Mai Tai … the name evokes images of romantic barefoot walks on white sandy beaches under a Polynesian moon in the South Pacific. Island hospitality and leaving your troubles behind … literally, a world away. Yet, this bellwether vacation libation originated much closer to home … in Oakland, California at world-famous Trader Vic’s tiki restaurant on the San Francisco Bay.
History of the Mai Tai
Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron invented the Mai Tai at his now famous restaurant, Trader Vic’s, in Oakland, California in 1944. Vic was a true mixologist, well-known for constantly experimenting with rum-based cocktails, and recalled the Mai Tai’s creation in his book, Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide:
“I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of seventeen-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica—surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curaçao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French orgeat for its subtle almond flavor. I added a generous amount of shaved ice and shook it vigorously by hand to produce the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went into each drink for color; and I stuck in a branch of fresh mint. I gave the first two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night.”
Upon sampling Vic’s new creation, Mrs. Guild exclaimed “Mai Tai—Roa Aé!” meaning “Out of this world—the best!” in Tahitian. And, so, Trader Vic’s new vigorously-shaken rum-drink became known as the Mai Tai. The intoxicating beverage was a huge hit with Vic’s regulars and made it onto the restaurant’s official menu in 1947, where it has continuously remained an international favorite among vacationers for over 70 years.
Victor Bergeron’s tiki restaurant rival and fellow rum specialist, Don the Beachcomber, reportedly claimed that he invented the Mai Tai at his Polynesian-themed restaurant in Hollywood, California in 1933. However, Don’s claim has mostly been discredited as his recipe is significantly different from Vic’s and the Mai Tai did not appear on Don The Beachcomber menus until 1965, well after it had achieved world-wide popularity. In Trader Vic’s aforementioned book, he wrote, “Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.” Since 1947, Vic’s restaurant menus have referred to Don the Beachcomber’s rum-drink, Zombie, as “A Real Dirty Stinker.” A reference to Vic’s disdain for Don’s false claim ;-)
Regardless of where or by whom the original Mai Tai was invented, when prepared correctly by a knowledgeable bartender, it is truly one of the most elegant and iconic cocktails ever created. In spite its stateside origins by one of two haole mixologists, no drink is more associated with Polynesia or the Hawiian Islands than the Mai Tai. Aloha …
Best Mai Tai Recipes
Olivia co-founded Make Drinks in 2013 and serves as its Coffee and Cocktails editor … yes, incongruous competing categories for sure. However, bartending her way through college while obtaining a Bachelor’s in Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley left her abundantly prepared for this position. Oh, and two kids in tow. Coffee in the morning, cocktails at night … Ponce de León never knew the elusive fountain was so close.