A celebration of rum and the taste of summer, the Mai Tai cocktail could be the most popular Tiki drink in existence. While many can say they’ve tasted a Mai Tai, surprisingly few understand the complex ingredients that go into this long-time favorite. If you associate coconut, fruit punch, or overwhelming sweetness with a Mai Tai, you’re not thinking of the classic recipe that made the drink the iconic cocktail it is today.
A classic Mai Tai gracefully blends citrus flavors with just the right amount of sweetness and quality Caribbean rum. According to legend, the first was made with a bottle of 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum. Bottles of this rum have sold at auction for more than $50,000. However, it is still possible to enjoy authentic cocktails like a Mai Tai without breaking the bank. Here’s how.
What Goes Into a Mai Tai Cocktail?
The Mai Tai has been called the most imitated cocktail of all time and the most bastardized. If you’re a fan of tiki drinks, you’re likely familiar with a few variations of the Mai Tai. One of the most widely accepted versions includes orange and pineapple juices to sweeten the mixture. Others include coconut, and some are pink due to the addition of various fruit juices.
The original Mai Tai is made without these additions. It is a complex cocktail featuring crisp citrus, subtle sweetness, and a rich nutty flavor derived from orgeat. It is prepared with a carefully balanced blend of Caribbean rums, real lime juice, orange curacao, and almond orgeat.
The Classic Mai Tai: A Quick History of this Tiki Favorite
The first Mai Tai cocktail was crafted by a man named Vic who wanted to impress a friend. That friend’s exclamation after trying the cocktail—Maita’i roa a’e!—said it all, and led to the name Mai Tai or “the best.”
Vic, better known as Trader Vic, was the owner of a tiki-themed restaurant that drew culinary inspiration from around the world. In 1944, when entertaining friends from Tahiti, he created the cocktail that quickly became a sensation. The drink centered around a bottle of the now-famous J. Wray & Nephew 17, which was combined with lime juice, orange curacao, and orgeat and served over crushed ice. The final touch was the garnish of a mint sprig and a slice of lime.
After the drink’s introduction, its popularity quickly spread across the U.S. However, without the exact recipe, bartenders got creative and made their own versions of the cocktail.
In 1953, shipping company Matson Steamship Lines hired Vic to manage the cocktail menus for the bars at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider Hotels in the Hawaiian Islands. In an effort to sweeten his recipe for a more tourist-friendly option, Vic added pineapple and orange juices. The Royal Hawaiian recipe became the new and more popular version of the Mai Tai. Sweeter tiki cocktails emerged, and the original Mai Tai cocktail almost faded into history.
Crafting the Perfect Mai Tai the Traditional Way
Now, as bartenders and cocktail-makers strive to create quality drinks that closely align with their original recipes, the authentic Mai Tai has resurfaced. Crafting a Mai Tai cocktail that hails back to the original 1944 recipe takes some effort and know-how. Here’s a lesson on how to craft your own.
Tools and Prep: Getting Ready
A classic Mai Tai is shaken rather than blended, then served over ice. It’s assembled carefully to ensure correct dilution and chilling. To achieve superior results, you’ll need the following items:
- Shaker. Ingredients are shaken with ice until frosty.
- Crushed Ice. Freshly crushed ice ensures an accurate texture and temperature.
- Rocks Glass. Serve in a rocks glass (or substitute a lowball or old-fashioned glass) for a neat pour.
The Importance of Quality Ingredients
Fresh, high-quality, simple ingredients are used in the bar-quality Mai Tai to develop a refreshing flavor profile that perfectly compliments excellent rum. While you’re unlikely to have a bottle of rum that’s been aged for 17 years, you’ll still need high-quality dark and white rum. Additional ingredients for an authentic Mai Tai should be carefully chosen, and include:
- 100% Lime Juice. Freshly squeezed is ideal, but real lime juice is essential to produce the crisp citrus flavor.
- Orange Curacao. Curacao typically includes more spices than triple sec to create a more flavorful cocktail.
- Almond Orgeat Syrup. Made from almonds, sugar, and citrus flavors, orgeat’s nutty sweetness and richness can’t be accurately recreated with substitutes.
- Mint. The garnish for a traditional Mai Tai is a spent half-lime shell and a sprig of mint.
