Friday, September 3, 2010

Anatomy of the Drink: Mai Tai

Photobucket



"I went and sat on Hunter's lap for awhile, and he ordered a variety of drinks, and then he said, "Mai Tais!"
~ Anjelica Huston, "Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson"

"A Mai Tai, made properly, is strong enough to put permanent fissures in a fat man's brain, yet delicate enough to make his girlfriend try to conjugate verbs with her thighs. The ingredients might come from the Caribbean. The South Pacific might have made it famous. But the Mai Tai comes from California and is so by-God American that any bartender who can't make it should be shot for treason."
~ Joe Bob Briggs, "The Great Mai Tai Hunt"

"They're lethal."
~ Richard Nixon



The Mai Tai is one of a very small category of drinks I call "bulletproof." That is, you can give a drink of this type to virtually anyone and they'll like it. It's not easy to find a drink that appeals to almost everybody, yet the Mai Tai pulls it off. Even people who hate rum admit that it's pretty darn good.

Universally beloved drinks usually have a history, and the Mai Tai is no exception. However, I will not be dealing with that here, since Mai Tai lore has been well-documented elsewhere. If you find yourself craving the details of how this remarkable concoction came about, I suggest you start by checking out Beachbum Berry Remixed by Jeff Berry and And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. Both books devote entire sections to the Mai Tai and its significant place in the cocktail pantheon. If you want to go pick those up now and read the relevant parts, go ahead. I'll wait.

Back? Okay, great. What I will be doing is taking a peek at the drink itself. Specifically, the nuts & bolts of what makes this drink so great (and worth your time and trouble to make correctly). Now at this point, anyone who browses boozeblogs at least semi-regularly is thinking, "Jesus, another cocktail geek is writing about the freakin' Mai Tai??!!" Guilty as charged. My pixelated and pickled pen pals in the cocktail blogging community have already done an exemplary job in examining it from all angles, and the best I can hope to do here is humbly toss out one or two tidbits that may enhance the existing collective analysis of this classic drink.

Plus, I made a drawing of a tiki doctor giving a Mai Tai a physical exam. That has to count for something at least.


First, a quick gander at what is generally considered the authentic, original recipe from 1944:

2 oz. Wray & nephew 17-year-old Jamaican rum
.5 oz. French Garnier Orgeat
.5 oz. Holland DeKuyper orange Curacao
.25 oz. Rock Candy Syrup
Juice from one fresh lime

Shake everything with ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass full of crushed ice. Garnish with half the spent lime shell inside the drink and a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.


Looks fairly simple, right? There's just a few problems:

1) Wray & Nephew 17-year old rum hasn't existed for decades.

2) To the best of anyone's knowledge, Garnier orgeat can no longer be found either.

3) The current formulation of DeKuyper's orange Curacao is almost certainly not the same as it was back in '44.

4) What the hell is Rock Candy Syrup?

5) And while we're at it, what the hell is orgeat? And Curacao?

6) How much juice can I get from a lime?


If we want to make at least a somewhat legitimate attempt to approximate what this recipe tasted like, we have to make some concessions. Remember, the ability to compromise is a virtue, so let's keep the common good (making a tasty drink) in mind and soldier on.

Now here you may be thinking, "But wait...on vacation last Summer I had a Mai Tai at 'Benny's Beachfront Bazooka Bar' in Panama City, and it had pineapple juice and orange juice and red stuff and came in a hollowed-out cantaloupe with a live tree frog impaled on a sparkler as a garnish. This recipe leaves a bunch of stuff out!"

The short answer is no, it doesn't. For the sad tale of how the original Mai Tai was bastardized into oblivion almost from the moment of conception, consult the sources listed above. For now, back to the drink...

Like I mentioned above, concessions have to be made even if we're trying to re-create this drink as faithfully as possible. To that end, there are a number of modified recipes that do a good job of approximating the original, but since it's impossible to know exactly what it tasted like from top to bottom, we have to make some allowances. Lighten up- it's only a drink after all.

After extensive trial-and-error with more recipes than I can remember, this is the one I happen to like best:

1 oz. Appleton V/X rum
1 oz. St. James Royal Ambre rum
.5 oz. Marie Brizard orange Curacao
.5 oz. Orgeat
.75 oz. Fresh lime juice

Shake everything with ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass full of crushed ice. Garnish with half the spent lime shell inside the drink and a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.

So let's break this sucker down...

