Among the most famous of the cocktails to emerge from the “tiki” movement of the 1930s and ’40s, the mai tai was also one of the most argued over. Both Donn Beach and Trader Vic, the two big daddies of that scene, claimed to have invented the drink, and so the classic cocktail remains a symbol of the two men’s complicated relationship and rivalry. The mai tai pops up all over pop culture—in the movie Blue Hawaii and TV show Cheers to name two places—and it has graced many a cocktail menu in a variety of forms, but to my eyes the best mai tai recipe comes to us via the Trader Vic formula.
You’ll find ornate, fruity versions with pineapple juice and cherry liqueur, but the classic mai tai is a pretty simple rum sour made with lime, an orange liqueur, and orgeat syrup—the fragrant cocktail elixir made from almonds—and served on crushed ice. Many tropical-inspired cocktails since the days of Donn and Vic have featured not one but two (or three) rums mixed together, a blend sometimes called a “split base” by bartenders. This is a way to feature the best of several styles and create a new blend perfect for each specific cocktail recipe. Trader Vic—a.k.a. Victor Bergeron, Jr.—himself stated that his original version was built around an “amber” Wray & Nephew—which one can reasonably assume means an aged version of the famous funky Jamaican rum. Later in the drink’s evolution a “Martinique rhum” was added, and while there’s evidence that suggests this was actually a rum made from molasses, many updated versions today call for a rhum agricole, which gets freshly grassy flavors from its sugarcane juice base.
I like an aged Barbancourt and Rhum J.M personally, but there’s room to experiment as you make mai tais at home. The important thing for me is that at least one of the rums has aged in wood and one of them has some funk to it (or one has both), but playing with the rums available to you can be a lot of fun. Note that you’ll shake the drink only briefly here because the crushed ice will add quite a bit of extra dilution to the cocktail.
Combine 1 oz. aged rum, 1 oz. rhum agricole, ¾ oz. fresh lime juice, ½ oz. orange liqueur, and ½ oz. orgeat in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake briefly to chill but not dilute fully, 3–5 seconds. Strain into a tumbler or old-fashioned glass filled with crushed or pebbled ice. Garnish with a half-moon orange slice and fresh mint sprigs.