The Mai Tai is an amazing drink with a somewhat confused history. So confused in fact that most Mai Tai's served today are no more than sorry imitations of the wonderful, Daiquiri-like drink that was (supposedly) first envisioned by its creator, Trader Vic. To set the record straight, the first Mai Tai appears to in fact have been created by Vic's Tiki rival, Donn Beach. Donn's recipe is still mixed by bartenders to this day, but does not come close to Vic's Mai Tai in its lasting effect on the annals of cocktail history.
Whether Vic knew of Donn's creation or not is unclear, but following a visit to Constantine Ribalaigua Vert at the famed Floridita Bar in Havana, he was ready to combine brilliant Cuban mixology with the new wave of Tiki drinking about to sweep the country. The result was a deeply rich Daiquiri that seemed to embody the Tiki spirit like no other drink. Served on the rocks (and in a rocks glass) the classic rum and lime combination was complemented by hints of orange and almond resulting in an exotic taste sensation. As Vic's friends famously put it when sampling the drink: "Mai Tai - Roa Ae" which translates loosely from the Tahitian as "Out of This World - The Best".
Vic clearly knew what he was doing. Adding all that orange and almond to the Daiquiri base gave it a rich Tiki essence but it could have been heavy going. Lots of balancing lime (and this recipe is quite sharp despite plenty of sugar and liqueur) as well as dilution and chill from shaking then serving over crushed ice, brings things back round to perfection.
So while it appears that both Vic and Donn did indeed invent (their own versions of) the Mai Tai, it was Vic's that triumphed. Longevity was not however on his side. The particular 17 year old aged rum required by the recipe was exhausted and a number of the other ingredients have gradually become a little harder to obtain. The legend grew but the drink itself quickly deteriorated and became a dumping ground for whatever fruit juices and syrups happened to be behind the bar. Fortunately the Mai Tai is far from dead, and has benefited in recent times from a resurgence in all things Tiki.
Presented below is the PartyCocktails.com take on the Mai Tai. Its about as close as its possible to get to Trader Vic's original using only basic ingredients. Some specific Rum choices are necessary in order to mix a more genuine Mai Tai. When the original 17 year old Wray and Nephew was discontinued, Vic opted for a combination of a Rhum Agricole from Martinique and an aged Jamaican rum in order to approximate the flavour profile of his original drink. Extensive research from tiki cocktail experts such as Beachbum Berry and Matt Robold backs up Vic's move, with a combination of Rhum Clement VSOP and an aged Appleton (such as the VX or their 12 year old) producing particularly outstanding results.
Serve in a Rocks glass and garnish with a mint sprig and a lime shell.
A lime wheel nestles in the crushed ice at the top of a Mai Tai cocktail.
Add lots of ice to the mixing tin.
Shake the drink well until condensation forms on the outside of the mixing tin.
Fill up the glass with crushed ice.
Churn the contents of the glass.
Taste the cocktail and if necessary adjust the balance with a touch of extra sugar or citrus juice.
Garnish the cocktail with a mint sprig and a lime shell.