My Honolulu: What the Mai Tai Means to Me and 8 Places You Can Mai Tai One On
The mai tai. Some say: Why? Others say: Why not?
The mai tai. Some say: Why? Others say: Why not?
At my wedding, I was one of the latter. Little did we know, my brand-new bride and I, that the bartender at The Willows was intent on sending us off on our honeymoon with the kind of knee-crawling hangover that makes you miss your plane to Kaua‘i and grounds you in a hot outdoor vinyl booth with a baggage handler who needs to tell you the real story of how Bruce Lee died—and tell you, and tell you, and tell you, for three solid hours. And you can’t move because of that mai tai at your reception. That led to another, and another …
We’re still married.
And I still enjoy a good mai tai.
It’s not a local drink, but to the world it’s become our local Island cocktail. It also has a bad reputation in many quarters—deservedly so. If you’ve ever come upon a table arrayed with 400 of the watery yellow-bronze Kool-Aid versions in little plastic cups at a hotel’s timeshare presentation, you know what I mean. You feel shame that innocent people are going to go back home thinking this is our Hawai‘i tipple.
Still, there’s a case to be made for this curious hybrid that isn’t even from the Islands. In fact, in the hands of brooding mixologists, the mai tai can actually command your full and unadulterated attention. That’s because, once upon a time, it got its start as a connoisseur’s craft cocktail intended for an elite audience—and a Polynesian one at that.
As it happens, this weekend is a good one to revisit the mai tai since the 10th Annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival will take place Saturday, Aug. 17 at the Royal Kona Resort on the Big Island.
Even if you can’t make it, right here in Honolulu you can seek out that seeming oxymoron—a respectable mai tai—secure in the knowledge that it comes layered in Pacific Rim history and topped, not with an umbrella, but a return to its upper-class origins. We’re going to give you three, plus options.
The history: mai tai milestones
When the Mai Tai was born in 1944, as Victor Bergeron’s personal treat for visitors from Tahiti, he made it as a showcase for a rare 17-year-old Jamaican rum, J. Wray and Nephew. The other ingredients—Orange Curacao, simple syrup, orgeat (almond syrup) and fresh lime—were mere dabs of color and flavor.
Bergeron concocted the drink at his Oakland restaurant, the very first Trader Vic’s. But, like Dr. Frankenstein, he couldn’t control his creation for very long once it became a sensation. A rival in Hollywood, Donn Beach—real name Ernest Gantt—got his version out at his Don the Beachcomber restaurant. Bartenders everywhere tried their hand.
If you’re wondering why the festival is named after Don the Beachcomber and not Trader Vic’s, well, Beach has way more Hawai‘i cred than Victor Bergeron: He’s credited with creating the International Market Place in 1957. He even had his Don the Beachcomber bachelor pad/tiki bar/office up in the branches of the famous big banyan.
Don the Beachcomber’s claim to the recipe doesn’t come with an explanation for the name, which Vic’s has (“Maita‘i roa ae!” allegedly cried the Tahitians: “Very good!”). And the Don’s mai tai recipe that floats around the Internet today doesn’t seem like anything that was going around in 1934. It has grapefruit juice as well as lime juice, Pernod, Cointreau and Angostura bitters. Maybe that’s why the restaurant chain fell on hard times and the last California outpost, a landmark in Sunset Beach, closed this April.
On the other hand, Trader Vic’s perseveres as a purveyor of tiki kitsch in a truly global array of restaurants (many in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, plus the San Jose Airport). But the Bay Area’s outlet’s offerings and drink menu’s come on—“The ancient Polynesian’s ceremonial Luau drinks were serve in festive communal bowls”—make it feel like a must-miss for those who cringe easily.
On O‘ahu we’re lucky to have mai tais you can enjoy and still live with yourself the next day, starting with the version that’s most faithful to the Old Vic.
SEE ALSO: Is O‘ahu Ready for the $18 Cocktail?
8 to Try on O‘ahu
Ask for Vic’s Original at Merriman’s
Nobody can recreate that first iteration of Vic’s ’44, because the drink’s popularity exhausted supplies of the original rum. That also happened with Bergeron’s fallback, a 15-year-old stock. From there he created his own blended rum. Once you blend, the vintage can’t mend, so from that point on, any claim to “original” was pau.
At first, our hunt for a dead-on approximation of the original Vic’s ’44 was also a washout. We hit menus all over town. We found interesting variations, but nothing close to an honest reengineering. Just when we were giving up, a click hit pay dirt—only not on O‘ahu. At Merriman’s Kapalua their Original Mai Tai is made with 23-year-old Ron Zacapa Solera, Kōloa dark rum and velvet falernum in place of orgeat (a miracle liqueur, falernum also has hints of ginger, lime and other flavors).
But a hint from our dining editor Catherine Toth Fox led us to contact Dusty Grable, Merriman’s beverage director and ask if the Ward Village restaurant had something up its sleeve. “We have the ingredients to make it. But it’s not listed,” he confirmed. Could an Original Mai Tai be requested? Yes, definitely.
