Cocktails of the Week: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Mai Tais in Kauai

The mai tai is a fascinating cocktail, created back in 1940 by Victor Bergeron, the “Vic” of Trader Vic’s, at the Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, CA, near Oakland, not exactly a real bastion of tropical tiki culture one might say. His original recipe called for dark Jamaican rum, orgeat (an almond syrup), curaçao (an orange liqueur), and a dash of rock candy syrup.

Wait a second. Aren’t mai tais usually filled with tropical fruit juices such as pineapple and passion fruit mixed with light rum and a dark rum float on top, a sliced pineapple on the rim of the glass, and an umbrella?

Not the actual mai tai as it was meant to be. It was meant to be mainly a rum drink with a touch of citrus. Over the years the mai tai has become less a focus on rum and more the type of refreshing fruit driven drink you dream of having on a tropical island. Mr. Boston‘s varation on the mai tai is quite simple, but very different than Vic’s:

1 oz. Light Rum

1 oz. Gold Rum

1/2 oz. Orange Curaçao

1/2 oz. Orgeat

1/2 oz. Lime Juice

The quality of the rum, the touch of orange, and the slight nuttiness from orgeat are pivotal for a mai tai. Sampling mai tais around Kauai, it’s very easy to tell who puts effort into their creation and who simply thinks that mixing passion fruit, grapefruit, and orange juice, with a dark rum float will taste good. It’s revolting (cough, cough Brennecke’s).

The local watering hole in Hanalei on the North Shore, Tahiti Nui, now known from the George Clooney film The Descendants, makes the hands down best mai tai on the Islands, perhaps that I’ve ever had. The description is vague, nothing more than secret recipe of fruit juices with light and dark rum. That secret recipe is a perfect blend though, with a little sweet, a little nut, and then a little booze from the dark rum float. Served with pineapple in a classic pina colada glass, this is how mai tais should be. George Clooney must have improved.

Equally as good I’d say, but far more dressed up, is the ultimate mai tai at the Honu Beach Bar at Poipu’s Marriott Waiohai. The bar now has grass beneath the tables instead of sand, but this is no dressy establishment despite the changes to this mai tai. Instead of orgeat, there’s amaretto. Instead of curaçao, it’s grand marnier. It’s stronger than any other version not surprisingly, but is a truly balanced, well constructed drink. Of course it’s even better when enjoyed at the Honu, one of the most impressive views on Kauai.

I gave Merriman’s a very hard time earlier this week, but they do know how to craft a terrific mai tai. The fruit juices veer heavy to the pineapple and I detected perhaps a touch of nutmeg amidst the mix. The high quality Koloa rums make this a more elegant mai tai, like the one at Honu. They should be sipped instead of downed as a post beach refresher.

At the other end of the spectrum are the “world famous” mai tais at Brennecke’s, a bar-beach broiler at Poipu Beach with a terrible lack of tvs to be a sports bar and a lacking beer list to match. The mai tais must be world famous for all the wrong reasons. An off kilter mix of juices in all the wrong quantities makes this taste like grapefruit juice past its expiration date. The Koloa rums increase the price, but not the taste.

Of course, the best mai tais on Kauai are the ones my Dad creates. Yes, he used Mr. and Mrs. T Mai Tai Mix and Bacardi Gold rum (when you combine light and dark rums it equals this, right?). The mix is incredibly sweet, like that rock candy syrup would be Trader Vic used back in 1940. Yet it has a nice fruity touch and a hint of nuttiness that is awfully delicious, far superior to the Trader Vic mix. Yes, the ingredients are mainly:

high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, gum acacia, and “Natural and Artificial Flavors,”

but hey, those chemists know how to make a great mai tai! The mix from Kukui Brands sold at the Koloa Rum Distillery tasting room at Kilohana Plantation is impressive too, but lacks enough fruit power.

Oh how the mai tai has evolved since Trader Vic created it. Of course all of these mai tais taste even better when watching the sunset at Poipu Beach.

Published by trevsbistro

Exploring the globe in search of what gastronomy means in the homes, restaurants, wineries, breweries, and distilleries that help make each day a little brighter and delicious for us. What makes a certain dish or certain cafe particularly successful? What makes poutine an iconic dish of Québec and cioppino the same for San Francisco? À la santé! Let's learn, discover, and of course, enjoy some wonderful meals together!

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