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The Legend of the Mai Tai

Sarah Williams

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Sarah Williams | September 25, 2013 | 0

Mai Tai, Recipe, Cocktails, History

Many lay claim to inventing the Mai Tai, but whoever invented this exotic Tiki drink, should be given an award for concocting a brimful of awesome. Mai Tai is actually a Tahitian word derived from maita’i roa ae, which literally means “very good.” One sip of the beverage and you’ll see that it indeed lives up to its name.

Mai Tai Legend

According to Mark Sullivan of CocktailsHawaii.com, two of the most popular stories on how the Mai Tai was invented could be traced back to Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron or Donn “Don the Beachcomber” Beach. Trader Vic and Don were among the first wave of owners of Tiki bars in California and Hawaii.

Sullivan’s research revealed that Don claimed he had come up with the recipe for Mai Tai in 1933, when he opened a small Tiki-themed restaurant in Hollywood. Don designed a couple of drinks for the menu including the Original Beachcomber Rum Concoction, which was later known as the Mai Tai. The drink was a mix of Cuban rum, Cointreau (a brand of orange-flavored liquor or triple sec), Pernod (a brand of anise-based liquor), fresh lime juice, fresh grapefruit juice and angostura bitters (herb-based liquor).

Trader Vic also owned a restaurant in Northern California in the 1930s. Called Hinky Dinks, the restaurant used to be Eskimo-themed. Legend has it that he later changed the theme of Hinky Dinks to a tropical one after seeing the original Don the Beachcomber’s restaurant.

It was said that Trader Vic invented the Mai Tai sometime in 1944 when Tahitian friends came for a visit. Trader Vic wanted to concoct a special drink for his guest and he did so with a combination of gold Jamaican rum, rock candy syrup (simple syrup), orange curacao (a liquor made from lahara citrus peels), French orgeat (almond-based syrup) and fresh lime juice. Pleased with his drink, a friend exclaimed “mai tai roa ae” which translates to English as “out of this world” or “the best.” The rest was history.

Mai Tai Recipes

Two Mai Tai recipes stood out for us: one from award-winning chef Emeril Lagasse of Food Network, and one from bar owner Martin Cate, as featured in website Chow.com.

Emeril Lagasse of Food Network’s take on Mai Tai calls sand and surf to mind. For those of you who may not know Lagasse, Lagasse is a noted American celebrity chef who hosted shows such as Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril on the Food Network. Try his Mai Tai recipe for a quick, refreshing drink as a prelude to your meal.

Chow.com posted an “authentic version” of the Mai Tai as part of its Tiki cocktail photo gallery. The recipe, according to Jack Berry, was adapted from Martin Cate, a purveyor of exotic drinks and owner of Smuggler’s Cove. The said bar was based in San Francisco. Chow.com describes mai tai as “one of the most perverted cocktails out there” because as Berry claims, the mai tai is “frequently made with wrong ingredients like pineapple juice and grenadine.” Ouch. You can watch Martin Cate make a Mai Tai here.

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