By Ron Fisher
If Dale Carnegie had known how to make a Mai Tai, he could have saved himself all the time and work writing “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. This cocktail will make you popular. Make no mistake — the Mai Tai is no <frou-frou> tiki drink – it’s a delicious and sophisticated cocktail, and it can really wow a crowd.
“Trader Vic” Bergeron claims to have invented the Mai Tai in 1944 at his restaurant in Oakland, California. When he offered his creation to friends from Tahiti, they took one sip and said, “Mai tai roa ae.” In Tahitian this means, “Out of this world, the best.” With that, and some (shameless) self-promotion on Vic’s part, a legend was born.
Those of an age will remember Trader Vic’s at one of two locations in New York. The restaurant originally opened in 1958 at the swank Savoy-Plaza Hotel (now the GM Building), and in 1965 it migrated with its Samoan Fog Cutters, Zombie Cocktails, and faux Polynesian décor across the street to a basement room in the Plaza on Central Park South. When the Plaza changed hands in the late 1980s, the new owner deemed Trader Vic’s “tacky” and closed it down. Who was the new owner? Donald Trump. Once upon a time there were more than twenty Trader Vic’s in the U.S., but today, there are just two – Atlanta and the Bay Area – as well as a few spots in Europe and the Far East, and a number of restaurants in the Middle East.
The Mai Tai has a fairly standard bill of ingredients, but for one. There is the base, rum; a modifier, lime juice; a flavoring; Cointreau or Curaçao; and a sweetener, orgeat syrup, which is almond-based. It’s the orgeat (pron: or’ zhah) that makes the Mai Tai special. The bad news is that orgeat is expensive, hard to find, and, as far as I know, only used in a Mai Tai. The good news is that you can make your own quite easily using almond extract.
The almond flavor in a Mai Tai is subtle — it lurks in the background and is hard to identify by taste. It complements the orange-y essence of the Cointreau, but neither of them dominates. It offsets the tartness of the lime, but not completely. Most people take a few sips, develop a quizzical look on their face, and ask, “What <is> that flavor?” And then they’re hooked! Do beware if any of your drinkers have nut allergies – you will not win any friends serving them a Mai Tai.
To make an orgeat substitute, mix almond extract with a sweetener. You can use simple syrup, but my go-to cocktail sweetener is agave nectar. It has a richer flavor than simple syrup, and is perfect for any recipe that calls for brown sugar, honey, or a heartier-flavored sweetener. Only in cases in which you want a clear or brightly colored drink – mojitos and daiquiris, for example – will simple syrup be the sweetener to use. Another advantage with agave is that there is no mixing involved. Agave nectar is available in the cooking-ingredients aisle at the grocery store, it’s not expensive and a bottle will last for ages.
<<The Mai Tai>>
2 oz. dark rum, or preferably 1 oz. light and 1 oz. dark
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
¾ oz. simple-syrup orgeat substitute or ¼-½ oz. agave substitute (see below), to taste
¼ oz. Cointreau or Curaçao
Mix all ingredients in a rock’s glass and add ice. If you like a sweeter cocktail, add a little more orgeat substitute. Note: 1 tbsp. = ½ oz., which is good to remember when mixing. Wondering if you got it right? If the cocktail is subtly sweet, subtly sour, and subtly almond, you got it right.
½ tsp. almond extract
1 oz. of simple syrup, or ½ oz. agave nectar.
Mix ingredients together. Agave should be warmed.
1 oz. of simple syrup is 1 tbsp. of sugar dissolved in 1 tbsp. of water. Agave nectar is twice as sweet as simple syrup, so you need half as much. Either recipe will make two cocktails, depending on desired sweetness.