The Mai Tai

National Mai Tai Day and Trader Vic's most enduring creation

Your cocktail calendar entry for: August
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The Mai Tai is Drink of the Day on August 30 because it’s National Mai Tai day.  There may be some some controversy over the true date for National Mai Tai Day, but for reasons we’ll explain shortly we’re members of the August 30 camp.  Hence we will proceed as such with today’s edition of The Drunkard’s Almanac and spell out a proper Mai Tai recipe.

This is one of the rare times that the Drink of the Day is eponymous to the occasion, but the history – along with important dos and don’t tips – is relevant.  Let’s face it, the Mai Tai is an iconic tiki drink.  Unfortunately it has often been flogged into unrecognizable forms by misguided souls who somehow think anything “tropical” like pineapple should be invited to the party.

Let’s go back to the beginning.  In 1934, using $500 in borrowed money, Victor J. Bergeron, Jr. opened a bar/beanery in the Golden Gate District of Oakland, California.  He called it Hinky Dink’s.  Over time, as the theme, décor and menu developed an increasingly tropical flair Hinky Dink’s transmogrified into Trader Vic’s.  Vic was creative, and along with inventing several drinks he was the first to serve Hot Buttered Rum in a skull-shaped Tiki mug.

The Mai Tai Story

Vic claims August 30, 1944 was the day he created a drink for a couple of Tahitian customers.  He put together a mix of 17 year old Wray and Nephew Jamaican Rum, lime juice, orgeat, orange and curacao.  This caused one of the Tahitians to exclaim “Maita’i roa a’e,” which apparently translates to “out of this world!  The best!”  We leave it to the reader to verify the translation, but our friend Vic decided to name this cocktail the Mai Tai as in “the best.”

Like most significant advancements in the drunkard’s arsenal there is some controversy over the history.  Donn Beach, of Don the Beachcomber fame, liked to claim being the inspiration for the Mai Tai through the Q.B. Cooler he invented in 1933.

Bergeron refuted this claim, and wrote that “anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”  Strong words indeed.  The fact that the Q.B. Cooler contains a lot more ingredients than a Mai Tai – things like ginger syrup, club soda and orange juice – backs that up.  So despite the fact that the Don the Beachcomber originated close to your correspondent’s childhood home he is on board with Bergeron’s rendition of the truth.

Now about the day of recognition for what is certainly the most replicated tiki drink of all time.  For some reason certain misfits proclaim June 30 to be National Mai Tai Day.  But considering Vic himself said August 30, plus the fact that the City of Oakland itself declared the Mai Tai to be its “official drink” in an August 30, 2009 ceremony at the Conga Lounge, we find no reason to entertain the thought of other dates.

How to make a Mai Tai

Unfortunately the original ingredient list is not reproducible.  The Mai Tai was so popular upon its birth that the world supply of Wray and Nephew 17 was depleted within just a few years.  Today it’s extinct.  Bergeron turned to the 15 year but those supplies dried up in the mid-1950s.  Not wanting to relegate the Mai Tai to the dustbin of history, Bergeron turned toward a blend of both Jamaican rum and aged, molasses-based Martinique Rum Agricole to hold the ship together.  The Mai Tai recipe shown below follows this formula.

But first some preliminary matters.  Above all, pause for a moment of reflection and recognize that a Mai Tai does not contain pineapple juice, ginger, orange juice, grenadine or any other misguided ingredients someone at some time thought might be a good idea.  It doesn’t matter what you were handed at a Waikiki hotel.  Put those errant ingredients away or you will forever deserve absolute tiki-scorn.  Same with little drink umbrellas.  Put the blender away.  This is a shaken drink served over crushed ice.  Never blended.  Period.

mai tai

Mai Tai

Sure, nobody has Wray andNephew 17 as first used back in the 1940s, but the mix below was created and endorsed by Vic Bergeron himself so it’s authentic and good to go.  Here’s the how-to.  As usual, just ordinary household supplies.
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  • Fill your glass with crushed ice, or pebble if you’re such a tiki aficionado that you keep it in stock.
  • Add ingredients to shaker with ice.
  • Shake and strain into ice-filled glass.
  • Take one spent half-lime used for juice, flatten it, and spear with a modest mint sprig.  In keeping with the tiki craze of the 1950s and 60s, perch this atop your drink to resemble a small island with a palm tree.
  • Drink.
  • Rinse and repeat.
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