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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Guest Bram Meehan: Mai Tai

Refreshing Beverage of the Week
Mai Tais are kind of our traditional holiday drink — long story — but I never felt I got it right. Only making them annually, pretty much forgot any progress I made the previous year. This show seemed an ideal opportunity to get it all sorted out and find a good, definitive recipe.

What I discovered was a murky history of mystery, secrets, and too much fruit juice.

Generally agreed that Trader Vic invented the Mai Tai in Hollywood in the mid '40s, though most likely influenced by Beachcomber Don's QB Cooler from a decade earlier. I'm sure he got to write and re-write its history, but Vic says about its creation:
I took down a bottle of 17-year old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends.

The flavor of this great rum wasn't meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after.

Half the lime shell went in for color ... I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night.

Carrie took one sip and said, "Mai Tai — Roa Ae". In Tahitian this means "Out of This World — The Best." Well, that was that. I named the drink "Mai Tai."
Important to note that this drink started as a way to showcase the rum. Its original recipe is (probably):
2 oz 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum
.5 oz Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao.
.25 oz Trader Vic's Rock Candy Syrup.
.5 oz French Garier Orgeat Syrup
Juice from one fresh lime.

Shake with crushed ice, pour into a double old fashioned, garnish with mint and lime shell.
Pretty much from the get-go, Trader Vic's recipe started getting modified and sweeter and fruitier and relying less on aged rum. Pretty much all subsequent recipes go with equal parts dark and light (Beachbum Berry recommends an an aged Martinique rum mixed with a premium Jamaican rum). The version for the Royal Hawaiian, with assorted fruit juices — which I'm assured works if you're using good, fresh juice — set us on the path for the sickly sweet, Crayola-hued drinks we're all too familiar with. Even Trader Vic's current version relies on a premade mix.

Andrew Bohrer's post on the Mai Tai — the source for a lot of information here — has an original recipe with only .25 oz (instead of .5 oz) Orgeat. Trying that … it made all the difference. Now the Orgeat was more a scent and slight flavoring and the sharp, citrus-y drink wasn't nearly as sweet.

Seeking some clarity, I checked with The Santa Fe Barman Chris Milligan. And he goes a different direction, with equal parts of everything:
.5 oz light rum
.5 oz amber rum
.5 oz orange Curacao
.5 oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz cane syrup
.5 oz Orgeat syrup
Well, he makes his own Orgeat — unlike the stuff I'm buying, whose first ingredient (even before water) is sugar — which changes the flavor profile dramatically.

Still with me? It's been a long, inconclusive journey, hasn't it? After all that, the most important lessons I've taken away:
  • the rum is the showcase — try something good, aged, or at least interesting and don't cover it up
  • shake over ice, and then strain over fresh ice
  • keep cutting back on the sweet until it suits you
Please share your thoughts and observations in the comments.

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