The History of the Mai Tai Cocktail and Its Evolution into a Canned Beverage

Imagine yourself on a beautiful beach. Your toes dig into the soft white sand, and you can hear the waves rushing up to meet the shore. You can feel the hot sunshine on your skin and a gentle breeze in your hair. It’s a delightful mental image, but it’s not complete without a tropical drink in your hand. When you close your eyes and picture that drink, there is a good chance you are imagining a Mai Tai cocktail. 

The Mai Tai is a tropical drink icon, delighting crowds at Tiki Bars, on sandy beaches, and beyond for decades. Now that classic bar favorite has undergone a transformation into a beloved canned beverage. Let’s delve into the history of the Mai Tai, its impact on the cocktail industry, and why it’s now the hidden gem the ready-to-drink cocktail market. 

 The History of the Mai Tai Cocktail

While several bars claim to be the home of the Mai Tai cocktail, most people agree that its creation should be credited to Victor J. Bergeron. Bergeron was better known as Trader Vic, owner and operator of his eponymous restaurant in Oakland, California, in 1934. It was the end of the Depression, and people were looking for a good time. Vic gave that to them in spades. 

His tiki-themed restaurant drew culinary and cocktail inspiration from around the world. It was one of the first restaurants to dabble in fusion cooking, blending tastes and techniques from different cultures to fashion something new and exciting. Trader Vic’s would go on to create many classic dishes and drinks that we still love today, including the Mai Tai. 

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Legend has it that Vic wanted to create a cocktail for some friends visiting his restaurant from Tahiti. He reached for a bottle of 17-year-old rum, then added lime juice, orange curacao, and a sweet almond syrup called orgeat. He shook it up, served it over crushed ice, and garnished it with a sprig of mint and a slice of lime. 

His friend took a sip and exclaimed, “Maita’i roa a’e!” Roughly translated from Tahitian, this means “Out of this world! The best!” So, Vic named his drink Mai Tai, or “the best.” And a legend was born. 

The Mai Tai Cocktail’s Popularity

After its initial debut at Trader Vic’s, the Mai Tai’s popularity quickly spread to other cocktail clubs and bars across the United States. The popularity of the cocktail was spurred on by the rise of tiki culture, a trend born from increased tourism to Hawaii after it became a state in 1959. 

Classic Mai Tais were served in a tiki mug with over-the-top garnishes, including paper umbrellas, tropical fruit, or real flowers. The Mai Tai was the perfect complement to Hawaiian cuisine, also growing in popularity within the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The refreshing, fruity flavor is ideal with Hawaiian staples such as kalua pig, poi, and poke bowls. 

The drink’s popularity had a considerable influence on the cocktail industry. Until then, classic cocktails had reigned supreme, with the Old Fashioned and Gin and Tonic dominating the cocktail scene. The Mai Tai opened the doors for more complex, tropical flavors, leading to the creation of more tiki bar favorites like the Zombie and Hurricane. It also made rum one of the most popular spirits in the United States, with a market now worth more than $3 billion

The Evolution of the Mai Tai Cocktail into a Canned Beverage

The original Mai Tai recipe resulted in a pretty dry cocktail with a crispness mellowed by almond syrup. As the drink’s popularity grew, bartenders worldwide put their own spin on it. It became much sweeter, as did many of the tiki cocktails, with the addition of fruit juices and syrups. 

But the purists will tell you that the true Mai Tai has not evolved. They may even turn their noses up at anything that isn’t Trader Vic’s 1944 original recipe. The contingent of beach bars calling their rum punch concoctions Mai Tais are fooling themselves–and their customers. Their versions feature juices and additions that don’t belong in an authentic Mai Tai. Walk away if you see something listed with orange juice, pineapple, or coconut. That’s not a Mai Tai, and you won’t get an authentic experience of Trader Vic’s original, sophisticated cocktail. 

Changes to the Mai Tai continue with many brands in the ready-to-drink industry, where some of the worst offenders are putting rum punch cocktails in a can and calling them a Mai Tai. They aren’t the real thing, and in some ways, it’s giving canned cocktails (and the Mai Tai) a bad name. But the popularity of canned cocktails continues to grow, and Mai Tai fans are left searching for an authentic take on their favorite cocktail.

Pre-mixed canned cocktails are the ultimate convenience. They are a hassle-free way to bring your favorite drink to the beach, on a picnic, or to your favorite concert venue without lugging along all the individual ingredients. No need to mix, shake, or worry about cutting up a garnish. With a high-quality canned cocktail, you can simply pour over ice and enjoy. 

The obvious issue with a canned cocktail is whether it can match the taste of its bar-mixed cocktail counterpart. Pioneers in the industry are overcoming the canned cocktail stigma by offering top-shelf spirits and 100% real ingredients to create perfectly proportioned, well-balanced, delicious drinks. Their attention to detail and commitment to taste has led to a revolution in the canned cocktail market, which is seeing growth like never before. 

So can a discerning tiki cocktail drinker find premium bar-quality canned cocktails faithful to Trader Vic’s original recipe? Yes, but they’ll need to do some homework. Tiki drinks require more preparation than your standard G&T, and many drink manufacturers take the lazy way out and substitute shelf-stable ingredients instead of the authentic recipe. Some brands opt for the modern take on a Mai Tai, which tends to be sweeter and further away from Trader Vic’s original recipe. They opt for loose interpretations of the drink, such as rum with pineapple, coconut, and citrus flavors, which is about as far away from Trader Vic’s recipe as you can go.

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But that’s not true for all of them. Some ready-to-drink manufacturers are staying faithful to the original taste of the Mai Tai and translating that into a convenient, ready-to-drink canned cocktail. These purists attempt to keep their ratios and ingredients as close to that authentic taste as possible. It’s a technically sophisticated cocktail, so taking time to find a brand that does it right means you’ll end up with a drink that’s better than 90% of the Mai Tais out there–in a bar or in a can. 

For a great canned Mai Tai, look for drinks created in small batches with authentic ingredients. Stick with the original recipe of Caribbean rum, real lime juice, orange curacao, and almond orgeat. Check out the proportions of the ingredients, too, and look for drinks that measure out to about 100ml. That’s the size of a standard bar pour, so you get a better mix and taste when you stick to a drink around that size.

Do that, and you can enjoy all the portability and convenience you expect without compromising taste. 

Want to Enjoy a Fresh Bar-Mixed Taste at Home?

The Mai Tai has come a long way from its start in a humble tiki bar in California. It’s become a bar beverage icon, influencing the cocktail culture and inspiring new tiki-themed drinks. As the cocktail industry continues to evolve, there is no doubt the Mai Tai will remain a perennial favorite. Its appeal to the canned-cocktail crowd is also a testament to its enduring popularity. As consumers continue to demand convenience and quality in their beverages, the highest-quality RTD cocktails will likely remain popular for cocktail enthusiasts everywhere.

The 1944 Mai Tai from Post Meridiem faithfully reproduces Trader Vic’s original recipe with cocktail-in-a-can simplicity. Post Meridiem believes in serving this classic cocktail with the most authentic taste possible without substituting a rum punch for Vic’s original vision. The perfect combination of Caribbean rums, real lime juice, orange curacao, almond orgeat, and a hint of mint. Using only the highest-quality ingredients in perfect proportions, we’ve earned a loyal following among cocktail enthusiasts—even those who previously doubted that a canned cocktail could taste as good as a freshly-mixed one. 

Want to get your hands on Post Meridiem’s canned Mai Tai? Shop online and have them delivered to your door,  or pick them up at your local premium liquor store