There’s no cocktail more associated with Hawaii than the mai tai. This despite the fact that none of the ingredients in the original version of the drink come from Hawaii. Nor was the drink created there, unlike, for example, the Blue Hawaii, created by Henry Yee, a bartender at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel. As with many other things associated with the Islands of Aloha—coconuts, plumeria flowers, the ukulele, Hawaiian pizza—the mai tai was imported.
Though the origins of mai tai are disputed (was it Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic?), the general consensus is that it was indeed Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron who introduced the mai tai to Hawaii in 1953 when he supervised the cocktail menus at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels. He tweaked his original recipe (rum, orgeat, orange curacao, simple syrup, lime) by adding orange and pineapple juices for a sweeter cocktail (check out the recipe on the Royal Hawaiian’s website), and purists have debated the wisdom of using any juice but lime ever since.
But for Jesse Greenleaf, head bartender at Duke’s Waikiki (and the co-author, with his wife Amie Fujiwara, of the book The Cocktail Handbook: Cool Drinks From Hawaii’s Hottest Bartenders), the addition of other juices isn’t defiling the original recipe. It’s simply a matter of a drink evolving over the years. “The mai tai has changed in so many ways since its origination.The originals were made with the ingredients that were available at the time,” he explains. “The tiki bars where they were making them had to work with what they actually had available. And one of the things that they always had was fresh squeezed lime juice. You didn’t have fresh pineapple, orange, or guava juice in California all season long.” Nor are alternations to the recipe seen as sacrilege. “At the annual mai tai competitions they have here, it’s not about who can make the closest recipe to the original; it’s who can make a recipe that is a new take on the mai tai. Everybody kind of makes up their own when they’re competing.”
It is of course the classic that most visitors look for when they head to Hawaii, and the Mai Tai Bar’s Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai ($20) still adheres to that 1950s-era recipe: fresh pineapple and orange juice, orgeat, and “local rums from Old Lahaina Distillery on Maui.” It’s a well-balanced blend that’s not too sweet (sweetness being the downfall of many a mai tai). As I sipped the drink on a busy Monday afternoon, the man seated next to me at the bar teased me about not stirring it to further blend it.
So there’s a proper way to drink a mai tai as well?
Not necessarily. “When I get one, I let it blend itself,” Greenleaf says, and I’m in agreement there. I enjoy looking at the layers of the drink, then experiencing them separately in turn; the kick that comes from sipping the dark rum float on the top, then getting the rush of the sweet juice as you push your straw to the bottom. And as the rum float settles, the drink blends naturally, giving you a third taste experience (it’s why Greenleaf refers to the mai tai as a “three-in-one” drink).
The Beach Bar’s Moana Sunset Mai Tai ($21), though, with Kula organic rum, lime, passionfruit, pineapple, orgeat, “a drizzle of aperol,” and a Kula Dark Rum float, definitely benefitted from a stir. Over the course of numerous visits, I’ve found the Beach Bar’s mai tais tend to be on the sweet side, and this latest iteration was no exception. On its own, the juice mix was so sweet, stirring in the rum was necessary to help level the playing field. Nor did I care for the tart flavor the aperol added. But the Beach Bar’s location in Waikiki’s oldest hotel means I’ll always return to see what new drinks they have on the menu.
House Without a Key, the outdoor lounge/restaurant at the elegant Halekulani hotel, has crafted a mai tai ($19) that’s perhaps the one that would please purists the most. Fruit juices? Begone! The only juice you’ll find in this drink is lime, along with orgeat, orange curacao, rock candy syrup, and no less than three different rums (Bacardi Gold, Bacardi Select, and a float of Lemon Hart 151 Rum). Garnished with a wedge of lime, a stick of sugar cane, mint, and an orchid, it’s also easily the prettiest mai tai in the islands. The drink’s recipe is on the hotel’s website. But I’ll bet it won’t taste the same if you’re not sipping it while watching sunset hula by Kanoe Miller.
“The Fab Four” could be another name for the Duke Waikiki’s Mai Tai ($15), due to its core ingredients: Hana Bay Rum; Royal Hawaiian Mixes Orgeat Syrup (Tropical Island Blend); Arrow Orange Curacao; Diamond Head Special Dark Rum. “Those four bottles are the base of our mai tai and have been since we started,” says Greenleaf, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The fresh juice mix embellishes the standard POG mix (passionfruit, orange, and guava juices) with pineapple juice as well. It’s a stellar example of the perfectly blended mai tai, served in one of Duke’s trademark happy face/sad face mugs. “You might come in with a frown, but by the time you’re done with the drink, you leave with a smile on your face,” says the bartender.
Which is exactly the feeling you should have when you’re drinking a mai tai. Aloha!