The Mai Tai is one of the most famous tiki drinks in the world. But what's in it?

·8-min read
What's in a Mai Tai? The original creator of the tiki drink says it shouldn't be overly sweet. (Photo: Trader Vic's Worldwide)
What's in a Mai Tai? The original creator of the tiki drink says it shouldn't be overly sweet. (Photo: Trader Vic's Worldwide)

One of the world's most popular cocktails also happens to be one of the most misunderstood. With a spirited history that dates back to the early 20th century, the Mai Tai is not the sugary, overly-sweet cocktail it so often is interpreted as. Instead, it's a well-balanced boozy sip straight from the tiki era.

Beverage industry innovator Victor Jules Bergeron Jr., known more commonly as "Trader Vic," entered the bar business using a $500 loan. He would go on to become a groundbreaking fixture in the service industry, known for ushering in the tiki bar, a celebrated space that embraces tropical aesthetics with cinematic levels of theming and expertly-crafted drinks. Going on to found Trader Vic's, a chain of Polynesian-themed restaurants that bear his nickname, Bergeron's greatest contribution may just be the Mai Tai.

Victor Bergeron, known as
Victor Bergeron, known as "Trader Vic," broke into the bar business with a $500 loan. Later, he'd go on to create the Mai Tai and pilot a vast chain of tiki bars throughout the world. (Photo: Carly Caramanna)

What exactly is a Mai Tai?

The name Mai Tai is familiar to many, but what is it?

Bergeron was experiencing a wave of success thanks to his rum concoctions that were served in wonderfully-detailed ceramic mugs. His next masterpiece would be the Mai Tai — a unique combination of just five ingredients, including aged rum.

In 1944, Bergeron was toying around the bar at his Oakland, Calif. restaurant when he began experimenting with a bottle of 17-year-old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew Rum. He combined the rum with fresh lime, orange curacao and a dash of rock candy before shaking the mixture by hand. He finished it off with fresh mint and lime and presented it to friends visiting from Tahiti. The story goes, according to Trader Vic's Worldwide, that after one sip they responded, "Mai Tai — Roa Aé," which means, "Out of this world – the best," in Tahitian.

The resulting beverage is booze-forward but wonderfully balanced with notes of spice, sweetness and earthy freshness — and a far cry from those cocktails you're used to drinking at a beachside bar.

A key ingredient in a Trader Vic's Mai Tai? Crushed ice, which enhances the flavors and aromas of the cocktail. (Photo: Carly Caramanna)
A key ingredient in a Trader Vic's Mai Tai? Crushed ice, which enhances the flavors and aromas of the cocktail. (Photo: Carly Caramanna)

"After he created it in 1944, it started a worldwide phenomenon of a drink," shares Trader Vic's Worldwide chief executive officer, Rhett Rosen. "If there was a Mount Rushmore of cocktails, I always say that the Mai Tai is at least in the running of the top four. It now has taken on a life of its own."

Craft cocktails are a staple of the beverage industry in modern times, but back then sourcing ingredients was complicated and oftentimes, impossible. "You can imagine in 1944 it wasn't that easy," Rosen tells Yahoo Life. "How far ahead of his time [Bergeron was], not only with these drinks and others but also with the foods they were making." In addition to the Mai Tai and other mainstay cocktails of the tiki genre, Bergeron is credited with inventing crab rangoon and is said to have been vital in introducing the American palate to Asian fusion.

What should a real Mai Tai look like?

The Mai Tai is not brightly-hued nor does it come adorned with a cute pink umbrella. So, where did it all go wrong?

Rosen says the misunderstanding of the drink can be traced to when the Mai Tai said "aloha" to Hawaii. In 1953, Bergeron was hired to create the food and beverage program for a cruise line that voyaged to the Pacific.

"When that ship got to Hawaii, all of the drinks took off and the Mai Tai is still the drink of Hawaii," shares Rosen. "It gave people a little liberty to do something else with it, but because of the success of the Mai Tai and how well known it was, people just basically started to call anything that they put into a cup with rum a 'Mai Tai.'" Versions were introduced that included other flavors — like the beloved Hawaiian fruit pineapple — and these variations exploded all over the islands.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Rosen. "We want people to try the real thing. We want people to know what it really is. We want people to understand that it's not a fruity, super-sweet drink — that it really was a creation."

