Tai me up

The origins of the tiki cocktail classic, the Mai Tai

The decor at Vancouver’s Shameful Tiki Room is tiki-tastic. Dan Toulgoet photos

Order the Mai Tai at your peril. It can be one of the world’s greatest cocktails but, like the Bellini and the Margarita, in the wrong hands, it can be an unmitigated disaster. Instead of a delicately fragrant yet powerfully boozy elixir, you are as likely to receive a dispiriting glass of something sweet, sticky and suspiciously hued.

Any bartender who knows their way around the classics should be able to make a decent Mai Tai, but for the real deal, you really want to seek out a tiki expert.

Dan Toulgoet photo

In Vancouver, that means a trip to the Shameful Tiki Room. This tiny, windowless bar on Main Street is decked out in all the kitsch-classic Polynesian paraphernalia that was so popular in the middle of the last century: grimacing tiki carvings, Tongan tapas cloth, puffer fish lamps and even a recaptured piece of artwork from Vancouver’s historic Tiki Bar at the Waldorf.

Shameful is the place to enjoy a Navy Grog, Zombie, Volcano Bowl or any of the tropical drinks inspired by a romanticized South Pacific, first among them the Mai Tai.

For all its Polynesian allure, however, the Mai Tai was not actually invented on any of the Pacific islands, but in California. And that’s just about the only certainty we have about its origins.

The late Victor Bergeron, founder of the Trader Vic’s chain of tiki-themed restaurants, claims credit for the drink, and has been quoted as saying: “Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.” He reportedly invented it in 1944 to highlight the flavours of a 17-year-old rum from J. Wray & Nephew; upon tasting it for the first time, a guest described it in Tahitian as “Maita’i roa ae!” which means “out of this world—the best.” And, so the story goes, the Mai Tai (The Best) was born.

But not so fast: 11 years earlier, a former bootlegger and cowboy named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a.k.a. Donn Beach, a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber, had invented a drink he called the Mai Tai Swizzle, which he served for a while at his own chain of tiki restaurants. His drink was also based on rum, but with fruit juices, falernum, Pernod and bitters added to the mix.

It’s unclear whether Bergeron knew of Beach’s earlier drink, but what is certain is that the later iteration became the more popular — in fact, by the 1960s, it was among the world’s best-known cocktails—and for good reason. It is, quite simply, one of the best.

So how did something so delicious become so degraded?

Back in the 1950s, Bergeron brought his cocktail to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, where it became especially chic among the sophisticated jet set. As its popularity spread throughout the islands, other bartenders tried to recreate it on the cheap. The drink evolved into the sweet, watery, rum-based fruit punch familiar to anyone who’s ever visited Hawaii; back on the mainland, it was even worse, thanks to pre-made Mai Tai mixes in vivid hues and peculiar flavours.

But unless you’re trying to order your Mai Tai from an Oahu swim-up bar, there’s no reason to settle for anything less than the real deal, not now that tiki fans and classic cocktail aficionados have brought the classic Mai Tai back from the darkness.

Simply crush some ice, break out the well-aged rum, shake it with the right ingredients and smash up a sprig of mint for garnish. If you like, assemble it all in a tiki mug. Drink deep, and say with us “Maita’i roa ae!”

RUM RUNNER: New Orleans-born drifter Donn Beach (a.k.a. Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber) picked up cultural ephemera and a bunch of rums while bumming around the South Pacific. After arriving in Hollywood in 1931, and consulting on Pacific-themed movies, he opened his first bar in 1933—a 12-seat paean to all things Polynesian. Tiki had arrived.

TOP SECRET: Both Beach and Bergeron guarded their tiki recipes closely, often pre-batching elements and giving their bartenders code-labeled bottles to work from. Legend has it Beach even had some of his cocktail bases blended at pharmacies.

Make these classic Mai Tais:
Trader Vic’s Mai Tai
Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai

—by Joanne Sasvari

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