Notes From The Kona Coast: The Mysterious Magical Mai Tai is ‘Out of This World’

The Mai Tai is one of the true classics of the cocktail world. Victor J. Bergeron first concocted it in 1944 behind the bar of his famed restaurant Trader Vic’s in Oakland, CA. But since that time it has become, at least in the tropical drink genre, the King-of-the-Hill, the Be-All-and-End-All, and the Cock-a-the-Walk… you get the idea.

So I figure what’s a trip to Tiki-land without a sample of this Tiki Bar Star. So I went on a quest for a great Mai Tai. I was told that the very best to be had on this part of the island was found at Don’s Mai Tai Bar, the seaside lounge of the Royal Kona Resort on Kailua Bay in “Kona town”.

I’ll be honest with you a bad Mai Tai can be one of the ugliest, crassest, most overwrought cocktails I’ve yet to gulp past my gullet. That’s because they have become victims of their own success. Lately, this mystical aggregate of quality and parity has been reduced to a bottled mix of whatnot and a catchall for vagrant grocery store juice sloshed together with a grade of rum that would gag a pirate.

Now I realize that mixology, in general,l is not brain surgery. Heck, it’s not even organic chemistry. Sure it’s best to be precise, but most cocktails are just fine as long as the mixologist pays at least a bit of attention to quality, balance and ratio.

But anyone who can mix a proper Mai Tai might just be the brain surgeon of the liquored up set. Because a good and proper Mai Tai does seem to be organic chemistry at its most organic. The ingredients work together in a way that might seem magical to the uninitiated.

Royal KonaThis much I do know– a good and proper Mai Tai starts with excellent rum. I have had them made with the very difficult to procure Martinique rum and I’ll admit the word ambrosia came to mind. My point is– this is not the time to use the cheap stuff.

Now, I’m no brain surgeon (as the saying goes) but I can see how starting with 17 year old Jamaican rum, as Bergeron did, makes a Mai Tai a form of alchemy all it’s own. But Bergeron managed to take that rum and a few other ingredients and combine them in a way that is way more than expert balance and ratio. So I’ll let him give the chemical equation in his own words. The formula picks up once he had that rum in his beaker, err I mean shaker.

“I took a fresh lime, added some orange curaçao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and Don's Mai Tai Bar- Konavigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after… I gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti.… Carrie took one sip and said, ‘Mai tai — roa ae!’  Which in Tahitian this means ‘Out of this world — the best!’ ”

The Mai Tai I enjoyed at The Kona Royal was indeed quite good. It was served in the wrong glass and suffered a tad because good rum (not excellent rum) was floated on top rather than shaken. It also lacked that subtle hint of vanilla, which comes from using rock candy syrup. I suspect a standard simple syrup hit the mix and perhaps a tad too much of it. But nobody in the room (or even at my table) seemed to mind. Because the sun was setting over Kailua Bay and enough attention was paid to quality, balance and ratio to make even this old pirate quite happy indeed.

Which got me thinking about the science of matter that makes a good and proper Mai Tai possible. I think that a dash of paradise may actually be the ingredient so often lacking in too many of the bad Mai Tais I have suffered through in the past. Because this compound may be a California classic with a Tahitian name, but somehow the Mai Tai and Kona feel just right together.

Mai Tai serves 1 CLICK here for a printable recipe

    • 1 1⁄2 oz dark jamaican rum
    • 1 oz ounce aged rum
    • 1⁄2 oz orange curacao
    • 1⁄4 oz rock candy syrup
    • 1⁄2 oz orgeat or amaretto
    • 1 1⁄4 oz fresh lime juice
    • 1⁄2 oz fresh pineapple juice
  • tropical fruit and/or blossoms for garnish

Shake all the liquid ingredients together vigorously with cracked ice. Strain into an ice-filled collins glass. Garnish as desired.

Note: Simple syrup and 2 drops of vanilla may be substituted for the rock candy syrup.