RUM: The Mai Tai is a rum-based drink, and hardcore rum geeks did us a great service awhile back by suggesting that mixing equal parts aged Jamaican rum (the Appleton) and Martinique rum (the St. James) approximates the character and flavor of the long-gone 17-year old Wray & Nephew called for in the original. And for that we thank them. When you pair the right rums, the combination absolutely sings, and is the foundation of a worthwhile Mai Tai. In fact, the "One Jamaican, one Martinique" rule of thumb has proven so fun to follow, that it has compelled more than one Mai Tai enthusiast to tinker endlessly with 2-part rum combos in search of the "perfect" Mai Tai...which is really just the one you happen to like best. Follow their example and experiment on your own. There's a lot of rum out there, so don't be bashful.

ORANGE CURACAO: Orange Curacao is a liqueur usually made with bitter orange peel as the main flavor component, but formulas vary from brand to brand, some adding or substituting a variety of other ingredients and using different alcohols as a base. All you really need to know for making a good Mai Tai is to avoid the cheap stuff. How do you know what brands to steer clear of? A good place to start would be to check out the valiant efforts of this guy who has compiled more orange liqueur reviews than anyone I know of. I happen to prefer Marie Brizard for my Mai Tais, but as I said above, experiment until you find one you like!

(Oh, and in a pinch the blue stuff is fine, except that your Mai Tai will end up green.)


ORGEAT: Orgeat is a syrup flavored primarily with almonds and a small amount of orange flower water. Sometimes rose water is also added, but it's not crucial to the flavor. Orgeat is key in making a decent Mai Tai, and using a substandard one will sink an otherwise good drink. The general consensus is that making your own is ideal- It's nowhere near as difficult as it might sound, and I've found this recipe is simple and yields a wonderful-tasting syrup that is superior to any commercial product I've tried. However, if you don't feel like fiddling with all that, there's a person who can provide you with some that is the next best thing to homemade.

(Full disclosure: The labels for Trader Tiki syrups feature my dopey artwork, but don't let that influence your buying decision- The stuff on the inside of the bottle is top-notch.)

Also, people ask me all the time how to pronounce "orgeat", and since no two people I've ever asked say it the same way, I'm as stumped as they are. I've found that pronouncing it "almond syrup" usually gets the job done.

ROCK CANDY SYRUP: This is essentially simple syrup (sugar and water heated until the sugar dissolves). "Rock Candy Syrup" is the name Trader Vic's sells it under, but you can make your own simple syrup easily by combining sugar and water in varying ratios (1:1, 2:1, and so on). I use Demerara sugar because of the depth of flavor it adds, but since the Mai Tai recipe I like omits the .25 oz. simple syrup, I save it for other drinks. But if your Mai Tai needs a little sweetening, fire away!

LIME JUICE: It's been said a thousand times already, but bears repeating: Use fresh lime juice. That means buying fresh limes, cutting 'em open and squeezing out the juice by whatever means you prefer. And since limes can vary widely in size and juice content, I've found that .75 oz. is a nice amount regardless of how stingy or forthcoming your limes may be. Just remember- the little blast of citrus acidity and tartness the lime juice provides is another key component in a Mai Tai, so always use fresh-squeezed. Or the ghost of Vic Bergeron will angrily take up residence in your liquor cabinet and mock you viciously.

GLASS: The Mai Tai is served in a double old-fashioned glass. Why? Because Vic said so, that's why. Aside from that, a double-old-fashioned glass holds the liquid, a pile of crushed ice, a half a lime shell and a mint sprig perfectly. I admit to using a variety of tiki mugs for my Mai Tais from time to time, but that's no crime given their thematic harmony with the beverage in question. Remember: learn the rules before you break them.

ICE: Get hard, clean ice cubes and crush 'em. Put them in a hand-cranked crusher, wrap them in a towel and whack it with a rolling pin, throw them in the blender, use a Lewis bag and mallet, whatever...just pick a method that works for you and crush that ice. Then dump it in your glass where it will await the rich, amber embrace of your about-to-be-poured Mai Tai. Just make sure to leave a few cubes unmolested for shaking.

GARNISH: Hopefully you didn't immediately whisk one of your lime halves into the trash after juicing. If so, pull it out of the trash and place it into your drink. Just kidding. Take your clean, freshly-juiced half-shell and gently push it into the drink so it nestles regally amongst the sparkling ice and alluring liquid. Then get a healthy, robust sprig of mint and slap it a few times in the palm of your hand to release the minty essence. Slide it into the drink and admire your handiwork.

Lots of people like to use the Mai Tai as a blank canvas for their inner Bob Ross. This is fine, and given that the Mai Tai is a tiki drink, flowers, powdered sugar, orange peel sculptures and other ephemera aren't beyond the pale. I'd never deter you from using all the happy little trees you like, but I have an affinity for the minimalism inherent in a simple lime shell and mint sprig.