How to Make a Mai Tai
Once you have all the ingredients on hand, you are ready to prepare a classic Mai Tai cocktail. Take these steps to achieve the ideal pour.
- Fill a shaker with crushed ice.
- Add the rums, curacao, orgeat, and lime juice.
- Shake for 10 seconds or until the mixture is adequately chilled.
- Pour the entire mixture, including ice, into a rocks glass.
- Garnish with a spent lime shell and mint sprig.
Variations on the Classic Mai Tai
A classic Mai Tai cocktail doesn’t get its sweetness from fruit juices or rely on artistic garnishes like an umbrella. However, there are certain variations that stay pretty true to the original.
- Dark Rum Float. While there is no float in the original recipe, an authentic Mai Tai includes dark rum and the dark color contrasts beautifully with the sunny yellow drink below. To create the effect, float the dark rum over the top of the prepared drink by slowly pouring the dark rum over a spoon to distribute the liquid.
- Subtle Twist. The nuttiness of a Mai Tai is a pivotal part of what creates its signature flavor. Consider using orgeats made from different nuts like macadamia or hazelnut to create a subtly altered taste.
- Alternative Spirits. Although an authentic Mai Tai cocktail is a rum-based drink, some bartenders prefer to experiment by substituting other spirits for the rum. A substitute of bourbon or the addition of sparkling wine changes the flavor profile without depending on sugary juices.
- Different Garnish. Substitute a pineapple and cherry pick in place of the traditional garnish of lime and mint.
The No-Compromise Way to Simplify the Classic Mai Tai Cocktail
A classic Mai Tai is substantially different from the overly sweet, juice-filled drinks that are often served at summer gatherings and even in tiki bars and restaurants. Crafting the best-tasting cocktail requires the careful calculation of specific ingredients, a time-consuming step-by-step process, and special details to delight every taste. Whether you hope to recreate your favorite drink consistently or serve a crowd, creating an excellent Mai Tai requires patience and expertise.
To get the ideal results, each drink is prepared with a shaker and served immediately. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option in many environments. Tiki cocktails are popular in outdoor settings like pools, beach gatherings, or other fun events. Even if you happen to have a full bar in the moment, you don’t want to miss out on the party because you’re spending the entire time playing bartender.
Ready-to-Drink Cocktails: Changing the Game for the Authentic Mai Tai
Luckily, there is a simple way to get an authentic Mai Tai cocktail without a lot of time and effort. Today’s high-quality canned cocktails take the guesswork out of preparing a delicious classic Mai Tai. Instead of worrying about having all the right ingredients on hand, you can instantly bring the classic tiki atmosphere to your next soiree or a relaxing evening, without all the fuss. When you choose an expertly crafted canned Mai Tai, you get a cocktail that rivals the taste you’d get from a bartender.
However, not all ready-to-drink (RTD) canned cocktails are created equal. All too often, companies take shortcuts to save money or develop a long shelf life. Some mass-produced canned cocktails are made with low-quality liquor and artificial flavors.
To find high-quality canned cocktails, look for some essential details that demonstrate attention to the real thing. The best RTD cocktails have clearly listed ingredients in perfectly proportioned measurements. They are made with genuine ingredients instead of artificial or so-called “natural” flavorings. A great RTD cocktail is similar to what you’ll receive in a bar, with 100% real ingredients, precise measurements, and a serving size to match.
The best canned cocktails are bar-quality drinks that are easily accessible for any occasion, poured into convenient cans. They can then be poured into glasses and served over ice and topped with garnishes for an elegant experience at home or during any special gathering, with no effort and no compromise.
Enjoy Bar-Quality Cocktails Anywhere
When you want an authentic Mai Tai without the work involved in creating your own concoction, reach for a Post Meridiem 1944 Mai Tai cocktail. True to the original recipe, our Mai Tai is a carefully balanced blend of Caribbean rums, real lime juice, orange curacao, almond orgeat, and a hint of mint.
A silver-medal winner in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and bronze in the SIP International Spirits Competition, this Mai Tai delivers consistently delicious flavor whenever you’re ready for your favorite tiki drink. Find a supplier near you today or buy online to discover the difference in our canned cocktails.