Speaking of Hawaii, let’s look at the quintessential Hawaiian cocktail–the Mai Tai.
The Mai Tai is perhaps the most misunderstood and mis-mixed cocktail in the world. Hosts combine any fruit juice with rum in their basement luaus and call it a Mai Tai. Bad Mai Tais are almost always too sweet and over the years have given the drink a bad name as a fruity cocktail not for serious drinkers.
A real Mai Tai is more like a Manhattan in that it’s a strong cocktail, basically different liquors over ice–not a fruit juice drink. It’s served in a short, wide glass, and has a color about like iced tea. Decorations are a big part of the drink and can include a pineapple wedge, maraschino cherry, mint sprig, lime shell, tropical flower and novelty umbrella.
The Mai Tai was invented by Trader Vic during WWII with a subtle blend of flavors conjuring up the South Pacific. The original six ingredients are very rare rum, orange curacao, lime juice, orgeat (almond) syrup, rock candy syrup, and mint over shaved ice.
When mixed right, you’ll have a strong, refreshing cocktail, on the sweet side like a manhattan or old fashioned, with hints of orange, almond, and mint in the background. It’s a delicious mix, and delicate balance of sweet, sour, and heat (alcohol).
There are a number of ways to upset the balance of this drink. It’s very easy to become too sweet since most everything in it is sweet. Rum is distilled sugar cane, so it’s sweet, and the orange curacao, orgeat, and rock candy syrup are all horribly sweet, only used sparingly to flavor the cocktail, not add volume.
There are only two ways to repair a Mai Tai that’s too sweet, either add more rum or lime juice. The lime juice cuts the mix making it more drinkable and refreshing. The other way to cut the sweetness is by adding rum. A sickly sweet drink can really suck up a lot of rum before you even taste the alcohol. Some sweet drinks like a good Lava Flow or Slippery Monkey hide the alcohol entirely, you’d never even know until it hits you halfway through the second one.
Think of a Mai Tai as basically rum & ice. The dominant flavor and main ingredient is rum. The original recipe calls for a particular brand of 17-year old rum and that’s the biggest flavor in a Mai Tai. You can’t find this rum anymore but would be about a $60 bottle of booze. Is there any drink today that uses that kind of base? I doubt it. The best bars in town use Bacardi at most, about $10 a bottle. So the problem becomes how to make a drink using cheaper booze that tastes like the 17-year old stuff? This is where the different bottled mixes, and new recipes come in, all trying to recreate the particular flavor of that premium old rum. Our next few entries will look at some modern Mai Tais and see how they measure up.