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What is a Mai Tai?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Mai Tai is an alcoholic cocktail that has become synonymous with Hawaiian sunsets and lounging in hammocks. It is a mix of Jamaican rum and lime juice, garnished with fresh mint. The Mai Tai is a much imitated drink that, once tasted, is said to be unforgettable.

The creation of the original Mai Tai has caused some debate. The most vocal of the creators is the late Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic's fame. Before he died, Vic claimed that many people were trying to take credit for the drink that he invented.

Bergeron was a famous Californian restaurateur who wrote about the creation of the Mai Tai in 1947. His book, The Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide (Revised) breaks down, in detail, how he created the exotic cocktail in 1944. Bergeron used rum, fresh lime, orange Curacao, rock candy syrup, and French orgeat. He handed the shaken drink to a friend, who drank it and proclaimed in Tahitian, Mai tai roa ae, meaning, "out of this world, the best."

Bergeron's claim to be the originator of the Mai Tai seems to be solid. After creating the drink in his Californian restaurant, he took to the drink to Hawaii in 1953. Before he died, Bergeron was said to be understandably annoyed at other people trying to take credit for his drink.

The Mai Tai is now a staple cocktail in the Hawaiian Islands, but many experts say that it is rare to find a real Mai Tai. They say that the worst examples of the Mai Tai can be found in Waikiki. Tourists arrive from far and wide to sample the real stuff, but many leave disappointed. The Waikiki hotels pander to the lure of mass marketed, cheap Mai Tais, using inferior rums and swapping lime juice for the island's own home grown pineapple juice. Now, the Mai Tai is just a big, sweet glass that should not be going by the name Mai Tai.

When it first appeared, the cocktail would only set you back 1.25 US dollars (USD). Now you can expect pay up to 7 USD for the real thing. There are around 6,000 drinking establishments in Hawaii, and many of the finer bars and hotels serve the Mai Tai as it was intended.

One of the key factors in a Mai Tai is the age of the rum. Eight to 15-year-old Jamaican rum is the best. The mix of other ingredients should not overpower the flavor of the rum. There are many variations on the drink, but like most things in life, the original is still the best.

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