Cocktails With MAD MEN: The Mai Tai

Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris continues to educate on the finer cocktails of the MAD MEN era. This week, learn the history and original recipe for the Mai Tai. 

I gave the first two to Eastham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, 'Mai tai roa ae.' In Tahitian this means, ‘out of this world, the best.' Well, that was that. I named the drink 'Mai Tai.' The Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide (Revised), 1947.

Ah, the Mai Tai. It pops up early in Season 1 of Mad Men, as Don is wooing the Menken’s Department Store Account, and, more-over, Rachel Menken herself.  Don has blundered, badly, in their initial meeting, assuming that Rachel is a secretary instead of a client, and he meets her for a drink to apologize. Ms. Menken, a thoroughly modern woman, knocks back a couple of Mai Tai's while Don sticks to his Old Fashioned.

With the Margarita and the Daiquiri, the Mai Tai is part of a trifecta of drinks that has been bastardized and destroyed more than any others. And, like the Margarita and the Daiquiri, the Mai Tai, when made properly, is a cocktail that rewards contemplation and sipping, evolving and changing in the mouth as you drink. It is a triumph of layered flavor, balanced and beautiful, complex and rich. A lot of what Don sees in Ms. Menken can be found in a nicely made Mai Tai, and he might have understood her more had he moved away from his Old Fashioned for a moment, loosened his tie and gone Tiki.

Competing Claims

America’s four decade long affair with Tiki Culture began in 1934, when two pioneers opened bars on either end of California,  Donn “The Beachcomber” Beach in Los Angeles, and Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron in Oakland. Donn is unquestionably the founder of what we know now as Tiki culture. His Donn The Beachcomber Café was decorated with artifacts collected in his Island travels and he was mixing up “exotics” while Vic was still running a standard saloon, called Hinky Dinks. Hinky Dinks was popular; Vic was by all accounts a generous and profane host, but there’s not much record of him mixing up tropical inspired cocktails until about 1937.

Meanwhile, The Beachcomber was a hit in LA, catering to the famous and bold faced while serving up Americanized versions of Cantonese food alongside some of Donn’s enduring original cocktails including The Zombie. There’s some evidence that Vic visited Donn’s around 1937 and headed back to Oakland with larceny in his heart. Shortly thereafter, Hinky Dinks was rechristened as Trader Vic’s, with a Polynesian theme seemingly stolen wholesale from Mr. Beach. Of course, the official version from the now corporate owners has Trader Vic’s inspired by Vic’s island travels, etc. etc.

What is indisputable is that both Donn and Vic created an original drink called The Mai Tai and that they are different creatures. Donn’s appears in 1934, vanishes from his menu by 1937, and is a mixture of Jamaican Rum, Cuban Rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice, Falernum, Cointreau, bitters and Pernod, over cracked ice. It is tasty, but it is not as ineffably great as Vic’s version, a far simpler affair that originally combined 17 year old Jamaican Rum, Orange Curacao, Lime, Orgeat and Rock Candy Syrup served over crushed ice and garnished with a sprig of mint. And, as Vic noted, "Anyone who says I didn't create this drink is a dirty stinker." Let’s take him at his word.


There are a whole host of books that detail rum and its place in the development of the entire Western Hemisphere. America would not exist without rum, and rum’s tangled and sordid history was tied to slavery, social rebellion and political revolt long before it ever became associated with island vacation ribaldry.

Rum was one of the pillars of the Triangular Trade between the American Colonies, the Caribbean and West Africa, so important that molasses brought from the Caribbean made New England the largest producer of rum in the world in the late 17th and early 18th century. Indeed, New England was a large rum producer until the onset of Prohibition and the industry didn’t die until that Great Experiment met The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, when a molasses tank burst open in Boston. The resulting flood of 14,000 tons of molasses was five feet deep, ran at thirty-five miles per hour and killed at least twenty who happened to be in its path.

Rum can be, and is, made anywhere in the world sugar cane grows or sugar is refined. In broad strokes, there are two basic styles of rum. The first, and most common, is derived from fermented molasses. In order to make sugar, fresh sugarcane juice is boiled until it starts to crystallize. The liquid left over is molasses, and it is graded from Grade A down to Black Strap, depending on how much fermentable sugar is left in the liquid. That molasses is fermented and then distilled. In this state, rum is known as Aguardiente and it is not particularly palatable. Almost all rums, even so called light or white rums see time in a barrel to mellow the fiery Aguardiente. Bacardi Superior, the bestselling light rum in the world, sees about four years of barrel aging and is then filtered to bring it back to clear.

The Caribbean islands colonized by the French went about things a touch differently. The French didn’t have a whole lot of use for sugar production, as they were already producing sugar domestically from sugar beets. Because there was no need to refine sugar in the Islands, the former French colonies make their Rhum (note the alternate spelling) from fermented sugar cane juice. These Agricole, or agricultural, rhums tend to be far more flavorful and complex than molasses based rums, and have a real sense of terroir or place when compared to molasses rums, but as, a category, rum is more widely varied in flavor than any other spirit, and the differences matter in cocktails.


Because the franchised versions of Donn The Beachcomber’s and Trader Vic’s have persevered into the present, and because they spawned a host of imitators over thirty years, and because they came to be run by corporate bean counters, Tiki drinks gradually evolved from the intricate, balanced, fresh tasting creations created by Donn Beach and Vic Bergeron into syrupy, cheap booze filled messes by the time the craze started to fizzle out in the 1970s.

Compounding those problems, the drinks created by those pioneering bartenders of the early Tiki days were closely guarded secrets, usually not even known by the bartenders who were pouring from unmarked, numbered bottles, with recipes that instructed them to pour a shot from number 2, a dash from number 7, a splash of number 5, etc. Fortunately, we have Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who has worked to crack the codes and published books with the original recipes. He is a national treasure.


