The Classic Mai Tai Is a Rum Lover's Dream | Wine Enthusiast
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The Classic Mai Tai Is a Rum Lover’s Dream

One of the most famous tropical cocktail in the world, the mai tai is a go-to summer drink. It’s easy to see why: The classic tiki concoction conjures visions of palm trees and sandy beaches. Here’s how to make your own.  

What Is a Mai Tai? 

The mai tai combines white rum, dark rum, Grand Marnier, almond-based orgeat syrup and fresh lime juice. The dark rum is aged, giving the cocktail a deep, caramel-like flavor that’s both smoky and sweet. It balances the white rum, which offers a lighter, more subtle fruity flavor. The dark rum, generally the last ingredient to be added, is floated on top of the drink, creating a beautiful, layered effect. The resulting drink is citrusy and gently nutty. It’s typically served in a larger rocks glass

Where Did the Mai Tai Cocktail Come From? 

The mai tai was one of the first rum-based cocktails with a vague island theme that was labeled a tiki cocktail, as were drinks like the Painkiller, Blue Hawaii and Fog Cutter. It was supposedly created in the 1940s by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron at Trader Vic’s, Bergeron’s Polynesian-themed bar in Emeryville, California, according to Eater. But it’s also possible that Donn Beach, widely acknowledged as the forefather of tiki culture, created the recipe in the 1930s at his Hollywood-based bar, Don the Beachcomber. Regardless, the mai tai became a tiki standard. 

The concept of tiki bars dates to the 1930s, when American-born Bergeron and Beach founded faux-Polynesian-style bars. But since tiki bars and tiki cocktails are completely American, many drinks experts today consider it a form of cultural appropriation.  

“This sophisticated culture of drinks has been tethered to a crude imperialist fantasy that has treated the South Pacific as a source of escape,” John Birdsall wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “And that’s the problem with tiki: how to honor its real contributions to mixology while resisting the parts that dishonor indigenous people, misuse their iconography and exploit their sacred traditions.” 

Some bartenders and restaurateurs choose to not use the term “tiki” anymore when referring to rum-based, tropical drinks. Others encourage reframing tiki culture to include difficult conversations about race and culture. 

“When you learn about these things and understand the complexities, you will want to make better drinks because you’ll want to honor what you’re doing,” spirits specialist and educator Kelvin Uffre told the Washington Post.

How to Make a Mai Tai 

Recipe by Jacy Topps


1 ½ ounces white rum 
¾ ounce Grand Marnier
¾ ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
½ ounce orgeat syrup
½ ounce dark rum
Lime wheel, for garnish
Cherry, for garnish


Add the white rum, Grand Marnier, lime juice and orgeat syrup into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake lightly. Pour into a rocks glass. Pour the dark rum into the glass over the backside of a spoon, floating it gently over the top. Garnish with a lime wheel and cherry. 


What Is in a Mai Tai? 

This tropical drink combines two different types of rum—white and dark—with orange liqueur, like Grand Marnier, orgeat syrup and lime juice. A common ingredient in rum-based tropical drinks, orgeat syrup is made from almonds, sugar and orange flower water.  

Where Did the Name Mai Tai” Come From? 

According to legend, after Bergeron presented the cocktail to a few Tahitian friends, they immediately said, “maita’i roa a’e,” which roughly translates to, “out of this world” or “the best.” 

What Does a Mai Tai Taste Like? 

A mai tai is sweet and fruity, with light citrus notes and subtle hints of nuts. The rums are the stars of the show. The use of both a light and dark rum helps balance the drink and gives it a bit more complexity and depth. One sip and you’ll think you’re lying on a beach under a palm tree.