Proposed by: Jonathan
Reviewed by: David
I am afraid. Very afraid actually. Who could have known, before doing research on this drink and the background, that people are so into and argumentative about all things tiki. The disputes run deeper than the origin of the Mai Tai, there are debates, web sites and input all over the board about tiki decoration, tiki food and especially tiki cocktails. I can’t prove it, but am fairly sure that someone sent an attack yellow jacket to sting my hand yesterday to leave me incapable of typing. Despite the swelling and itching, though, in the name of all that is right in cocktailia, I am pushing forward.
The Mai Tai is included on virtually every list of the top 100 cocktails of all time. It meets the basic definition of two parts spirit (rum in combination of types), one part sour (lime) and one part sweet (the mix of orgeat and orange liqueur) at least in the basic recipes. The odd thing is that there is no simple, basic recipe.
This cocktail is less disputed as to the creator than it is about actual ingredients. There is little doubt that Victor Bergeron created a drink that is now known as the Mai Tai at his Trader Vic’s restaurant and bar in California. That drink highlighted an extremely well-aged rum (J. Wray & Nephew which is no longer available) and paired it with lime, orange curaçao, orgeat, and simple syrup. Sometime before that, however, Ernest Gantt (perhaps better known for his name alteration – Don the Beachcomber) had also made a drink ultimately called a Mai Tai. It is a much more complicated mix of ingredients which included grapefruit juice, Pernod, and bitters among other things. Search Wikipedia and one can find a link to wikibooks with no less than 11 recipes for the Mai Tai. I am perfectly happy to give both of them credit.
Not surprisingly, David and I exchanged messages this week about what recipe to use. I settled on this one, but even that changed a couple of nights later when I made the pictured drinks. From Speakeasy Cocktails: Learn from the Modern Mixologists:
1 ounce aged rum
1 ounce heavy rum
½ ounce Grand Marnier
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce orgeat
Combine the rum, Grand Marnier, lime juice, orgeat and ice in a shaker. Shake and pour, unstrained, into a rocks glass, add a half of the previously juiced lime and a sprig of mint. Of course, I added the parasols since we are talking faux tiki here.
The first test version, which I made after creating the homemade orgeat (still quite a task but worth it), included Pusser’s Navy Rum and an aged rum along with a Grand Marnier knock off. That drink had too many parts that came to the forefront. The official tasting version included the same aged rum, but substituted Muddy River Rum and triple sec for the Navy rum and Grand Marnier. It was a much better blend. The rest of the debate about all things tiki? You’ll need to take that up with Martha Stewart. Just watch out for yellow jackets
Here’s David’s Review:
As a category, tiki drinks have an ironic appeal for me. The crazy glasses, the pastel colors, and the fruity profusion of exotic secondary ingredients make tiki drinks the circus clowns of the cocktail world. I might drink one just to grin at the monstrosity before me, just to inform the world I’m not afraid of stepping out and standing out.
As Jonathan notes, the Mai Tai may be the greatest of the tiki drinks, the granddaddy of the them all and, as such, bartenders have created many lurid and gaudy variations. Like Jonathan, however, I went with the classic Mai Tai to test the theory that serious cocktails can make do with elegant simplicity. I had to have the little parasols too, but otherwise I meant to do Trader Vic proud. Nor was I disappointed.
My appreciation of fresh squeezed lime increases each time we use it. Depending on the context, a lime can add sweetness, tartness, or a citrusy spiciness. In this setting the lime seemed to do all three, mixing with the caramel overtones of the aged rum to give the drink depth as well as freshness. Curaçao is a little sweet—I always wish it were more like marmalade than candy orange wedges. And my version included a “rock candy simple syrup” that is two parts sugar to one water. I’m unconvinced of the necessity of the extra sweet simple syrup, as Jonathan’s version includes no simple syrup the simple syrup I had, which was not so sweet, was too sweet. The orgeat, however, contributed an interesting weight and smoothness, almost like adding egg whites. I wish I’d made mine from scratch as Jonathan did, but the version I found was quite good… even if it was a little expensive. Plus, I have more, should I find other recipes calling for it.
I was tempted, of course, to put the concoction in a party-store-purchased pink plastic hurricane “glass,” decorate the rim with pineapple, and add a twisty straw along with a sword skewer of cherry, grape, and melon ball, but I’m older now. It would not befit my age and station any more than the Hawaiian print shirt still hanging in the back of my closet. Besides, any addition to this recipe would be gilding a lily. The secret of the Mai Tai, a couple of glasses tell me, is its assertiveness… no equivocation allowed.
My sister (who, coincidentally, is also Jonathan’s sister) and her husband visited Chicago this weekend, and, though they gave me no lengthy reviews, they seemed to appreciate the sour attack of this sweet and substantial drink. As my brother-in-law noted, it’s also a potent drink, and that’s sure to pave the way for greater enjoyment still. An accomplished and famous cocktail, the Mai Tai is clearly the product of careful and sensible proportions and blending.
David’s Take: I would have another… and another… though I’d ask how the bartender makes his Mai Tai if I ever order one out.
Jonathan’s take: I came into this week thinking fruit juices and rum when I thought Mai Tai, but leave fairly confident in Trader Vic and his simple orgeat version.
Next Week (proposed by David):
I’d like to stay on the summer theme by suggesting the Tabernacle Crush, a cocktail featuring a fruit I love—peach—and an ingredient I’ve wanted to return to—Lillet. This one will also call for basil, but it’s an herb that even we Chicagoans can grow in the summer.