Cocktail Queries: What Makes for the Perfect Mai Tai?Photos via Unsplash, Wine Dharma, Sunny Wang Drink Features cocktails
Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in our Cocktail Queries series in the last few years at Paste, answering commonly asked questions about making home cocktails, as well as diving deep into individual spirits to explore topics like the best bourbon under $30, or defining the house styles of iconic Kentucky whiskey distilleries. Now, we’re drilling down on the “cocktail” in the title with this subseries on individual, classic cocktails, in order to answer the question of what makes for a great example of one of these drinks. What’s the key to a great old fashioned, for instance? A great Manhattan? A great daiquiri? A great negroni? We’ll explore them all, and then some.
Although the daiquiri is probably the single most essential and elementary “rum cocktail,” in the same sense that the martini is what first comes to mind for gin, it’s the mai tai that truly stands in as the quintessential representation of a “tiki drink.” Still in the midst of a protracted revival that began in the 2000s, tiki culture and the cocktails that attend it have long been powered by the hallowed mai tai, which acts as a sort of spirit totem and statement of tiki principles all on its own. If you want to really start exploring the world of complex, rum-based cocktails, it’s the obvious starting point.
And yet, there’s not really a set-in-stone archetype for how to properly construct a mai tai, unless you’re a purist who insists on trying to replicate the original 1944 recipe from Trader Vic’s as closely as possible. That’s a perfectly valid way to make a mai tai even to this day, but it’s simultaneously a drink that has spurred on ceaseless innovation in terms of new ingredients and cocktail techniques over the decades. There are too many great mai tai variations to count, so we’ll start by simply exploring what makes for a great “classic” mai tai, and then expand from there.
A “tiki” literally just means a wood or stone engraving of the human form, which is why the iconography of these masks typically adorns tiki bars and glassware serving what we think of as “tiki drinks.”
You will find a truly dizzying array of recipes for classic-style mai tais, pretty much all of which are variations on the same core group of ingredients: Aged rum, orgeat syrup, orange liqueur (curacao), lime juice and simple syrup. Here then, is a very standard starting point for the classic mai tai.
— 2 oz aged Jamaican rum
— 1 oz fresh lime juice
— .5 oz orange curacao
— .25 oz orgeat
— .25 oz simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Shake thoroughly—the mai tai, like pretty much any tiki drink containing citrus, is a shaken drink rather than a stirred one. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice, ideally crushed/pebble ice. Garnish, if desired, with a maraschino cherry. Bars will sometimes add additional garnishes, such as mint or fruit slices, but these aren’t really necessary.
There you have it. The resulting drink is rum-forward and potent, while showing off slight candied almond sweetness and a refreshing tartness from the lime and orange. It’s one of the tastiest ways ever conceived to consume rum.
Mai Tai Cocktail Ingredients
Or perhaps more accurately, “rums.” That’s a core thing to understand about the mai tai—it benefits greatly from using multiple rums, or a blend of various types of rum, to increase the complexity of its flavors. For this reason, many bars that regularly prepare mai tais will have rum blends specifically for this drink that they make and bottle in advance, which saves time when producing mai tais quickly. Using two different rums in a mai tai is typical, but it’s also not uncommon to find recipes or bar programs that use three or four. A bar might even consider its in-house rum blend for mai tais to be a carefully guarded trade secret.
Now, as you do your mai tai research, you’ll no doubt read that the “original” mai tai was made with two rum specifications in particular: Aged Jamaican rum, and aged rum from Martinique. A modern rum drinker would probably assume this to imply that you should be making a mai tai with a combination of classic Jamaican rum, such as Appleton, and the pungent, herbaceous funkiness of Martinique’s famous rhum agricole. In reality, however, the old-school 1944 recipe called for rare, molasses-based (rather than sugar cane juice-based) Martinique rum, which is not commonly found today. Regardless, many modern bars base their entire mai tai rum blend around just Jamaican rum. There are also commercial bottles tailor-made for this purpose, such as Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, which is a blend of Jamaican rum and those rare molasses Martinique rums, made specifically for mai tais.
In making your own blend, you’ll want at least one Jamaican rum with a solid age statement, such as Appleton 8 or 12 Year. You may also want to add a rum of a significantly higher strength, whether aged or not, to give the drink some more punch. For this purpose, you could use everything from Jamaica’s unaged Wray & Nephew to Guyana’s famed Lemon Hart 151. Regardless, you’re looking for a strong, assertive blend.
And although I just suggested that the classic mai tai recipe wasn’t calling for rhum agricole, I also happen to think it works quite well in the drink. A mai tai made with a small portion of high-proof agricole in addition to the aged Jamaican rum has a wonderfully earthy complexity.
The mai tai is designed as a vehicle for aged rum, but you may also find roles for unaged overproof rum or funkier rhum agricole.
Orgeat might sound like a confusing or intimidating ingredient to those who don’t have any in their home bar, but it’s really just best thought of as a sweet almond syrup that gives drinks a pleasantly nutty sweet flavor reminiscent of sweet almond paste/marzipan. It’s not too difficult to make at home, but if you don’t want to get into all that there are plenty of commercial examples available—I’m partial to the one from Liber & Co.