This is great news for completists and originalists.
However, Merriman’s is extremely busy and a must-reserve kind of place. You may not find a place at the bar. So here is an excellent variation based on the drink’s heyday in the ’70s.
From the 1970s: float one at House Without A Key
I guess no one thinks about The Willows when it comes to mai tais now, but let me tell you, its 1976 version rocked our world for days.
That’s because the 1970s was the era of the float—a lethal layer of 151-proof dark rum atop the layered ingredients, which included a standard light rum. To those of us who liked living dangerously, the float was, like, the bomb. We were too jejune for adult standards like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, and this was long before flavored and dirty martinis, so a mai tai with a float was like a fuel-injected carburetor on your 442-cubic-inch Cutlass Supreme. Unnecessary, but it got you there even faster and in style.
The float is probably the most popular iteration of the mai tai, to judge from my lifetime of experience augmented by virtual internet drinking. It’s also easy to get a poorly executed version—what is called a “sugar bomb,” whose cheap ingredients combine in your brain to induce next-day amnesia.
You can get a very classy 1970s-style mai tai with a float at the Halekūlani’s House Without A Key. It’s a proper “overproof” mai tai for mature adults, made with Bacardi Gold and Barcardi Select rums, orgeat syrup, Orange Curacao, rock candy syrup, fresh lime juice and topped with half an ounce of Lemon Hart 151. (The latter is not a flavor, but one of the distillery founders.)
The Halekūlani mai tai is about sipping your way through sunset (preferably) in the company of friends and loved ones. Your reward will be an irresistible warm flush descending from your prefrontal cortex, soaking your limbs in dreamlike inertia. You will love the world and the world will love you back.
From the 1950s, the grand hotel versions
When the mai tai became an Island drink is far from settled. Drink historians say that even in the early 1950s Hawai‘i had yet to see a mai tai, but it’s hard to imagine that bartenders and, especially, Navy officers like my father, weren’t whipping up versions of the most popular Pacific-themed cocktail. Officially, though, Bergeron was commissioned by the Matson company in 1953 to create special mai tais for the Moana Surfrider and Royal Hawaiian hotel menus. But the job specified the addition of pineapple juice as well as orange juice.
Later, the better hotels also led the charge away from the drink’s sugary, fruit-forward, face-in-your-plate Waikīkī persona. Today the Royal Hawaiian has a “Vic’s 44” made with two 80-proof blended rums and the other original ingredients, including fresh lime. I’ve had it and I’ll have it again, no doubt. The Moana Surfrider draws praise for its two-rum, standard-proof version, though they splash pineapple juice as well as lime into the mix. Peter, the head bartender, will set me up again soon, I know. Duke’s Waikīkī spins a POG (passion-orange-guava) version with light and dark rum. I tried it, OK?
Bar Leather Apron in Downtown Honolulu
PHOTO: AARON YOSHINO
Now: Try a fusion mai tai at Bar Leather Apron
Another way to get closer in spirit, if not in actual flavor profile, to Vic’s vision of showcasing his rare rum is to turn to the craft mixologists. You won’t find a strict recreation, but will find less sugar and fruit and more intriguing, adult, sippable drinks.
For instance, Monkeypod Kitchen in Kapolei uses macadamia nut orgeat and liliko‘i foam. Bevy does a mai thai with candied-ginger foam and lemongrass syrup to go with Bacardi 8.
But my hands-down favorite in this admittedly esoteric category belongs to those maestros at Bar Leather Apron, whose co-founder Justin Park won the 2015 Don the Beachcomber contest. Here’s his E Ho‘o Pau Mai Tai: raisin-infused El Dorado five-year rum, El Dorado 12-year rum, coconut water syrup, spiced orgeat, ‘ōhi‘a blossom honey, lime, absinthe, kīawe wood smoke. The El Dorado is the real Demerara from Guyana, so Park isn’t just paying lip service to Bergeron’s original conception. The smoke, well, is there for drama. The absinthe—the infamous brain-rotting liqueur banned in France, the U.S. and the world in 1915—is evidently Bar Leather Apron’s take on the float. It’s not only highly alcoholic but reputedly hallucinogenic.
Whatever gets the job done, I say.
About the 10th Annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival
From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 17 at the Royal Kona Resort, more than 20 expert mixologists—including half a dozen previous champions—will compete for the title of mai tai champion. Hailing from all over the world (including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Las Vegas, Hawai‘i, Vancouver and Turin, Italy) they will uncork their best Tom Cruise “Highball Impossible” routines while reinterpreting the mai tai’s core ingredients (which often end up as only footnotes to the eventual creations).
Those attending will no doubt be primed after a day of activities, including wandering the Mai Tai Marketplace, tasting and voting on Hawai‘i’s best barbecue and enjoying a pool party featuring local musicians (the Royal Kona brings in some of our best). If you’re on the Big Island, we hope you’ll represent for us.