Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Mai Tai

If you have not had a Mai Tai at the House Without a Key in Waikiki, you cannot be blamed for thinking that this is a sickly sweet "umbrella drink" made with rum, sour mix, and pineapple juice. Fun while eating at your local Tiki-themed restaurant, but not to be taken seriously.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Mai Tai is a serious drink. Made well, as demonstrated by the House Without a Key, it is elegant, potent, and flavorful - and not too sweet at all. Of course, if you are averse to even a touch of sweetness in a cocktail, you might find this too sugary, but try it anyway. You will be surprised. I certainly was. I made it my mission to try as many Mai Tais as I could find in Oahu, realizing ahead of time that I would be in for many a generic pineapple drink with umbrellas and fruit. A sucker tourist with a sugar headache. And I never, not once, had one as good as that at the House Without a Key. Even at the neighboring, fancy hotels with beach-side terraces. They were all made with pineapple juice (not an ingredient in the Mai Tai), were too sweet, and had a one-dimensional flavor, sort of like a mass-appeal drink for people to swill rather than savor.

Who invented the Mai Tai? I am not sure (Don the Beachcomber claimed to have invented it in 1933), but Trader Vic's Victor Bergeron has a good story about creating it in 1944:

I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. 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. - From "Mai Tai" in the Bartenders Database, retrieved 2011-4-30.
You can find the classic recipes used at Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber's here. My recipe is down below.

After a visit to the islands, in a state of despair at being back in Boston after time spent in paradise, I set about to emulate the Mai Tai at House Without a Key. I wanted it to be strong and not too sweet. As a starting point, I looked at Dale DeGroff's recipe in The Craft of the Cocktail, and I looked at Gary Regan's recipe in Joy of Mixology, as these two books have informed and inspired me endlessly. In the end I adapted their formulas until I found a drink that closely resembled the Mai Tai I recalled from House Without a Key, but which has its own distinctions.

This cocktail is more about the right flavors than the name on the bottles, but I suggest Cruzan Aged Rum as a starting point, as it is inexpensive but good quality, and not too fine to mix. From there, try longer-aged gold/amber rums. Some darker rums (Whaler's, Myers's) strike me as too bitter to be the main ingredient in this drink, but can be floated on the top to create a teak-colored surface that tempers the sweetness of the curacao. Also, many recipes (such as these) call for a combination of aged golden and dark rums in the drink, and it is certainly fun to experiment. One more note: This drink calls for orgeat (a sweet syrup with an almond flavor) or falernum (a similar sugar syrup, with more of a clove flavor), which can be hard to track down (I found them, along with a huge collection of bitters, at The Boston Shaker). These syrups make the drink quite sweet if over-used, so I actually substitute those with amaretto liqueur, and it adds the almond nuance without the sugar syrup sweetness.

The Mai Tai is a perfect summer cocktail - and a true classic. Drink it while listening to Andy Cummings' song "Waikiki," or any other Hawaiian music from the 20s or 30s (sung in English, called hapa haole) and you can almost imagine the sweet, fragrant breezes of the south Pacific caressing your senses as beachboys surf the long waves of Waikiki beach with lovely wahines held aloft in their burnished arms...

Mai Tai at House Without a Key
Mai Tai

2 oz aged rum
3/4 oz orange curacao
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
1/4 oz amaretto liqueur
Float of dark rum

Shake the ingredients with ice, and strain into an Old Fashioned glass (rocks glass) over ice cubes.

Float 1/4 oz or so of dark rum over the surface (I use Gosling's Black Rum).

Garnish with a lime round and a mint sprig (unless you have orchids). Thread the mint sprig stem through the center of the lime and float in the middle of the glass. Bottoms up!

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