The Mai Tai: History of a Tiki Icon

The Mai Tai: History of a Tiki Icon

Even though this essential tiki drink has been on cocktail lists around the world for decades, ordering a classic Mai Tai can be a bit of a gamble—you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Sometimes it seems like every bartender has their own idea of what it looks like—short, tall, blended, or on the rocks and in nearly every shade on the colour wheel.

The irony is that the original formula was already the best Mai Tai recipe and didn’t need any fixes or added flair. And the brilliance of that first recipe would turn out to be the source of all that later confusion, since the drink became too popular for its own good—and as it trotted across the globe, people forgot that it was the drink’s simplicity and balance that made it such a hit in the first place.  

The story of the Mai Tai nearly lost the plot, as it became an A-list Hollywood celebrity and even served a brief stint as the unofficial cocktail of the White House , but it eventually found its way back home—and it’s starting to make its way back into great tiki bars the world over.

A cocktail with purpose

It all began in 1944, when Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. started work on inventing a drink expressly for the purpose of showing off one of his favourite rums—the rich and full-bodied 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew rum from Appleton Estate in Jamaica.

Bergeron was putting the finishing touches on it at Trader Vic’s, his bar in Oakland, California, when a friend from Tahiti popped in to say hello and enjoy a tiki drink. The Tahitian loved it so much that he proclaimed, “Maita’i roa a’e,” which means “the best” or “out of this world.” And that’s how the Mai Tai got its name.

The secret to the beauty of the Mai Tai was that Vic kept it simple and let the rum shine through. Including the sugar, the original recipe was a five-ingredient, spirit-forward drink that grew out of the rum aficionado’s philosophy that the best expressions needed to be celebrated—not diluted with fruit and added flavour.

Tangled up in tiki

The original Mai Tai spent its first years gaining a cult following with rum-lovers at Trader Vic’s, which, in a few years, was already one of the buzziest destinations in town. As excitement over tiki culture grew and the cocktails became more famous, Bergeron was approached to design cocktail menus for lobby lounges and passenger ships. And when the classic Mai Tai hitched a ride on the Royal Hawaii luxury cruise, which carried travelers between the mainland and Honolulu, its fate was sealed. Once the passengers developed a taste for the Mai Tai, they wanted to drink it everywhere, especially on vacation in Hawaii.

A cocktail’s popularity can spread quickly, but its precise recipe didn’t move as quickly in the days before Google. Trader Vic’s recipes were also especially hard to pin down since Bergeron didn’t like to share trade secrets . Part of his hesitation stemmed from a long-standing rivalry with another bar owner, Don Beach, who owned Hollywood’s Don the Beachcomber—in fact, the first tiki bar, which opened a little earlier than Vic’s, back in 1934.

When Hawaii’s bartenders were deluged with orders for Mai Tais from recently disembarked cruise-ship passengers, they did what they had to—they improvised. They shook up tropical rum concoctions with whatever fresh juice and tasty liqueurs were on hand. Many of the new versions were delicious, but they no longer lived up to the drink’s original purpose, which was to let the flavour of a full-bodied rum play the lead role.

A World of variety

This tiki classic might well have just stuck to the California/Hawaii route that made it famous, if it weren’t for the fact that its fate would intertwine with heartthrob crooner Elvis Presley when he went to Oahu and Kauai to make his 1961 film, Blue Hawaii. A version of the Mai Tai made several sensational cameo appearances in the popular film, after which it went global. It swept America’s cocktail bars and even became a personal favourite of a future US president, Richard Nixon, who frequented Trader Vic’s in Washington D.C.

But beyond Trader Vic’s bars, which version of the Mai Tai were bartenders making? The original spirit-forward drink? Or the juicy version that became popular in Hawaii? The answer? Both. And then some. Creative bartenders around the world served up fruity, slushy, tropical cocktails of all colours in the great Mai Tai craze of the 1960s.

Returning to its roots

Over the past 10 to 15 years, though, the drinks world has witnessed a true tiki renaissance, led by craft cocktail bartenders who started researching and reviving the origins of classic cocktails that lost their way. This second coming of tiki was great news for the original Mai Tai recipe, which was rediscovered and returned to its rightful place—on cocktail lists around the world.

Rum enthusiasts and tiki bartenders alike appreciate and celebrate the recipe for its original beauty and simplicity, as well as the fact that you can fully taste and appreciate the star ingredient—premium aged Jamaican rum.  

The Appleton Estate Mai Tai Recipe

Built specifically to showcase the rich flavour of full-bodied Jamaica rum, the secret ingredient in this classic tiki cocktail recipe is simplicity itself. 

2 oz Appleton Estate 8-year-old rum

½ oz fresh lime juice

½ oz orgeat (almond syrup)

½ oz orange curacao

Fill a cocktail shaker with both crushed and cubed ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with one lime shell and a fresh mint sprig.   

Now that you know the history of this enigmatic cocktail, you’re ready to experience its true origins, which launched countless imitations that never matched the taste of its original recipe, created as a showcase for premium Jamaica rum.

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