Bergeron is also said to have created crab rangoon, and is credited with adding American flavors to Asian fusion. (Photo: Carly Caramamna)
Bergeron is also said to have created crab rangoon, and is credited with adding American flavors to Asian fusion. (Photo: Carly Caramamna)

During the ’50s and ’60s, Trader Vic's restaurants held over two dozen locations and proved to be the first successful chain of themed restaurants. "Because of the Mai Tai and because of his innovations with foods, we were able to not only expand domestically, but started internationally 60 years ago with Japan and London," shares Rosen. "It really exposed people all over the world to these tropical-style drinks and food."

Stepping inside a Trader Vic's location is like walking into a bygone era thanks to incredible detailing. Their version of escapism tells a fantastical story while being utterly authentic in its own way. "He wanted to educate people on cultures that they may not ever get to see," Rosen shares. "He wanted to support those cultures."

Every piece of memorabilia that lines the walls is 100% authentic, purchased from tribes all over the world. The chain continues to support some of the early vendors that Bergeron worked with, including families from Tunga, a city in the province of Leyte, Philippines.

When the tiki craze died down during the rise of disco, many historic establishments shuttered. But tiki culture has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance over the last decade: Something that could largely be attributed to the very same reason it exploded in popular culture of the mid-20th century — people have a desire to escape from the complications of the world.

What happened to Trader Vic?

While Bergeron may have passed away in 1984, his legacy lives on in both the Mai Tai and his iconic restaurant brand. "People just love the drink," adds Rosen. "They love the balance. It really resonates with people everywhere."

Today, the historic drink has finally received the respect it has long deserved and can be found on the menus of bars worldwide — from casual spots to Michelin-rated restaurants.

With demand for escapism, the iconic brand of Trader Vic's is in the process of expansion, including a new location at the Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, Calif., and a current Trader Vic's Mai Tai Pop-Up Lounge at the Capital Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C.

I recently Trader Vic's Emeryville, Calif. location to try the famous Mai Tai for myself. It did not disappoint. (Photo: Carly Caramanna)
I recently Trader Vic's Emeryville, Calif. location to try the famous Mai Tai for myself. It did not disappoint. (Photo: Carly Caramanna)

"Literally you walk into a Trader Vic's or other well-known tiki bars and it's almost impossible to be in a bad mood," shares Rosen.

Want to try an original Bergeron Mai Tai at home? Shake away your blues from the comforts of your own bar cart with the Trader Vic's Worldwide recipe for the original Mai Tai.

Trader Vic's Original Mai Tai

Courtesy of Trader Vic's Worldwide

(Photo: Trader Vic's Worldwide)
(Photo: Trader Vic's Worldwide)

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces Trader Vic's Royal Amber Rum (Suggested rum in the absence of 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Jamaican Rum)

  • 1/2 ounce orange Curaçao

  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice

  • 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup

  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup

Instructions:

  1. Shake well with crushed ice

  2. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass

  3. Garnish with a mint sprig and spent lime shell (a hollowed-out half lime)

Tips from Trader Vic's:

  • Use crushed ice, use crushed ice, use crushed ice! We consider ice an actual integral ingredient rather than just a cooling component. Don't believe us? Try making one with crushed ice and one with cubed ice for yourself: You'll notice that the crushed ice helps to round out the flavors and brings out different nuances that cubed ice just can not achieve.

  • Use fresh ripe limes for maximum flavor and the perfect amount of oil that naturally comes when squeezing a wedge of lime (the entire lime from rind to center lends their own unique flavors that you don't want to miss). Bottled lime juice can't always compare, especially if it's been modified with additives and sugars. You can squeeze and bottle your own lime juice that should hold for two to three days.

  • If you're making more than one Mai Tai or are having a party, line up your glasses and measure each ingredient over each glass to build your cocktails. You can then hold these pre-measured cocktails and add crushed ice and shake as needed.

  • Don't skimp on the mint: It's not just a garnish, it's an ingredient as well, because much of our flavor senses come from scent. Look for full, fresh and vibrant green mint sprigs and give them a gentle smack before garnishing. Make sure to place your straw on the opposite side of the mint so that when one takes a sip, they get to enjoy the refreshing aroma that perfectly complements the cooling sensation the Mai Tai is known for.

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.