Mai Tai Lab 22 Cardiff

The Mai Tai: Who made the contemporary classic?

If you were to ask someone, bartender or not, to name a Tiki cocktail off the top of their head, the chances are their answer would be the Mai Tai. Considered by many to be the quintessential Tiki drink, and adored worldwide by rum-lovers, over the years the Mai Tai has well and truly secured its place in the classic cocktail hall of fame. Despite its acclaim, however, the Mai Tai is a drink whose origins are shrouded in mystery – to this day nobody truly knows who invented it, or indeed the original recipe. As a result, there are many different recipes and interpretations which are regardless accepted, which is surprising considering its status and popularity. Other classics (the Old Fashioned and Daquiri, for example) have definitive recipes, and have arguably gained their acclaim from being replicated in more or less the exact way they were intended the world over. Of course, different people have different specs for these drinks too, but there is at least a general consensus of their base formula, which is more than can be said for a Mai Tai. Is it fair to say, then, that the rise of the Tiki icon’s popularity can be attributed to something else?

The word ‘Tiki’ is derived from Polynesian culture.’Tiki’ was the name of the first man in Maori mythology, similar comparably to Christianity’s Adam. By extension, the word is used to refer to religious carved wooden idols and totems. However, the ‘Tiki movement’ which swept across the United States and inspired the creation of tiki bars and restaurants is only loosely based on the mythology; it is rather an example of cultural appropriation, borrowing and stylising aspects of Polynesian culture for their own. Donn Beachcomber in Hollywood is generally credited to be the first tiki bar in the US, founded by Ernest Gantt in 1933, and known for serving sweet, fruity rum drinks and Cantonese-inspired cuisine. Gantt left his home in Texas in 1926 to travel the world, venturing to the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and beyond. When he returned to America around 1930, he became a bootlegger (perhaps inspired by a new-found love of rum?). When Prohibition ended in 1933, Gantt saw a gap in the market for a new style of hospitality, and moved to Hollywood to open his restaurant Donn Beachcomber, which became incredibly popular among the Hollywood elite. His restaurant chain expanded across the country, and gained so much success that Gantt legally changed his name to ‘Donn Beach’.

The popularity of the new ‘Tiki’ style spread across the US like wildfire, a phenomenon which was accelerated by the USA’s involvement in WWII. Fighting in the Pacific Theatre exposed thousands of Americans to Asian cultures, and the returning veterans told their immensely popular tales to acclaim, a notable example being James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Tales of the South Pacific. In the words of Wired jounalist Joseph Flaherty, “America became obsessed with living on a beach where the skies were always sunny, women were beautiful, and drinks were strong.” Furthermore, the 1940s saw a dramatic increase of wealth among the middle class, meaning people had more money to spend in bars and restaurants in years.The name of ‘Tiki’ was adopted by Americans and extended beyond the traditional definition to include “anything vaguely Polynesian, nautical, or handcrafted”, increasingly influenced by American architecture and animation styles over the 1940s and 1950s to create what we uniformally know today as the Tiki Bar.

At the forefront of this expansion was the Mai Tai. As mentioned before, nobody truly knows who created the first Mai Tai; Donn Beach claims to have created it in 1933 in his restaurant, but so too does Victor ‘Trader Vic’ Bergeron in 1944. A long time admirer of Donn Beach, Bergeron established his own Tiki restaurant Hinky Dink’s in Oakland, California, believing that he could (in his own humble words) “do it better” than Beach. This eventually became Trader Vic’s, and is now a highly successful global chain.

Although Beach’s claim to the invention of the Mai Tai precedes Bergeron’s by 11 years, Bergeron seems to have got his foot securely in the door, with his worldwide franchise priding itself on being the home of the “original Mai Tai.” In a 1970 interview with the New York Times, he claimed to have made the drink informally for his friends Eastham and Carrie Guild, “using a bottle of 17 year old rum […] Wray J. Nephew from Jamaica”, “rock candy syrup”, “orange curacao from Holland”, “fresh lime”, and “French Orgeat”. As well as citing his original ingredients, his account in this interview gives the origin of the name: upon her first sip, Carrie Guild reportedly exclaimed “Maita’i – Roa ae!”, translating from Tahitian as “out of this world – the best”. This inspired the drink to be named Mai Tai – “the best”. Beach, however, claims that the recipe was inspired by his own ‘Q.B Punch’, created in his restaurant in 1933. Bergeron, of course, denies this claim, as the Q.B punch is much larger than, and contains twice as many ingredients as the Mai Tai. No matter who you believe, the drink we now know and love has certainly stood the test of time. The tiki fad died out in the 1960s, but in spite of this, Victor Bergeron opened another Trader Vic’s in London in 1963, and the chain enjoyed large global expansion throughout the 1970s, spearheaded by the Mai Tai.

Nowadays many people, myself included, now consider tiki drinks to be a thing of the past – relics of a bygone age. My own opinions aside, however, it is hard to dispute that the cocktail industry can be very wasteful. Tiki drinks are particularly guilty of this, with many consumers expecting their Zombie to be served in half a coconut with a flaming, overproof rum-soaked lime nestling on the top alongside a dainty little umbrella. Indeed, I have been asked before for a Mai Tai specifically with half a passionfruit as a garnish, only to clear an empty table half an hour later to see an untouched, uneaten passionfruit half sitting sadly in a pool of melted ice. The International Bartender’s Association’s official recipe for the Mai Tai lists the garnish as “a pineapple spear, mint leaves, and lime peel”, which to me seems incredibly wasteful, unless you hold a pretty drink on Instagram in very high regard. So does the Mai Tai, or in fact Tiki drinks as a whole, have a place in contemporary and future bartending?

Well, you can’t rule a drink as iconic (and delicious) as a Mai Tai, but we can always try and make it progressively. At Lab 22, we try to use all parts of the buffalo (or pineapple…?) in our preparations. Yes, we do use fruits for some garnishes, but we do our best to limit this to fruit peels, and then dehydrate and re-use the peeled fruits. When preparing a Mai Tai, I myself prefer to use a dehydrated orange slice knowing that the fruit has been used to a higher potential than it otherwise could be. Of course, nobody is perfect, and one could argue that those oranges could be used for juice or some other imaginative purpose rather than just to decorate a drink. However, one of the hurdles the contemporary bartender faces is the expectations of the consumer: we all have to work under the constraints of the industry in which we are involved, and a small slice of re-used orange is a vast improvement on a flaming fruit salad. But that’s just me.