Mai Tai Interesting: Who Really Invented the Tiki Bar Standard?

By Logan R. Brouse, August 13, 2019

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201703/logan.pngLogan R. Brouse, proprietor and mixologist of Logan’s Punch and Tacolicious, has run bars and clubs in Shanghai for over eight years. In between hangovers, he puts pen to paper in his column for That’s to record his pontifications on the drink industry.


Did you know that the mai tai isn’t from Thailand or even Asia? Did you know it’s a cocktail shrouded in some badass controversy, or that mai tai is a Tahitian word? Well, read on, nerds. I’ll tell you more. 

Those of you that know me (or my work) know that I like hip-hop, twerking, Fernet Branca and drinking copious amounts of booze at massage places that show classic movies. I also enjoy crushing happy hour at the new Hooters. You could say that I’m keeping it real in these streets and we’re going OG today, ‘getting neck till we pass out’ about the mai tai and all the wonderful things this ball-out, crip-walking, g-talking cocktail is about. It’s as summertime as Will Smith.

First off, depending on who you believe, in the early part of the last century Trader Vic, a popular restaurant owner in Oakland, California invented this rum-powered drink with a healthy mix of rum, orgeat, orange curacao, fruit juice, sugar and shaved ice. Once shaken, the resulting liquid miracle has survived the ages as sustenance for many a pool party and devastating, sugar-sweet hangover.

But what does mai tai even mean? A woman named Carrie Guild tried it and immediately said it was, “Maita’I roa a’e,” or “out of this world” in Tahitian. Now for the controversy – Trader Vic had a rival called Don the Beachcomber in the battle for best tiki style. What do I mean by tiki? This bartending genre sprung up when WW2 soldiers returned from the tropics and wanted something, well, tropical. 

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Image via Todd Lappin/Flickr

Trader Vic satisfied these cravings by combining French, Vietnamese, Chinese and Polynesian flavors with rum-based drinks. Don the Beachcomber did something similar down in Hollywood, and the trend was hot fire. It was all Hawaiian shirts and sweet cocktails featuring brand new ingredients for the time, like Dutch-made curacao or French orgeat.

OK, so back to the controversy. Don the Beachcomber (such a cool restaurant name) was a guy named Earnest Raymond Beaumont-Gant, whose widow Phoebe said he made the drink in the 1930s and that Trader Vic ripped him off. Things reached a head in the 1970s when both brands started selling bottled Mai Tai mixes. 

After revealing his then top-secret recipe in court and having his friend Carrie Guild submit a signed affidavit, the ruling went in Trader Vic’s favor. It was the Apple and Samsung patent fight of its day… with floral shirts and booze. I guess it would be like watching Jimmy Buffett dropkick a Beach Boy in court. But, I digress.

Trader Vic had this to say in a bartenders guide (which he coincidentally wrote): ”anyone that says I didn’t create the mai tai is a dirty stinker” or in modern parlance, “come at me, bro!”

However, in 2014’s Potions of the Caribbean, Jeff Berry recounts that Don told Edward Brownlee [a tiki-carver and friend of Don] that Vic had actually derived the mai tai’s flavor profile from a punch that Vic had particularly liked at the Beachcomber: “The Q.B. Cooler was the basis for a drink he took with him, and he called it the mai tai.” 

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Image via Sam Howzit/Flickr

Voicing dissent is Fred Fung, who worked as Vic’s executive assistant for 41 years: “Vic did copy Don The Beachcomber’s look. He did go down and copy. But the mai tai, he did concoct that, and Carrie Guild did name it.”

Vic clapped back in his 1976 Helluva Man’s Cookbook, where he says: “we originated this drink; we made the first mai tai: we named the drink. A lot of bastards all over the country have copied it and copyrighted it and claimed it for their own. I hope they get the pox. They’re a bunch of lousy bastards for copying my drink.”

All this talk has me mighty parched. I’ll leave you with my take on the controversial tiki icon.


Logan’s (Modified) Trader Vic’s Mai Tai

Ingredients

  • 60ml Dark Jamaican rum

  • 15ml Pierre Ferrand Curacao

  • 22.5ml Freshly squeezed lime juice

  • 7.5ml Giffard Orgeat syrup

  • 7.5ml Giffard Sugar Cane syrup

Directions

Shake with fresh shaved ice and serve in a double rocks glass. Garnish is mint leaves, lime wedge, pineapple slice and a cherry. The good times should start almost immediately.

See more of Logan's columns here


[Cover image via Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr]

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