How to Make a Mai Tai, Plus a Peek into the Cocktail’s Surprising History
The Mai Tai was one of Google’s top trending cocktails of 2021. It’s no surprise, if you ask us: After quarantine and a barrage of hellish global events, we’re all in desperate need of a little liquid sunshine (let alone an actual vacation). But there’s also been an intense cocktail revival, which has mixologists thirsting to bring exotic, vintage drinks back to their original state. The Mai Tai’s recipe has changed a lot over time, resulting in a variety of different methods of making one—some of which cocktail connoisseurs take genuine offense to. But the core of the drink remains the same: white and dark rum, orange curaçao, fresh lime juice and almond, whether in the form of traditional orgeat or amaretto. Wondering how to make a Mai Tai? Read on for our simple recipe and a little background on this tiki drink’s surprising history. (Hint: It was *not* invented in Hawaii.)
The History of the Mai Tai
The Mai Tai’s name comes from the Tahitian word for good, Maita’I. It’s said that when the drink was invented, one of the first people to taste it exclaimed “Maita’I-roa aé,” or “out of this world, the best,” and the rest is history. Today, it’s one of the most famous Tiki drinks around the globe and one of the most enduring vintage cocktails of all time.
The Mai Tai was first created as a vehicle to showcase quality rum. You might think this island fave originated in Hawaii, but it was actually invented at a Polynesian-inspired bar and restaurant called Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California. The inventor, Victor J. Bergeron, made a hit of the Mai Tai in California, then Seattle and finally, Hawaii.
Initially, the Mai Tai was made with 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew rum from Jamaica, but once Bergeron ran out of both that and the 15-year-old counterpart, he began to blend a variety of rums to achieve a similar flavor, and consequently guarantee the endurance of his signature cocktail. That tradition stood the test of time, as the Mai Tai is made with a combination of both white and dark rum today—the white rum is shaken with the mixers and the dark rum is floated on the top of the finished drink.
When Bergeron took the Mai Tai to Hawaii in 1953, specifically the hotels of the Matson Steamship Lines, the drink spread quickly across the islands and beyond. In fact, the Mai Tai became so popular that it depleted the world’s stock of rum. (We’re betting its cameo in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii had something to do with that.) Originally, the drink didn’t include pineapple and orange juices. Bergeron added those while in Waikiki to create a more tourist-friendly cocktail for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Purists may say that generations of bottled juices and sugary mixers (or um, the ’80s) destroyed the legacy of the Mai Tai, but it’s clear that the sweeter version surpassed the original in popularity over the years, as it’s often what you’ll find on cocktail menus today.
How to Make a Mai Tai
If you want a crisp, refreshing, boozy Mai Tai that’s similar to the original, you’ll need to round up the main ingredients—white and dark rums, orange curaçao, fresh lime juice and orgeat, an almond syrup that’s essential to Tiki canon—a cocktail shaker, a rocks glass and ice, ideally crushed. You can make your own orgeat if you can’t find any at your local liquor store, or substitute amaretto or almond syrup to get that hint of nutty sweetness. And you must garnish it with Bergeron’s signature sprig of mint and half a lime shell, which represent an island and palm tree. We like Liquor.com’s recipe for staying true to the authentic Mai Tai, but Difford’s Guide has the original 1944 formula from Trader Vic himself.
If you want a fruity Mai Tai that’s on the sweeter side (like the ones you were inhaling on vacation), you’ll need a few additional ingredients, namely orange and pineapple juices. This version of a Mai Tai is usually served in a Collins glass, but you can also use a hurricane glass if that’s what you have on hand. If you’re going to use quality or expensive rum, shake up the original version without all the add-ins to not overpower the spirits’ nuanced flavors. If you want to load it up with fruit juice, don’t break the bank on the rums you choose.
The Royal Hawaiian-Inspired Mai Tai Recipe
- 1 ounce light rum
- ½ ounce orgeat or amaretto
- ½ ounce orange curaçao or triple sec
- 2 ounces orange juice
- 2 ounces pineapple juice
- 2 ounces fresh lime juice
- Dash grenadine (optional)
- Dark rum, for floating
- Pineapple wedge and maraschino cherry, for garnish
Step 1: Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the light rum, orgeat, curaçao, fruit juices and grenadine, if using. Vigorously shake the cocktail about ten times.
Step 2: Fill a Collins glass with ice. Strain the cocktail into the glass. Top the cocktail with dark rum, pouring it gently through a pourer around the rim of the glass. Garnish with pineapple and cherry and serve immediately.