A quick note about straws- some people like 'em, some don't. Not using a straw gets the mint right up in your face and adds the aromatic component of the garnish. Conversely, using a straw keeps your moustache out of the drink. Your call.

Assuming you've followed at least some of the suggestions above and assembled your Mai Tai with care and diligence, you've got a bulletproof cocktail. Enjoy it with friends or just shovel down a few while watching Magnum P.I. reruns. It works either way.



And for those of you who need more Mai Tai mojo, here's a few other places online that have devoted considerable time & energy to examining this fine drink...

SLOSHED!

The Pegu Blog

The Pegu Blog strikes again!

Looka!

Kaiser Penguin

Chip & Andy's Universe

Cask Strength

Cincinnati Cocktails

14 comments:

DJ HawaiianShirt said...

Great post, Craig. You prove again why you're easily one of my favorite blogs, though I wish you'd post more often.

I've thought about it, and I think I've realized that the writing style for my blog closely mimics yours. A compliment, I guess?

Jordan said...

My personal favorite combination for Mai-Tais is Smith & Cross and Mt. Gay Sugar Cane Rum. The first is a fairly obvious choice, being just about the funkiest Jamaican we can get these days without visiting the island. The second, while actually made from molasses, does a rather astounding impression of a fresh sugarcane rum without beating you over the heat as much as, say, the St. James. With that said, the rather high proof of the S&C and it's aforementioned funkiness does make for a pretty powerful drink. I wouldn't want to have anywhere else to go if I was going to down more than one of those at a time.

Additionally, while I'm pretty fond of Clement Creole Shrubb in there, making your own orange liqueur can be rewarding. I had to tweak the recipe a bit, but the batch of orange-tangerine-kumquat liqueur I made based off of the Homebrew Underground recipe has been really tasty: http://www.homebrewunderground.com/138/orange-kumquat-liqueur-recipe-part-1/

Tiare said...

As i read this awesome post i actually happen to sit and sip a - yeah u rite - Mai Tai..with Smith&Cross and LH151, a combo i tend to like a lot;-)

S&C is probably the best thing i brought home from the US and REALLY i can´t wait and neither do i understand why not - its sold in the UK...PLEEEZ..bring it to the UK!! it gets closer to me that way..and everybody else in Europe..

I really like your drawing as usual Doc!

Tiare said...

Ooops..update here..

Why its NOT sold in the UK...

Matt Robold (RumDood) said...

I have to agree with Jordan on using Clement Creole Shrubb for the curacao.

I know that you're not a fan of it, but even CocktailNerd has come around to my way of thinking: it just WORKS in a Mai Tai (even if you don't like it in anything else). I recently got my boss at 320 to switch to it in our Mai Tais. It's just the best way to go.

For the rums, there's something about Smith & Cross that's just MADE for Mai Tais. I've been thinking of going back and redoing my search, this time adding Smith & Cross to my list of rums. I have a feeling that it and Rhum JM VSOP are going to be the new winners since that's how I make MY Mai Tais pretty much exclusively these days.

Also, now I want a drink with a live tree frog impaled on a sparkler for a garnish.

Dominik MJ [opinionated alchemist] said...

Thanks for the great post about the Mai Tai.

I am not a "combining rums" fan. I just think, that the rest of the ingredients of the Mai Tai were meant originally to highlight the Wray & Nephews 17 years old.
In my Mai Tai's I keep it like that - it might taste different, but it definitely taste great, if I use one rum.

A rum which is still manageable of the cost, would be Appleton Estate Extra. In one bar, I made the Mai Tai recipe with a Cadenhead Single Rum, which was 18 years old. I think, this is until now unbeaten. Fantastic drink!
Well - I would like to try it with Coruba 18 years old - though I had no chance to put my hands on it until now.
How Trader Vic approved it, I am also usually shaking it directly with crushed ice and just pour ice and liquid into the double old fashioned glass. This drink can take it...

By the way - candy rock syrup is not normal simple syrup, but a over-saturated sugar syrup [which would create candy rocks, if you put e.g. a skewer in].
I think it is quite essential for the drink - but if you are shaking with ice cubes - it might be replaceable with simple syrup - as you have less dilution.

And please: nothing blue into this fantastic drink!

maggie m said...

I was perusing your blog today, and it inspired me to make (several) cuba libres (gold rum and mexican coke), enjoy the last warmth of the summer, and watch (again) the Big Lebowski. Pat yourself on the back... you have a great booze blog, very fun to read!

Craig Hochscheid said...

Great post!