The thing to keep in mind with orgeat is that it’s a very powerful flavor, so it works best in moderation, especially because various orgeat brands may be quite different from each other. It’s best to start small in terms of adding orgeat to a mai tai recipe, because you can always up it a little more if it’s too subtle. Use too much, and the entire drink simply starts to taste like marzipan as the rum/juice vibe is lost. Orgeat is absolutely ESSENTIAL to making a mai tai, and is one of the things that differentiates it from many other tiki drinks, but it shouldn’t be the star of the show.
Note: I’ve seen some recipes claiming you can sub in a tiny quantity of almond extract, of the sort you would use for baking, in place of the orgeat, but this is a bad idea. For one, it won’t contribute any of the fullness of body that orgeat gives to the drink. For another, it’s a very imprecise way of putting the almond flavor into your mai tai. Just go and get some orgeat rather than using a baking ingredient for this.
There’s definitely no reason to be intimidated by orgeat.
Orange liqueur, typically curacao, is another supporting player in the classic mai tai, one that contributes a flavor that isn’t particularly noticeable when you’re drinking the cocktail, but would be missed if you left it out. A mai tai made without curacao would likely taste a bit on the thin and one-dimensionally sweet-tart side. It’s not as essential as the orgeat, but there’s no reason to leave it out of a mai tai recipe.
As for which one you should use, the choice is pretty much up to you, as any curacao you pick is likely to be acceptable in this subtle role. Is it better to use something decent, rather than an off-the-rack, heavily sweetened triple sec? Absolutely. In general, a quality bottle of curacao like Cointreau is simply an investment that is worthwhile to have in your home bar kit.
It’s lime juice. Any mai tai recipe you see will call for “fresh squeezed” lime juice, but as I’ve argued in the past, this is more “nice to have” than absolute necessity. Don’t let something as small as a lack of freshly squeezed lime juice stop you from making mai tais whenever you want them—just keep commercial lime juice in your fridge, and use fresh squeezed when you can.
This is a more interesting ingredient than it might first appear to be, because a lot of published mai tai recipes don’t call for any additional sugar. Some small degree of sweetening, however, is very much a staple of tiki cocktails, and something that makes them taste brighter and more vivacious. Whether a mai tai truly “needs” a bit of simple syrup will honestly have to do with the other ingredients involved—how sweet are the rums, the curacao, the lime juice, etc? They might be sweet enough on their own, but there are few things more disappointing than a mai tai that is too dry—they taste boozy, listless and thin on the palate.
In practice, I find that a small amount of simple syrup is likely to improve a mai tai in most scenarios. There’s no reason to be afraid of this stuff, especially a desire to avoid sugar—if that’s your concern, you probably shouldn’t be trying to make tiki drinks at all. Better to make a great mai tai than make a subpar one, just to avoid a small amount of additional sugar.
Other Mai Tai Tips and Variations
At higher-end tiki bars and restaurants with a good respect for rum and tiki culture, the mai tai tends to be a very delicious and reliable menu staple, and one of the safest things you can order. However, the drink also has experienced the same “dumbing down” common to other classic tiki cocktails in other settings, especially when it’s made at casual bars or restaurants that don’t want to commit to stocking all the necessary ingredients or putting in the effort to make an accurate mai tai. You’ll want to beware of mai tais served by your average bar and grill in pursuit of having a “tropical” cocktail on the menu, especially if they don’t list their ingredients. These not-so-great variations on the mai tai have over the years given rise to some misconceptions about the drink, which I’ll address here.
— Bars will sometimes take advantage of the lack of understanding American consumers tend to have for the spirit of rum when they put together basic mai tai recipes. In many cases, they’ll feature the drink with a blend of “white rum” and “dark rum,” two terms that are both effectively meaningless, and often applied to inexpensive, low-quality rums in the U.S. A sign of quality on a restaurant menu, when ordering a mai tai is if the drink is specified to be made with AGED rum, which is integral to its flavor. If the bar specifies the specific brand or blend, so much the better. Likewise, a homemade mai tai should be made with decently aged rum, rather than artificially colored “dark rum” as a cheat code.
You can think of artificially colored commercial “dark rums” as something like food coloring—use them in small quantities for color.
— Bastardized mai tais often include different juices from the classic recipe. You may see a bar and grill where they add orange juice, for instance, often subbing it in instead of the orange curacao because orange juice is sweeter. You’ll likewise see many recipes that call for pineapple juice, which simply isn’t what a mai tai is meant to be—not when there are so many other tiki cocktails that prominently feature pineapple. If that’s the flavor you’re craving, seek out a jungle bird cocktail, for instance.
— If you see a mai tai recipe that doesn’t include orgeat at all, then you know the writer either has no understanding of what the cocktail truly is, or simply doesn’t care. Regardless, that recipe should be discarded immediately.
— This is not to say there’s no room for experimentation within mai tai recipes. If you want to add some more fruity complexity, for instance, you could try adding a bit of a more exotic fruit juice or syrup, such as passionfruit or dragonfruit—both of which also make a big color impact as well. You can also add more spice notes by adding something like falernum, or ginger syrup, or bitters. There’s no shortage of options; you’re just trying to avoid options that transform the mai tai into a one-dimensionally sweet and fruity take on so many other sweet and fruity drinks.
Keep these tips in mind, and soon you’ll be whipping up the essence of tiki in your own backyard.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.