The History of the Mai Tai

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As things heat up this summer, and we run for the nearest booze-fueled beach, the real question on everyone’s mind is: what tropical shit storm am I going to subject myself to? Most beachside bars’ cocktails don’t remotely resemble their original counterparts, instead blending as many juices as possible with a lot of cheap rum and a handful of bug-filled ice (which also ends deliciously). But there was once a time when these tropical drinks were meant to highlight the quality and flavor of a myriad of tropical liquors. Take the Mai Tai, for instance.


While you might picture this delicious concoction originating in the Caribbean, the actual origin story takes place in Oakland, in the 40’s. Victor Jules Bergeron, owner of the Polynesian-themed restaurant chain Trader Vic’s, along with Don Beach, owner of Don the Beachcomber restaurant and tiki bar, were the first to start the movement that would become Tiki Culture. Tiki attempts to blend Polynesian and Caribbean culture (without a ton of thought put in), to create an exotic experience without the travel. Nothing does that better than a nice colorful, tropical drink.


Trader Vic claims the creation of the mai tai came from a need for a simple recipe to show off a delicious Jamaican rum he had on hand. The solution: Fresh lime, orange curacao, a dash of rock candy sugar, and some French orgeat syrup. He shook the masterpiece up with some shaved ice, threw some mint and lime on to pretty it up, and served the drink to some friends visiting from Tahiti in 1944. At first taste (allegedly), one of the friends cried out “Maita’i roa ae!”, which translates to “Out of this world”, immediately naming what we now know as the Mai Tai. With a little refining over the years, Trader Vic became known as the creator of this classic beachside beverage.

Don the Beachcomber has his own story. But, as there are no more Donn the Beachcomber bars, no one seems to really care.

So that’s it. No 12-juice mixtures, no oranges, peaches, or mangoes dumped in. There are many variations over the years, with varying degrees of popularity. It comes down to a great rum, highlighted with simple ingredients. And the presentation. Always the presentation. Things have changed over the years, and each bartender is certainly allowed his/her own flare. But the traditional presentation is in a wide, 12oz glass, lime shell green side up , placed into the drink, with a branch of mint to represent an island with tropical trees.

Our advice: get to a beach and get one of these bad boys in hand ASAP.


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