When he's not busy running the cocktail program at New York City's Maialino, Erik Lombardo is giving us the rundown on all things spirits -- and showing us the best ways to drink them.
Today: The history of the mai tai, and how to bring a little tiki to your home bar, tonight.
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The craft cocktail drinker is equally at home sipping a Negroni during the dusky cocktail hour of an outdoor café, a French 75 at the restaurant bar, or an old fashioned at home after work. But what happens when we begin to push the boundaries? What if we substitute amari with exotic syrups, delicately constructed cocktail glasses with garishly painted ceramic mugs, and finely shaved lemon twists with flaming lime shells? What if we drink tiki?
Tiki is the cure for the elitism -- the idea that a bar is an altar at which supplicants come to worship -- that all too many craft cocktail bars fall prey to. Why is it so successful? Because it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re drinking something festooned with umbrellas, crazy straws, and burning 151-proof rum. And there is no better way to make this happen than with a classic mai tai.
In 1934, Victor Bergeron opened a small bar and restaurant in Oakland California named Hinky Dink’s, a ribs-and-hash kind of place that slowly began taking a decidedly tropic turn. A few years later, on one of his research forays, Mr. Bergeron walked into another California tiki establishment, Don the Beachcomber, and had a drink which was rumored to be a QB Cooler: an eminently tropical blend of rums and citrus.
Bergeron went on to reverse-engineer the drink to come up with his own version. He changed the name of Hinky Dink’s to “Vic’s Trading Post” and began telling stories about how he had lost his leg on the South Seas. (In reality, he had lost it to tuberculosis as a child.) He told another story, too: that in 1944, he was sitting down with one of his bartenders and he decided to make the greatest rum drink in the world. The way his story goes, just as he was finalizing his formula, two friends from Tahiti walked in, sampled it, and declared it “Mai tai roa ae,” or, “Out of this world! The best!”
Vic’s Trading Post became simply “Trader Vic’s” and the QB Cooler became the mai tai. Despite the fact that the QB Cooler and the Trader Vic mai tai taste very similar, the only ingredients they share in common are rum and lime juice. Which is why tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry surmises that the mai tai is indeed an original Trader Vic invention, though inspired by the drink Bergeron tasted at Don the Beachcomber.
Regardless of what you call it, it’s not the insipid frothy pink monstrosity served at all-inclusive resorts across the Caribbean, but rather an intensely tart and nuanced blend of rums, citrus, and flavored syrups. The original mai tai called for a type of aged Jamaican rum that no longer exists: a flavorful, pot-stilled spirit aged for 10 years in wood. To approximate that flavor, you can mix rhum agricole -- a funky result of sugar cane juice distillation from Martinique (this and this are both great options) -- with a mellow dark Jamaican rum like Coruba.
Don’t spare the garnish on this one. When you’re juicing your limes for the cocktail, save the empty lime halves as garnish for your drink, or go nuts with edible flowers, mint bouquets, and/or tiny paper umbrellas. This is tiki: The sillier it looks, the more fun you’ll have.