After much experimenting, I’ve found Senior and other neutral sprits based Curaçaos to be too sweet in the Mai Tai. DeKuyper is cheap and out of the question to pair with my good rums. Ditto for Hiram Walker, Leroux and the other denizens of the liquor store's bottom shelves. After much experimenting, I have settled on using Stock’s GranGala as my go-to Curaçao in a Mai Tai. GranGala is similar in style to Grand Marnier in that it’s made on an brandy base. Curaçaos come in two styles, those that are made with a brandy base (such as Grand Marnier, Marie Brizard Orange Curaçao, Torres Grand Orange and Stock’s GranGala), and those that are made with a neutral grain spirit base (such as Senior, Bols, Hiram Walker & DeKuyper). Grand Marnier, in fact, was originally called “Curaçao Marnier” on it’s label for many years. I like a brandy based Curaçao in my Mai Tai as the brandy base adds richness, viscosity and complexity to the finaldrink. I’m able to get GranGala for $16.00/750ml bottle here in the Cincinnati area, which is far less expensive than Grand Marnier, and I find GranGala to be drier and less ‘syrupy’ than Marnier as well.

I was very happy to find that Rhum Clement has returned to the local market after a 2+ year absence. I picked up a bottle of Clement’s "Creole Shrubb" Orange Liqueur recently as I wanted to try it in a Mai Tai. Firstly, the Shrubb is unique in that it’s a Curaçao thats made on a base of Clement’s Rum Agricole. That makes the Shrubb closer in style to the Grand Marnier, et. al. style of Curaçaos than to the neutral grain styles of senior etc. I rushed home and made a couple of Mai Tais with the Shrubb, and was ultimately disappointed with it in my drinks. The Shrubb came off as being too sweet and too bright, and it’s orange notes were too dominate in the final cocktails. The Shrubb also rounded off the pointy edges of my Mai Tai-the ‘funky’ (and I mean that in a good way) Agricole notes were muted by the Shrubb, and the drink was too ‘smooth’ and lacking in character. I made the same drink at the end of the night with the GranGala, and the results were flavourful, balanced and delicious.

Considering that the GranGala is priced at $16.00 and the Shrubb at $31.50 around here, I’ll be sticking with GranGala.

Here are a few thoughts that I had on the Mai Tai recently:

http://cincinnaticocktails.com/2010/08/13/the-mai-tai/

Craig Hochscheid said...

I am so sorry about the repeat postings, I got an error page every time that I tried to post a comment and I tried to refresh the page, which caused my comments to be reposted four times. That is very bad form, and I apologize for it.

Doug Winship said...

Joe Bob Briggs!?!? Awesome. Was that an article or online?
And yes, as soon as I saw your post, I thought, "Oh, Doc is checking off the Written About Mai Tais box on his Complete Boozeblogger application.
I too have to give it up for Smith&Cross for a great Mai Tai rum, along with St. James, al la the Dood. But I most often simply use what what first got me hooked on Mai Tais, which is Mount Gay XO all by itself.
And finally, I will now have to put my mail-order boots on. There is no decent curaçao to be bought in Ohio, so I have always just used Cointreau. The fact that no one even mentions it as an alternative here leads me to think it is finally time to break down and start learning about OC in general. My bank account hates you.

Jordan said...

@Matt

Your post about Mai-Tais was actually what got me to go buy a bottle of the Creole Shrubb. Took a little bit of a drive to get to the one liquor store in the Portland area that still carried it, but I'm glad that I put in the effort.

frederic said...

The orgeat choice is key. Many of them use a whole lot of almond extract and can overpower the drink. Ones flavored by almonds are more subtle and will well stand up to the 1/2 oz you prefer. With the former, going quarter ounce plus a quarter ounce of simple will make the drink more flavor balanced.

Dr. Bamboo said...

DJ: Thanks! I appreciate the kindness, and I'll do my best to get the posting frequency up.

Jordan: I've tried S&C as the sole rum in a Mai Tai a few times, but the combo you've described sounds great...I'll try it if I can manage to get some of that Mt. Gay. Also, orange/tangerine/kumquat sounds amazing!

T.: Thanks..and Yeah U rite!

Dood: I think I must try the S&C/Shrubb version. Fear be damned!

Dominik: Thanks for the heads-up! I'm still trying to get some Coruba (hard to find in my area).

Maggie: Thanks! Cuba Libres and The Big Lebowski sound like a perfect combo.

Craig: Now worries! :-) I do stuff like that all the time. Thanks for all the info and the link.

Doug: Money in general hates me. I assume it's why I never see any around here.

Frederic: Great tip! Now I want to go experiment more. *sigh*

TABC Permit said...

You're right Craig, I consider Mai Tai as "Bulletproof" too. It's the only drink that I considered the default choice if I can't think of any. It's flavor is likeable by many and most of the bars here serves it with different twists. I haven't tried to make my very own version of Mai Tai although I'd very much love too.