The Mai Tai, though a later addition to the tiki pantheon than the famous Zombie, is undisputedly the most well-known tiki drink today. We’ve all tasted one–with varying degrees of success–be they made on Long Island or Oahu. But besides being popular, the Mai Tai is also one of the most hotly contested drinks in terms of origin; three different men (Harry Owens, Trader Vic and Donn the Beachcomber) most famously laid claim to creating this eponymous classic, and many more bars and bartenders claimed to be the true originator.
Cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry tackled this thorny topic with the help of Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell and Stephen Remsberg, renowned rum collector and expert, laying out the arguments made by all of the players and comparing the recipes that lay claim to the Mai Tai throne.
In the end, it seems that it comes down to Polynesian drink heavyweights Donn and Vic, both of whom penned recipes for A Mai Tai…but only Trader Vic created THE Mai Tai that so captured that hukilau spirit. And while it seems that it is possible that Vic borrowed liberally from Donn’s recipe for the Q.B. Cooler to create his Mai Tai, the far more probable explanation lies in Cuba at the La Florida Bar where Vic first studied bartending. Just compare these two recipes:
Trader Vic Mai Tai
In your shaker pour 1 ounce each fresh lime juice, Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum, and Appleton Estate Extra dark Jamaican rum; 1/2 ounce orange Curaçao; and 1/4 ounce each orgeat syrup and sugar syrup. Add at least 2 cups of crushed ice, then shake well for around 10 seconds. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Sink your spent lime shell in the drink, and garnish with a mint sprig.
La Florida Daiquiri #2
To a shaker add the juice of 1/2 a lime, a few dashes of Curaçao, 1 teaspoon each sugar and orange juice, and 2 ounces of Bacardi. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But regardless of where Trader Vic found inspiration, it does not change the transcendent beauty of a well-made Mai Tai.