Cult Classics: The Mai Tai


If you can’t afford a plane ticket to the tropics, mixing up a Mai Tai is the next best thing.

It conjures up visions of soft sunshine, warm sand, a lazy ocean lapping at your overworked feet, whilst the disembodied sound of a ukulele emanates from somewhere in the distance, and you reach for another mid-century pineapple and ham hors d'oeuvre….

Yup. A Mai Tai is just the ticket. Familiarise yourself with these Mai Tai facts before you whisk yourself away:

  • Despite the sunny association, Victor J. Bergeron is the proclaimed inventor of the Mai Tai in 1944 at his eponymous restaurant, Trader Vic's, in the decidedly non-tropical and slightly less exotic location of Oakland, California. It was originally created for friends visiting from Tahiti, and concocted with a mix of 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican rum.

  • But, of course, with any good cocktail origin story, there is confusion/controversy on the drink’s beginnings. Donn Beach, from Hollywood’s neighbourhood tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, claims Trader Vic’s recipe was inspired by Donn’s Q.B. Cooler cocktail, dating back to 1933. Trader Vic’s refuted this claim, saying, “Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”

  • Despite their factual differences, Trader Vic and Donn Beach are considered the godfathers of Tiki Culture. Together, with their respective bars, Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber, they created getaways, decorated with Polynesian gewgaws, where people could escape reality and transport themselves to the tropics, whilst enjoying tropical-themed and flavoured cocktails. The Mai Tai was the cocktail at the forefront of this movement, providing the masses with Polynesia in a glass.

  • The name Mai Tai endorses itself - "maita'i" is the Tahitian word for "good".

  • 30 June is National Mai Tai Day - laugh defiantly in the face of a New Zealand winter, crank up the heat pump and get your crew together for a stay-at-home, mid-winter luau in your lounge to celebrate.

  • In 1959, the Mai Tai became the number one cocktail in the USA. Why 1959? It was the year Hawaii became a state, as well as the year Boeing 747 went into service. Trips to this new exotic state took four hours (from California) instead of 12. Hawaii became a tourist mecca almost overnight and the Mai Tai shot to the top as people sought to recreate the tropics once they returned to the doldrums of real life.

Looking to hop on a fast boat to the tropics? Here’s the traditional Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe as featured in Trader Vic's Bartending Guide Book, care of our very own Highball Manager and legendary Wellington cocktail alchemist, Riki Carter.

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Recipe

50ml Trader Vic Mai Tai rum or 1 ounce dark Jamaica rum and 1 ounce Martinique rum (traditionally, this was Wray & Nephew 18 Year Old)

10 ml orange curaçao

10 ml ounce French orgeat syrup

8 ml rock candy syrup

A lime

Ice (shaved ice, if you’d like to recreate the Trader Vic version)

  • In a highball glass, pour rum over ice

  • Add juice from a fresh lime

  • Add orange curaçao, your dash of rock candy syrup, and the French orgeat syrup

  • Mix (or shake, if you’re using a cocktail shaker) vigorously

  • Add a sprig of fresh mint to garnish

To discover more variations on the Mai Tai, visit Liquorland Toast. If you’d like to get updates from the Liquorland Toast newsletter, sign up here.

And don’t forget to grab your Highball tickets!

Andrew Stantiall