The Mai Tai has unfortunately become the rum dumpster of tiki drinks. Anything remotely tiki like is called a Mai Tai. The recipe here is the original recipe for the Mai Tai created in 1944 by Victor Bergeron at his Trader Vic’s bar in Oakland, California. The Mai Tai predates the Tiki craze of the 1950-60s and is viewed as the quintessential tiki cocktail. The book describes how Victor Bergeron created the drink and how it got its name. The Mai Tai got its’ name when Victor gave the first two he made to two Tahitian friends of his. One of them exclaimed “Mai Tai-Roa Ae” which translates to “Out of this world-the best”. Thus the cocktail earned it’s name, the Mai Tai. Contrary to popular belief the Mai Tai is not Hawaiian or Polynesian in any way. The cocktail was created in 1944 by Victor Bergeron in Oakland, California at his Polynesian themed bar, Trader Vic’s Bar. The Tiki drink craze originated in California immediately after the repeal of prohibition. Both Victor Bergeron and Donn Beach are credited with creating the first tiki themed bars. In 1933 Donn opened Donn the Beachcomber in Hollywood and in 1934 Vic opened Trader Vic’s Bar in the Bay Area, and still to this day, almost every famous Tiki cocktail was one of their creations.
The Mai Tai doesn’t taste like most people think it does because most people have not had a real one made with good ingredients. Most are just overly artificially sweet drinks made with pre-made Mai Tai mixer. While there are better Mai Tai mixers out there, even the best don’t compare to one made with real ingredients. So what should a good Mai Tai taste like? A good Mai Tai should have a slight molasses taste with strong notes of almond, cherry, orange, and citrus. Most mixers and orgeat syrups just taste like almonds and the flavor most of these syrups miss is the cherry flavor. Which leads into why orgeat is the most important ingredient in the mai tai and why there is absolutely no substitute for good orgeat.
The Most Important Ingredient
The most important ingredient in the Mai Tai is the Orgeat syrup. The orange liqueur is important too but the orgeat you use will either make or break this drink. So what is orgeat and what does a good orgeat taste like? The classic 1800s French orgeat is a bitter almond syrup. Bitter almonds taste very different from sweet almonds which are what we typically eat. Almonds are part of the rosaceae (rose) family of plants and all rosaceae plant’s seeds contain varying levels of amygdalin which the body processes into cyanide. Bitter almonds are not really sold in the US anymore because they produce around 1000x the level of cyanide than sweet almonds. You could eat sweet almonds all day and be fine but just 10 bitter almonds will kill a grown man. Thats also why they say not to eat apple seeds since they are part of the same family too. Amygdalin smells and taste like cherries. If you are curious to smell and taste this exact flavor then go to the grocery store and in the baking aisle buy some almond extract. Almond baking extracts are made from bitter almonds with the amygdalin neutralized. Orgeat should not taste like just sweet almond milk, Orgeat should taste like almonds and cherries. And this is what 90% of orgeat syrup and Mai Tai mixers get wrong. They just taste like almonds. If you wanna know what made the Mai Tai famous and taste the original then do some research and buy a bottle of top shelf orgeat. These ones sold in stores have the cyanide neutralized and still taste great. I recommend just spending the money and buying a good one. I’ve tried making my own with an old 1800s barley water orgeat syrup recipe I found and used bitter almond extract instead of real bitter almonds. It tasted spot on in the end but it cost 2x as much as buying it, took a whole day to make, was a lot of work, and in the end not much better than a 9 oz bottle I could have bought for 13 bucks. Sure that’s a steep price for 9 oz but your only other option is a gross drink. Sadly there is no substitute for a good orgeat.