Though the mai tai is commonly dismissed as a tiki drink, we here in Hawai’i know better—it can be seriously good when done well. But with the mainland’s recent high-end tiki craze, it seems that everyone else is catching on, too, and variations on the drink can be found from coast to coast.
At New York’s NoMad bar, bartender Leo Robischek goes the fancy route, burnishing the drink with top-shelf spirits and extracting a hit of bitter flavor from lime peel. Jeremy Oertel, a bartender at Dram in Brooklyn, N.Y., became famous for his bitter take on the Mai Tai, with most of the rum replaced by Campari, the now ubiquitous aperitivo from Italy.
At Bar Leather Apron, a hip cocktail bar in Chinatown right here in Honolulu, bartender Justin Park serves an intricate take on the classic that won him the title of “World’s Best Mai Tai” in 2015 during the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival. On a base of raisin-infused El Dorado 5-year rum, Park adds a spiced housemade orgeat, coconut syrup for viscosity, and local Ohia Blossom honey for a hit of mellow sweetness. Angostura Bitters, absinthe and kiwi wood smoke bring an additional layer of intrigue.
For your at-home repertoire, skip the syrupy sweet mixes and fruit juices, and you’ll find that the type of rum used has a much greater impact. Instead of picking a caramel-sweetened dark rum, consider upgrading to a barrel-aged rum, such as El Dorado or Appleton, for some mellow oomph. If you’re looking to experiment, balance the aged rum in equal parts with aromatic white agricole, such as Neisson L’Esprit, or O’ahu’s own Ko Hana rum.
When it comes to choosing an orange liqueur, it’s worth your time to search for the Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao bottling, but if you can’t find it, Grand Marnier will also work.
The orgeat you choose will also play an important role. Typically made from almonds and orange blossom water, the syrup adds a nutty sweetness and viscosity to the drink. In recent years, several small-production outfits have began producing orgeat worth purchasing, such as Small Hand Foods, Orgeat Works, or Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 Formula Orgeat. If you are handy in the kitchen, it can be worth it to make orgeat at home too, if only to experiment with different spices and nuts (macadamia nuts make an intriguing variation).
The recipe below provides a solid foundation from which to experiment:
The credit for this iconic 1940s drink is usually given to venerable tiki bar Trader Vic’s, with the name a nod to the Tahitain “maita’i,” which means “good.” Bouyed by the rise of tiki culture and some big celebrity endorsements (think Elvis in Blue Hawaii), this rum-based umbrella drink became cemented in the public imagination as a tropical must-have. The classic components of tiki are all here: a mix of rums, a citrus component, and a hint of exotic with the addition of orgeat (an almond syrup). But don’t look to this drink for kitsch factor alone—when done up right, this cocktail is seriously good.
2 oz. aged rum
1/2 oz. orange curacao
1 oz. lime juice
3/4 oz. orgeat syrup
Garnish: umbrella, lime wheel and a sprig of mint (optional) Glassware: rocks
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain over crushed ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with an umbrella, a lime wheel, and a sprig of mint.
Credit: Adapted with permission from The Essential Bar Book, by Jennifer Fiedler, copyright 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC.
Makes approximately 1 cup
2 cups bitter almonds (or chopped raw almonds)
1 1/2 cups water, boiling
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon orange flower water 1 oz. vodka
In a medium-sized saute pan, toast the almonds until they brown, then remove from heat. Put the almonds into a medium-sized bowl, then add the boiling water. Cover and let sit for 3 hours. Strain the almonds and add the strained water to a small saute pan. Heat gently on low and add the sugar, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the liquid into a lidded non-reactive container. When it is cool, add the orange flower water and vodka. The orgeat will keep for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.