Most of the recipes, even the ones close to the truth, for a Mai Tai call for an ounce of dark rum and an ounce of light rum. But if you choose a popular light rum like Bacardi and a widely available dark rum like Meyer’s, you may find yourself disappointed in the final drink, as the rum will be too light or too bland to carry the other flavors in the cocktail. The original rum called for was 17 Year Old Wray and Nephew from Jamaica in a two ounce measure. That rum has not been available for decades (legend has it that Trader Vic’s consumed the stocks making Mai Tai’s) and the remaining bottles sell for in excess of $50,000 dollars at auction. If your grandparents have a bottle in the basement, call me.

Mere mortals can only guess what Wray and Nephew 17 tasted like from historical accounts and more recent Jamaican rums. One can assume it had a decent bit of rum funk and tasty barrel notes of spice, vanilla, clove and rancio, but the best guess at approximating it from most reputable quarters is an ounce of aged Jamaican rum and an ounce of aged rhum from Martinique, and that combo works nicely in a Mai Tai indeed.


A properly made Mai Tai will be a deep amber hue, showcasing the spirit inside. If it is red, yellow, green, purple, orange or any other shade, it is not a Mai Tai.


2 ounces 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican Rum
½ ounce French Garnier Orgeat
½ ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao
¼ ounce Rock Candy Syrup Juice From One Fresh Lime

Shake with crushed ice and garnish with half of the lime shell inside the drink and float a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.


Rock Candy Syrup is essentially a super-saturated simple syrup, so saturated with sugar that if you suspend a string in the mixture, rock candy will form. Detailed instructions are here, but a nice rich, 2 parts sugar to 1 part water simple syrup will do.

French Garnier Orgeat is apparently no longer produced.  But there are other commercial varieties available. The two best available domestically are B.G. Reynolds (formerly Trader Tiki), and for those of you in Northern California, Small Hand Foods.  Fee Bros Orgeat is dreadful, and should be avoided, along with the products produced by companies who make flavoring syrups for coffee.

Curacao has already been covered, but for a Mai Thai, consider Clement Creole Shrubb, an orange liqueur made in the manner of Curacao, but with a rum base. You will be glad you did. Do not buy anything made by DeKuyper, now or ever. Those products might have been just dandy in the 1940s, but today, not so much. Cointreau will do in a pinch.


Orgeat is derived from the Latin hordeata, meaning “of barley,” and was originally a sort of sweetened barley gruel that by the late 1700s had become sweetened almond syrup. Modern orgeat, if made properly, is a mixture of freshly made almond milk, sugar and either rose or, more commonly, orange flower water. In France, it is widely used to flavor mineral water, and that is never a bad idea. It is not hard to make, but it is tedious, and the better commercial versions will do fine, though homemade is always better.


Grenadine, passion fruit juice, passion fruit syrup, anything red, anything blue, Amaretto, sour mix, anything green outside of freshly squeezed lime juice, cherries, pineapple slices or juice, orange juice, paper umbrellas, anything labeled “Mai Tai Concentrate.”


The Best Approximation of Trader Vic’s Mai Tai

1 oz. Appleton Estate 12 yo Rum
1 oz. St. James Hor D’Ages Rhum
½ oz. Orgeat
½ oz. Clement Creole Shrubb
¼  oz. Rich Simple Syrup/Rock Candy Syrup
¾  oz. Fresh Lime Juice

Mix all ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a glass over crushed ice. Garnish with lime shell and a sprig of mint.

There are plenty of other, very nice, good quality rums/rhums that will work here. Use this as a base and see what you like best.

Donn The Beachcomber’s Mai Tai

1 ½ oz. Appleton Estate  Rum 
1 oz. Cuban Rum (flout customs and smuggle Havana Club, otherwise Pusser’s will do)
¾ oz. Fresh Lime Juice 
1 oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice
¼ oz. Falernum (John D. Taylor is the best commercial brand) 
½ oz. Cointreau
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters 
1 Dash Pernod
Shell of squeezed lime 
1 cup of cracked ice

Shake for 1 minute and pour everything into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with four sprigs of mint. Add a spear of pineapple. Sip slowly through mint sprigs until desired effect results.

Bill Norris’ Homemade Orgeat (borrowed heavily from here.)

1 lb. slivered, blanched almonds (unsalted) 
3 cups water
about 1 ½ lbs. turbinado sugar 
¼  cup Cognac 
¼ cup Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy
2 TBL orange flower water

Grind almonds in a food processor until fine. Stop and stir occasionally so the pieces on the bottom don't turn to butter. Transfer to a large bowl and add the water; let stand for one to two hours. Press through a chinois, extracting as much liquid as you can from the pulp, reserving the water.

Put the nut meat back into the almond water, let it stand for another hour and then strain again. Repeat a third time. This time, press scoops of pulp through a moistened cheese cloth to extract fully as much liquid as you can. Discard the solids.

Weigh the strained liquid and pour into a sauce pan, adding an equal amount of sugar by weight. Place over medium heat, and stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Add the cognac, apple brandy and orange flower water. Store the orgeat in a clean glass bottle in the refrigerator, where it will keep for quite some time.

To shorten time, you can do a "heat soak," by bringing the almond/water mix up to 150 degrees (use a candy thermometer) and removing from heat. If using the hot method, the soak time is 15-20 mins for each stage.

This syrup WILL separate as it sits for a time, just shake the bejesus out of the bottle to reincorporate the elements before using. 


Previous entries: 

The Old Fashioned

The Martini

The Margarita