The Mai Tai: From Liquid Candy to Classic Drink

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To try Derek Brown's version of a Mai Tai, click here for the recipe.

There's something about sitting on the beach in Waikiki while the sun is setting, watching a former Ms. Hawaii dance the hula as the breeze and syncopated plunk of the ukulele work in unison, feeling and sounding like a whirling fan, that simply makes a Mai Tai taste better. Better than the untrained hand of waiter at a Thai restaurant carelessly pouring cheap rums, grenadine, and bottled juices into a gigantic bowl that is to be a faux Mai Tai, garnished with orange, lime, lemon, cherry, and fountain straw. (This is what Tiki-expert Jeff "Beachbum" Berry refers to as "crayon-colored liquid candy.")

Exotic locale and setting sun aside, the secret to a great Mai Tai is that you should taste the rum, and the drink should be otherwise tart. Nothing like the "Mai Thai" described above. If done just so, the Mai Tai earns its place among the cannon of great drinks: Manhattan, Martini, and classic Daiquiri. However, much like those great drinks, there is a little confusion as to its provenance.

The debate is about who created the Mai Tai. Was it the lesser-known founder of Tiki, Ernest Gantt (a.k.a. Donn the Beachcomber) or his commercial successor, Vic Bergeron (a.k.a. Trader Vic)? As with the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know. But it seems they both had a version and that most experts side with Trader Vic's as the more delicious of the two.

If you're curious to sample Trader Vic's version, it turns out that the only place in the world where you can get it is at the Merchant Hotel Bar in Belfast at the cost of £750. That's because the original rum used in the recipe, Wray & Nephew's 17-Year-Old Rum, is now defunct, and only two bottles remain. Otherwise most bartenders mix a combination of light and dark rums. I, personally, like Appleton 21 or some similar aged rum. Either method makes a suitable replacement for the original.

Of course, I've now told you about the best place in the world to drink a Mai Tai (Hawaii) and the only place you can get it (Belfast), both exotic destinations in their own right. I apologize, since this may be out of reach for some readers, so as Donn the Beachcomber was purported to have said, "If you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you."

Recipe: Mai Tai

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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