What is a Mai Tai and What Makes it So Popular?

Anish Patel @ 2022-05-12 00:02:59 -0700

Tinto - Cocktail


When summer calls, a Mai Tai is the perfect answer. Born from the infamous tiki movement, the Mai Tai has become the iconic tropical cocktail. But have you ever had a real Mai Tai? Not many people know that the recipe evolved from a boozy, balanced flavor profile to the sweeter, juicier adaptation that is commonly known today.  

However, if we look at the history, we can make the argument that both recipes are technically a “real” Mai Tai. One is the original, and the second was created by the same person in order to adapt to the times. The question is: which one is for you?

The flavor profile of the original Mai Tai is sweet, boozy, and nutty with a hit of citrus. Let’s take a look at the history of the Mai Tai and how it evolved into the fruity cocktail you know and love today.

What is a Mai Tai?

When it comes to the history of cocktails, the story always starts like this: there are several accounts of how this cocktail originated. One account typically claims that the cocktail was inspired by (or ripped off of) another cocktail, and another account typically involves an interesting story about a bartender or their patrons.

This is no exception when it comes to the story of the Mai Tai. While there are some accounts that the Mai Tai was ripped off of a punch made by the founder of the tiki movement, here is the widely accepted story of how the Mai Tai became the popular drink that it is. 

In 1944, an Oakland, California man named Victor J. Bergeron, known as “Trader Vic” converted his bar into a tiki bar called Trader Vic’s. He created the original recipe with a 17-year-old Jamaican rum as the star. His recipe accentuated the complexity of this fine rum, only adding to the flavor profile with lime, orgeat, orange liqueur, and a little lime juice.

The story goes that when he made this drink for his Tahitian friends, they famously exclaimed, “Maita’i roa a’e!” This means “out of this world!” and so Trader Vic named his drink the Mai Tai, meaning, “out of this world.”

Soon, the Mai Tai took the world by storm.

The Mai Tai is a result of Tiki culture in America.

Tiki was a cultural phenomenon born from the Great Depression, and the Mai Tai can’t be understood without the context of this movement. Don the Beachcomber, the man who claims that Trader Vic ripped off his punch to make the Mai Tai, was the first to open a tiki bar. After that, island-themed bars started popping up all over California, and then across the United States.

Tiki culture was inspired by Southern Pacific culture as viewed through Hollywood and tourism, the only lens that Americans were really able to look through without traveling abroad. The drinks were served with Caribbean rum, and the restaurants often featured Chinese food.

Today, we acknowledge that tiki culture was a form of cultural appropriation, but at the time, we didn’t have the language for it and America fell in love with the movement. The island-themed aesthetics reached beyond the bar industry. Hawaiian music, tiki decor, and of course, brightly colored cocktails brimming with garnishes became popular. We still see remnants of the tiki movement today in Hawaiian shirts, mugs, and bars.

Tiki is often attributed to the need for escapism that followed the Great Depression. It created an atmosphere that allowed people to feel that they were far away from the troubles of home. Many cocktails were invented during this time, but the Mai Tai is the most popular one today, and that is mainly because of how Trader Vic tweaked the recipe to fit the tourist’s palate.

How did the Mai Tai become so popular?

In 1954, Victor Bergeron was overseeing the bar programs in several Hawaiian hotels and restaurants. But he quickly realized that in order to appeal to the tourist’s taste, he was going to have to make his cocktails sweeter and fruitier. So he added pineapple juice, orange juice, and other sweeteners to the cocktails on the menus of these Hawaiian restaurants.

As it turns out, he read the mainstream palate correctly. The sweet, fruity cocktail took off and became an icon of Hawaiian tourism.

Mixologists generally regard this recipe to be the cheapened version of the original cocktail. There is a movement to revive the original recipe, which features the spirit (aged Jamaican rum) and how it can play with other ingredients, instead of masking it with juice and umbrellas. The original recipe achieves balance, whereas the fruitier version may only sing a one-noted tune.

At the end of the day, it’s really about personal taste. Whether you like a boozy, nuanced drink, or a fruit-driven, refreshing drink, a Mai Tai is a delicious cocktail that has truly stood the test of time.

The Original Mai Tai Recipe

If you want to make Trader Vic’s original recipe, you want to get your hands on a good quality, aged Jamaican rum. Trader Vic originally used a 17-year-old rum, but had to modify the recipe when that particular rum ran out. Here’s what you’ll need to make the cocktail:

  • 2 oz of aged Jamaican rum
  • ½ oz of orange liqueur
  • ¾ oz of freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ½ oz of Orgeat syrup (an almond syrup)
  • ½ oz Demerara sugar
  • Lime husk and a mint sprig for a garnish.

To make the Mai Tai, combine all of the ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake for 7 seconds and pour all of the contents into a tiki glass. You don’t need to strain and add new ice; tiki cocktails are made in a slightly more laid-back fashion. Add a straw, a sprig of mint (don’t forget to slap it to release the aromatics) and the husk of a lime.

More tropical cocktails of the tiki movement.

Exotic cocktails are symbolic of tiki culture, and aside from Hawaiian shirts, are one of the only trends of this time that still live on. Even though the Mai Tai is the most popular drink, there are many other delicious cocktails. Be warned—they’re quite strong!

Planter’s Punch

A very popular tiki cocktail with the legend that it was made by plantation workers who needed something strong to drink. Planter’s Punch is made from dark rum, simple syrup, lime juice, grenadine, bitters, and club soda. It’s garnished with a mint sprig.


The zombie is so strong that it will turn you into the walking dead. This drink combines Jamaican rum, Puerto Rican rum, 151-proof Demerara rum, lime juice, grenadine, Pernod, and a mint sprig.

Fog Cutter

This classic was also invented by Victor Bergeron. It is made of white rum, gin, brandy, orange juice, lime juice, Orgeat, sherry, and a mint sprig.

Jungle Bird

Originally served in a bird-shaped vessel, this is another classic tiki drink. It contains Jamaican dark rum, Campari, pineapple juice, lime juice, demerara sugar, and a big pineapple wedge.

Try both recipes and see which one you like best.

The newer version of the Mai Tai appeals to the masses; does it appeal to you too? If you order a Mai Tai at a bar, you might find that it has orange juice, pineapple juice, maraschino cherry juice, and cherries in it. Some recipes also float dark rum on top of the drink, adding to the booze-factor.

Which one do you like best? The only way to find out is to make one of each and try them with a friend.

Looking for a new cocktail to try this summer? Try Rebujito, a sparkling white wine with lemon and a hint of mint. Refreshingly bright and served in a can!


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