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WHERE DID MAI TAIS COME FROM?

    I’ve always considered myself a Mai Tai connoisseur. I’ve made thousands of them, and sometimes it feels like I’ve sampled just as many, so I think I know a good one when I see it. Not to mention the fact that I live and work in Hawaii, pretty much the center of the Mai Tai universe. Then I was asked the other day if I knew who invented the Mai Tai, and I had to admit I really had no clue. Some connoisseur I am. It bothered me to realize that I didn’t really know where the most popular tropical drink of all time came from. Time to do some research!


    You know, when I tell my wife I need to do some cocktail research, she thinks it’s just an excuse to go out drinking with the boys. And she’s usually right. But in this case, though, going out drinking with the boys was doing research. It seems like every bar in every corner of the world serves Mai Tais, and every bartender claims to make the best or most “authentic” one, so really the best way to learn about Mai Tais is to drink a lot of them. (Not all in one sitting, of course. That’s another, much longer, story . . . .) When you’ve done that, you’ll have found it’s amazing just how many different versions there are of the same very tasty, but very simple, cocktail. Since over the years, I’d already sampled more of them than I care to admit, I thought I’d do a bit more “scholarly” research to see if I could find out where, when, and by whom the Mai Tai was created. After reading all I could get my hands on about Mai Tai history, I found that there’s quite a lot of folklore associated with that famous tropical concoction. It turns out that discovering the where and when is easy, but the by whom depends on who you believe.


    The mid-1940’s saw the beginning of the tiki bar craze in California and, with that, the birth of the Mai Tai. (Yup, you heard that right, California. That famously Hawaiian cocktail is a transplant from elsewhere.) Dozens of the Polynesian-themed restaurants opened all over California, each one featuring their own collection of signature cocktails made from rums and tropical fruit juices. Each one of these drinks was served in its own specific tiki-themed glass to add to the novelty of the experience. These tiki bars in the 1940’s are where the Mai Tai and other classic tropical drinks, like the Zombie and the Tropical Itch as well, were born.


    Now deciding exactly who created the first Mai Tai really depends on whose story you believe, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron or Donn “Don the Beachcomber” Beach. Both were early proprietors of tiki bars in California (and later Hawaii) and both lay claim to having made the first Mai Tai.


    First, there’s Don the Beachcomber’s story. In 1933, he opened a small restaurant in Hollywood, decorated it with things he’d collected in the South Pacific -- old fishing nets, ship’s lanterns and the like -- and put up a sign that read Don Beachcomber’s. He created for his menu a collection of potent rum drinks, including the Zombie, Missionary’s Downfall, Navy Grog, and something called the Original Beachcomber Rum Concoction -- the drink that later became known as the Mai Tai. That drink was made from Cuban rum, Cointreau, Pernod, Agnostura bitters, fresh lime juice, and fresh grapefruit juice. Those and other drinks were introduced to Hawaii with the opening of the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Waikiki in 1947.


    Then there’s Trader Vic’s story. In the 1930’s, Vic Bergeron owned a restaurant in Northern California called Hinky Dinks, which was decorated with an Eskimo theme. Things like snow shoes and old bear skins were hung on the walls. Legend has it that Bergeron had been to Hollywood around 1934, where he saw Don the Beachcomber’s restaurant. He went back to Hinky Dinks, redecorated it with things from the tropics, and opened his first Trader Vic’s. As for his Mai Tai, another legend has it that in 1944 at Trader Vic’s, he wanted to make a special drink for two friends visiting from Tahiti. He combined a gold Jamaican rum, Orange Curacao, rock candy syrup, French orgeat, and fresh lime juice and served it to them. His friends took one sip and allegedly said: “Mai Tai roa ae” which is Tahitian for “out of this world, the best.” He then named the drink the Mai Tai, added it to his menu, and later served it throughout his chain of Trader Vic’s restaurants.


    There you have it. Two different yet very believable stories about the creation of one of the most famous tropical drinks ever made. What do I think? Well, like I said, it all depends on who you believe. Don the Beachcomber certainly seems to have originated the tiki bar concept, but it was Trader Vic that made the Mai Tai famous. Next time we’ll talk about why there are so many different recipes for the Mai Tai and what should go into making a really good one.