If you asked a layman to name a Tiki drink off the top of their head, a large percentage would answer Mai Tai. So, why is it so hard to find a proper one when you’re any where near a beach? Let’s discover the real Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail.

Perhaps you’ve mastered your Martinis and Margaritas. Now it’s time to mix the magical mystique of the Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail. Don’t get me wrong, rum is fun, you’ll like what you like–but if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right–so put down that pre-mix or pineapple juice and prepare to understand the simple balance of rum, lime, almond and orange that makes the Mai Tai a true classic.

A real Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail recipe, featuring Jamaican rum and French Rhum, along with lime juice, almond syrup and orange Curaçao liqueur.

Invented by Trader Vic, this classic Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail features an alluring combination of lime juice, almond syrup and orange Curaçao liqueur — fortified with Jamaican rum and French Rhum.

Back in 1944, when Tiki was but ten years young, Trader Vic put this tropical thing together and served it to friends from Tahiti visiting his bar, and so the story goes, they responded, “Mai tai roa ae!” which, allowing for aliteration, is translated as “Out of this world! The best!”

But the real star of the show was the Wray & Nephew 17-year-old Jamaican rum at the heart of it. It was only a couple of years before the entirety of the supply was exhausted with the help of Vic’s thirsty audience. The 15-year-old version replaced it to fill demand, however, was similarly depleted by the 1950s. Vic then went in search of a new substitute and found it in the form of molasses based rhum from Martinique.

If you’re not an expert, the important thing to take away from that is the guy who originally made the Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail also re-made it when the rum ran out. If you know the difference between Agricole and Industriel, this is a breakthrough. Vic found elements of what made the original Jamaican rum so interesting, what he described as “rich pungent flavor,” in the traditional molasses-based or “industrial” french style rhums.

Nothing will ever be 100% authentic again–at least not since the Merchant Hotel in Belfast ran out of the last publicly available bottle of Wray & Nephew 17. It has been popularized to mix Agricole and Jamaican together, what with the Rumdood’s research and all, and I’ve seen at least one Martin Cate suggested recipe for the Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail blending Guyana and Jamaica, but in the end we’re all trying to recapture that rich-dark-and-funky-thing that both of Vic’s choices had going on.

Speaking of rich, I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak for a moment about orgeat (pronounced or-zsa, like Zsa Zsa Gabor). A lot has already been said on the origins and recipes, but briefly, it’s an almond emulsion, and a key ingredient in the Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail. If you’re not up to the task of making it yourself there are some specialists who are dedicated to the craft, like Orgeat Works (see also Beachbum Berry’s Orgeat), Small Hand Foods, BG Reynolds, and many more if you use your google-fu.

In the past ten years the variety of orange liqueurs has expanded significantly as well. If you haven’t spent time substituting the usual triple sec with the likes of Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curaçao, Clement Creole Shrubb, Bayou Satsuma, Guavaberry’s Old Oranjestad and a whole gamut of other orange flavors, well, you’re missing out.

On that note, let’s talk about our recipe.

Real Mai Tai Tiki Cocktail

  • 3⁄4oz fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1⁄2oz orange Curaçao liqueur
  • 1⁄2oz orgeat or almond syrup
  • 1oz aged Jamaican rum
  • 1oz aged French rhum

Add your ingredients to a shaker. Fill it with pebble or crushed ice. Shake well for 15-30 seconds. Pour unstrained into a vessel of your choice. Add a slapped mint spring and spent lime for garnish. Optionally: invert lime shell, fill with overproof and set it on fire.

-Rum Scout