Overlooking the Emeryville, Calif., Marina with a view of the sparkling San Francisco Bay, is Trader Vic's Polynesian restaurant and lounge, a beloved spot for people in search of exotic eats, premier cocktails or a tropical getaway close to home. It's a realm of tiki gods and tribal decor, and its top-notch Polynesian cuisine has earned it a place among San Francisco's best restaurants. Trader Vic's is also well known in the cocktail world: the contemporary tiki hut is known as the birthplace of the original mai tai.
As the story goes, the drink was coined "mai tai" one afternoon in 1944, when Victor J. "Trader Vic" Bergeron hosted some friends visiting from Tahiti. He passed around a new concoction, made from dark rum, light rum, lime juice, orange Curacao liqueur, orgeat syrup, simple syrup, ice cubes, and garnished with a pineapple wedge and fresh mint. After the first sip, one of his guests shouted, "Maita'i roa ae!" or "Out of this world!" Another restaurateur, however, claimed to have created the cocktail several years prior. Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, better known as Donn Beach or "Beachcomber," lured customers in with his "rum rhapsodies" and is considered the founder of tiki-themed restaurants, popular in the 1940s and '50s. Gantt said he invented the "mai tai" in 1933, but Vic's growing celebrity sidelined Gantt's claim.
Trader Vic's spawned a slew of locations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and with the expansion of restaurants, the mai tai became even more popular, which in turn inspired bartenders and mixologists to create their own versions of the tropical drink.
Inspired by the summer heat, a Boise Weekly tasting panel took up its own tiki torch and mixed up some mai tais.
Trader Vic's Dark Rum—$16 and up
The mixologist's injunction against mixing light and dark boozes doesn't apply to the mai tai. In fact, the day and night mixture is just one of many of its famous characteristics. The original mai tai recipe begins with dark rum, and there are plenty delicious ones to play around with, such as Myers's [sic] or Gosling's Black Seal. For the sake of tradition, we used Trader Vic's Dark Rum, which, by itself, went down a little too easy. Don't let the initial aroma fool you: This rum contains creamy vanilla undertones that bring through a delicate sweetness despite the acidity of all three fruit juices we used in our recipe. Put down the slumpy spiced rums—Trader Vic's Dark is delightful and affordable.
Flor De Cana: Slow Aged Anejo Oro Rum—$18 and up
Holding dry, oaky and sweet undertones, each sip of Flor De Cana Anejo Oro was smooth, with a lingering warmth. We noticed this light rum had strong whiskey notes, derived from a four-year aging process in charred white oak barrels once used for storing bourbon. Our whiskey radar was spot on. Despite its similarities to bourbon, this Nicaraguan rum carries island-esque undertones of lime and sweetness, justifying the few extra bucks. Flor De Cana was an instant add to our shopping list not only for making mai tais: This rum, with its amber hue, tastes great on the rocks. It's a must-have spirit.
Maita'i roa ae!
Bartenders the world over have come up with their own versions of the mai tai, but our panel held to the classic recipe of one ounce each of dark and light rums.
Keeping in tune with our "island merchant" melody, we chose Trader Joe's orange and pineapple juices for our neo-mai tai, finding a modest one-half ounce of orange and one-fourth ounce of pineapple plenty. Adding to its already robust tartness, we squeeze one ounce of fresh lime juice (about half of a lime) into the jigger.
Though we subbed the orange juice for Cointreau (to be totally honest, we forgot to get some) but did have on hand a bottle of Small Hand Food's orgeat, an almond-based liqueur that tamed some of the drink's acidity. Made from rose and orange flower water, orgeat is irreplaceable in the mai tai, as it rounds-out an otherwise too-citrus cocktail with delicate flavor. We weren't partial to the milky appearance the orgeat gave the drink but agreed the rare find is essential to the overall flavor profile—we used about one-half ounce—and will be a welcome ingredient in other cocktail experiments. And though the color of our drink was atypical for the traditional mai tai we decided to leave the grenadine to Shirley Temples. By resisting a pinky tone courtesy of red dye no. 4, we dodged a maraschino sugar bomb.
Shaken and poured over the rocks in a tumbler rather than a tiki mug, our final presentation achieved a "sandy shore" color—arguably more apt for a mini parasol and mint leaf garnish, in our opinion. Hands down, the mint leaves made the drink, hitting the nose right off the bat, carrying through each sip and lingering through the exhalation. Fresh leaves from the store work fine, but garden-grown mint is ideal.
Our flowery, citrusy mai tai was dangerously delicious without sacrificing traditional tropical flair—perfect for a lazy August day.