao. Garnish with sprig of mint, sugar cane stick, pineapple stick and fill with shaved ice.” This is very similar to the original Mai Tai Recipe, except for the extra garnishes. 

The article also discussed some the Mai Tai variations found in Hawaii. For example, “The Halekulani omits the tock candy syrup and floats the dark rum on top.” In addition, “Tiki Bob Bryant at the Tahitian Lanai uses light Peurto Rican rum and Lemon Heart Demerra rum on top.”

The potency comments continued over the years. The Los Angeles Times (CA). May 14, 1961, noted, “The thing that the visitor is cautioned to avoid in Hawaii is Mai Tai Madness. This is a rum drink that can be compared favorably with the atom bomb. It’s safe so long as you keep the ingredients separated.”

Mai Tai shirt? The Honolulu Advertiser (HI), October 8, 1961, published an advertisement for a new shirt by Ross Sutherland, “ aloha shirt with a built-in back bar—picturing every wild Hawaiian drink from the Mai Tai to the Tiki Bowl—each in its distinctive bar glass—mug or bowl.” That would certainly be a fun shirt for the summer.

More potent Hawaiian Mai Tais. The Petaluma Argus-Courier (CA), October 27, 1961, reported that in Hawaii, “Don the Beachcomber’s will serve you a tall mai tai for a dollar and a half. Heavy sugar for a single glass, but it’s a big one, strong with rum and lots of others goodies. One will do the job of two or three martinis.”

And still more potency comments. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI), November 26, 1961, printed, “The potent Mai Tai continues to be Hawaii’s leading potion for the visitor probably because it’s the Island drink most visitors have heard of, because the ingredients are somewhat native to Hawaii, and because it’s a good and interesting drink.”

Mai Tai perfume??? The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI), March 18, 1962, discussed that Hawaii had a perfume industry, which started just before World War II, and was geared mostly for tourists and exports. The largest perfume company was Browny’s of Honolulu, which belonged to a husband and wife team, C.H. Browny and Straussy Brown. They had created a new perfume, called Mai Tai, which Straussy claimed was “absolutely intoxicating.”

More information on this perfume was provided in the Honolulu Advertiser (HI), December 19, 1962. The new Mai Tai perfume, which was said to be a perfect Christmas gift, was a “spicy evening perfume attractively packaged in a French flacon and boxed in sophisticated black and white.”

Mai Tais were so popular that a bottled Mai Tai mix now became available. Around July 1962, Don the Beachcomber introduced bottled mixes for the Mai Tai, Navy Grog and Scorpion. You just had to add rum. The Van Nuys News & Valley Green Sheet (CA), July 19, 1962, had an ad for the bottled Mai Tai mix, which cost $1.39 for a fifth. These were quite popular, and the Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi), August 9, 1962, reported Don the Beachcomber had sold over 92,000 bottles of its new mixers.

This same year, Trader Vic also started selling their own bottled Mai Tai mixer. The Daily Independent Journal (CA), November 7, 1962, printed an ad for their Mai Tai Mix, which cost $1.79 for a fifth, 40 cents more expensive than those of Don the Beachcomber. The ad also mentioned that you “Add Rum and Garnish with Pineapple & Maraschino Cherries." In addition, the ad noted you could also purchase Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Rum, which cost $5.99 for a fifth.

More Mai Tai creations. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI), September 11, 1962, printed a Mai Tai recipe, except it was for Mai Tai Pancakes! The recipe called for you to start with a bowl of Bisquick, and then add some type of liquid, such as water, milk, ginger ale, or rum. Then, you added pineapple chunks to the batter, and once cooked, you served the pancakes with a mixture of ¼ golden rum and ¾ Vermont maple syrup.

Hawaiian rum? The Honolulu Advertiser, September 27, 1962, reported that Seagram and Sons had just opened a new rum distillery on Maui, noting that eventually, the Mai Tai could be made with Hawaiian rum. However, sales just didn’t develop and the distillery closed around 1969.

Another potency comment. The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), January 8, 1963, printed that, “The mai tai is a fruit drink with enough rum to blow coconuts off the tree.” 

Finally, the Boston Traveller, March 12, 1964, has maybe the first mention of a Mai Tai in Boston, at Bob Lee’s Islande, on Tyler Street in Chinatown.

So, this twenty-year period saw the Mai Tai rise from relative obscurity to become hugely popular in Hawaii, and that popularity then spread to the rest of the country. New variations of the original recipe seem to have overtaken the original, especially with the addition of various fruit juices that didn't exist in the original. It became so popular that you could even buy Mai Tai mix in a bottle and just add your own rum.

Today, the Mai Tai is a “Recognized Cocktail” by the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB).  A Recognized Cocktail is a " Mixed drink that has gained trade and consumer recognition, containing one or more class(es) and/or type(s) of distilled spirits with flavoring and/or coloring materials.” The Mai Tai is defined as “Rum and citrus juices, oils or natural citrus flavors.” That is an extremely broad definition, and nearly any rum and citrus juice cocktail could qualify as such. This definition seems to be indicative of how many variations of the Mai Tai now exist.

Who wants to drink a Mai Tai right now?

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