How to Make the Perfect Mai Tai
Ring the bell, it's time for Last Call, where JK Grence, bartender at Shady's, serves up booze advice and recipes. Got a burning question for your bartender? Leave it in the comments and it might be answered in a future column.
After working for five years at the now-shuttered Trader Vic's in Scottsdale, the Mai Tai has become my very favorite drink. No other drink conveys a festive, tropical mood like it. Even those horribly sweet, neon-colored things that pass for Mai Tais in bad Chinese restaurants are still alluring for their retro charms. But, once you've had a real Mai Tai, everything else is just rum-spiked Kool-Aid.
Goodness knows I know the history of the drink better than anyone else in Arizona. You see, one day in 1944, Vic was trying to come up with a new drink, and he wanted it to be simpler than some of the complex creations he'd done in the past. He started out with a bottle of 17-year rum from J. Wray & Nephew of Jamaica. He added some DeKuyper orange curaçao, a small dollop of French orgeat (almond syrup), the juice of a large lime, and a little rock candy syrup to balance the flavors. In went half of a lime shell to give the drink a little color.
Vic was about to take a sip of his new creation, when the maître d' told him a couple of friends from Tahiti, Eastham and Carrie Guild, just sat in the dining room. He had the bartenders make two more. He took them over to his friends, and let them try it. Carrie took a gander at this tan-colored concoction, took a taste, and exclaimed "It's mai tai, Vic! It's mai tai roa a'e!" To which Vic said, of course, "Carrie, what the hell does that mean?" Carrie replied that it's Tahitian for "out of this world, the best". Vic decided right there that his new drink was called the Mai Tai. It was so popular that in less than a year, Vic went through the entire world supply of the 17-year rum.
OK, with the history lesson out of the way, let's talk about the drink. Specifically, let's discuss what's not in the drink. A real Mai Tai has no pineapple juice in it. That variation almost certainly sprang up when tourists traveled to Hawaii, had them on the boat over there (one of the cruise lines served Vic's recipe), and then tried to order them on the island. There's also no grenadine in one. I have no idea where this came from (just a couple of pet theories). I wish it would stop. The pineapple that inevitably accompanies the grenadine makes the drink sweet enough on its own. Last, the rum used is all dark rum. It lets you actually taste the alcohol.
The Authentic Mai Tai Juice of one large lime (~¾ ounce), one spent lime shell reserved for garnish ½ ounce rich simple syrup (see recipe below) ¼ ounce orgeat syrup ½ ounce orange curaçao (or other orange liqueur) 2 ounces dark aged Jamaican rum (Appleton Estate 12-year is best)
Shake everything together with crushed ice. Pour without straining into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a spent lime shell.
Rich Simple Syrup: Combine 1 pound of sugar and 1 cup of water. Heat until sugar is completely dissolved. Bottle, and store in refrigerator.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.