If you order a Mai Tai at a bar these days, chances are you'll get a very fruity and heavily sugared drink. But the original Mai Tai wasn't like that. The classic Mai Tai is rich, creamy, deliciously balanced, and just a little bit nutty.
The Traditional Ingredients for a Mai Tai
Nutty, you say? That's right. If you’re going to make a proper Mai Tai, the essential ingredient is orgeat (pronounced ohr-zsa, like Zsa Zsa Gabor), a sweet almond syrup made from almonds, sugar, and orange blossom water.
The Mai Tai belongs to the family of drinks called sours, which are made with a base spirit, a sweetener, and citrus. A lot of classic drinks are based on the sour, like the vodka sour, the whiskey sour, and the margarita, which is a tequila sour.
The traditional Mai Tai is a rum sour (also called a daiquiri) made with two kinds of rum, lime juice, and orgeat and orange liqueur as the sweetener.
Why Orgeat Is So Important
If you want to make a delicious, authentic Mai Tai, the kind of orgeat matters a lot. It's quite a good drink with just an average orgeat, but becomes exceptional with a very good one.
When it comes to orgeat, you can either make your own or you can purchase pre-made orgeat, although the ones available vary greatly in quality. The best orgeat I've ever tried is from Austin-based Liber & Co. The Small Hand Foods variety is also nice. Either of those two would be worth getting just for the purposes of making this drink!
If you can’t find a good orgeat, or any orgeat at all, simple syrup and almond extract is a workable substitute. (The proportions are 1/2 ounce simple syrup, made with turbinado or demerara, mixed with 1/8 teaspoon almond extract.)
The History of Rum in a Mai Tai
Now that we know all about orgeat, it's time to move on to the rum!
While many modern tropical drinks mask the taste of their spirits, Trader Vic, who is responsible for the Mai Tai as we know it, actually created the drink as a showcase for a single superior rum. The rum he used – a 17-year-old J. Wray & Nephew – is no longer available, which is why most Mai Tai recipes call for equal parts white and dark rum.
Original vs More Commonly Used Rums
According to Beachbum Berry, the best way to recreate the original Mai Tai rum is with “an aged Martinique rum mixed with a premium Jamaican rum." Eager to be as thorough as possible in my role as cocktail historian, I picked up a bottle of Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum, and another of the Appleton Estate Reserve Blend Jamaica rum.
If you're a purist and absolutely have to try this drink the way it was originally intended, this is the way to go.
For my part, I found this formulation to have too much rum flavor. I prefer the drink with half white rum and half Jamaican rum, which allow the almond notes to come through. (Also, since I just told you to buy fancy orgeat, adding two fancy rums to that seems beyond the pale.)
This recipe below mirrors the half-light, half-dark formula commonly found in Mai Tai recipes. For the light half, Bacardi Silver, one of my go-to rums for mixing, works well. For the darker half, an amber rum, preferably a Jamaica rum, is ideal, but a dark rum will also work. Look for Appleton Estate Reserve or Signature, which are both very nice.
Want More Rum Cocktails? Here You Go!
- Hemingway Daiquiri
- Blender Pina Coladas
- Orange & Vanilla Hot Buttered Rum
- Strawberry Mojito
- Dark and Stormy
Mai Tai Cocktail
If you don’t have orgeat, use 1/2 ounce simple syrup (made with turbinado or demerara) mixed with 1/8 teaspoon almond extract.
- 1 ounce light rum
- 1 ounce amber rum (preferably Jamaican - a dark rum will also do in a pinch)
- 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 ounce orange Curaçao (Cointreau will also work, or, in a pinch, Triple Sec)
- 1/2 ounce orgeat (see Recipe Note)
- Crushed ice
- Mint, for garnish
Combine all ingredients:
Add all the liquid ingredients to a cocktail shaker, then fill the shaker with crushed ice.
Shake the drink:
Shake the drink until the shaker is almost too cold to hold. You won’t need to do this as long as you would for a typical cocktail since the crushed ice will cool the drink faster.
Pour the entire contents of the shaker, including the ice, into an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with mint, and enjoy!